If you find yourself in a state of prolonged stress, these tips from a clinical psychologist can help you recognise and prevent burnout.
Many of us see our work as an important part of who we are. We hold ourselves to high standards at work, constantly pushing ourselves to perform. We may be in the formative stages of our career or taking on increasing levels of responsibility as we progress in the workplace. The pressure to prove ourselves can result in pushing ourselves beyond reasonable limits. This is particularly true in Hong Kong, where competitive workplaces and long working hours are often seen as a badge of honour, creating an environment that leaves us vulnerable to burnout.
When we are exposed to prolonged periods of stress at work it inevitably has a lasting impact on our health. Although some stress is an inevitable part of working life, excessive, chronic stress can leave us feeling drained, disillusioned and unable to cope. This is what psychologists call “burnout”. Burnout refers to “emotional and mental exhaustion at work”*, and it’s often a consequence of pushing yourself too far. Chronic stress can give rise to dysfunctional coping strategies that leave us vulnerable to burnout.
Read more: 5 Ways To Overcome Thought Patterns And Live Up To Your Potential
What are the signs of burnout?
If you are noticing any of the following symptoms, it may be a sign that you are approaching burnout:
- Becoming angry or upset more easily than usual
- Feeling constantly exhausted
- Feeling demotivated or indifferent about work
- Struggling to focus and be productive
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Experiencing unexplained physical symptoms (like stomach troubles or constant headaches)
- Feeling negative about work and struggling to initiate tasks
- Using alcohol or drugs to feel better
Source: Adapted from Mayo Clinic, “Job burnout: How to spot it and take action“
What are the consequences of burnout?
When people first start to experience the above symptoms, they may try to compensate by increasing hours or working harder. This can make the symptoms worse and result in presenteeism, where we are physically at work but not working productively. Plus, continuing to overwork ourselves whilst feeling exhausted and disengaged increases the likelihood that we will underperform. Burnout at work may also spill over into other areas of life. It can impact our personal relationships, prompt unhealthy habits (like excessive drinking or comfort eating), and result in an overall drop in mood.
Click through the slideshow for five ways to recognise and prevent burnout…
Read more: 8 Things You Can Do For Your Mental Health
Look out for signs that stress may really be getting on top of you – you know yourself best and you know what is normal for you. If you think that your current set of circumstances at work is impacting your health, try to identify what is not working and make some changes. You may notice that when you work 14-hour days for two weeks straight without socialising or exercising, you feel exhausted, irritable and disillusioned. Ask yourself – are there ways I can structure my days and weeks so that these unhelpful patterns don’t repeat themselves?
Many of us don’t want to lean on our support network for fear of being a burden, or appearing like we can’t handle things. This fear can get in the way of us receiving some really valuable help. It is important that we utilise the support that is available to us. That’s what it’s there for. None of us can be expected to carry stress alone. Asking for help can be incredibly difficult for some of us, but it may be the factor that prevents stress from getting to unmanageable levels. If you are going through a difficult period in your professional or personal life, resist the temptation to say “I’m fine”. Letting people know what you need help with is sometimes the first step to realising your own needs.
Many of us tell ourselves that we have to do things perfectly, putting additional pressure on ourselves and increasing the stress we feel around completing tasks at work. Although it is reasonable to want to do the best job you can, remember that your standards for yourself may be well above what is expected of you. Holding ourselves to unrealistic or perfectionist standards can place us at risk of burnout. It may be better to complete more tasks to a “good enough” standard than to focus on completing one task perfectly at the expense of others.
In addition, we are all guilty of saying yes to things we know we shouldn’t take on because we don’t want to let people down. Try to get some perspective; ask yourself how much saying yes to this task or this networking event will actually benefit your wellbeing or your career progression in the long run. Learning to say no is a valuable skill that can actually help us to grow in confidence, even if it provokes anxiety in the short run! Saying no can also make the things we say yes to far more valuable and enjoyable.
It is easy for our working days to be consumed with deadlines, focusing on trying to deliver for other people. We may then end up “firefighting”, tackling crises as they come up but not devoting much time to our own development. This approach is not very rewarding for us and it can leave us more susceptible to burnout.
We derive much more satisfaction from behaving in ways that are true to who we really want to be. You can try to align your behaviour with your values by asking yourself: Who do I want to be at work? What do I want to be known and remembered for? Asking yourself these questions can help you to connect with your values and identify whether you are prioritising what is truly important to you at work. This may mean having some difficult conversations or asserting your views more firmly than you usually would. Having a discussion with a trusted manager or colleague can be a helpful first step. Being true to your own values will payoff in the long run.
Of course, some stress is unavoidable and we will all experience peaks and troughs in the pressures we face at work. Although there may be aspects of this that you cannot influence (you may not be able to ask your boss to postpone that deadline for you), recognise what is within your control. If you know that going for a 15-minute walk at lunchtime helps you to reset, what is stopping you from doing this more often? Are you telling yourself “I’m too busy?”.
After finishing this article, try listing five things that help you to relieve stress during the workday. This can be anything from, morning workouts and taking a proper lunch break away from your screen to quick momentary releases, like making a good cup of tea. This week, try to make sure you do at least a couple of them each day.
*Iacovides, A., Fountoulakis, K. N., Kaprinis, S., & Kaprinis, G. (2003). The relationship between job stress, burnout and clinical depression. Journal of affective disorders, 75(3), 209-221.
All images courtesy of Sassy Media Group.