Nearly every day, there is a group of helping professionals calling for help, new policies, and interventions to ease the problem of burnout.
According to the World Health Organization, burnout is an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition, even though it ‘influences health status or contact with health services.’ Diagnosis of mental illness and disorders come from a clinical investigation of how factors like burnout can disrupt our ability to function in our daily life. Nevertheless, research studies like this one are broadening the window for understanding burnout as a syndrome characterized by “emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a decrease in self-fulfillment” that results from chronic exposure to emotionally draining environments.
In the post-COVID environment of hybrid workplaces and with increased attention to professional and family caregivers’ lived experiences during and after the pandemic lockdowns, we have a deeper understanding that burnout happens to anyone, even those whose only place of ‘work’ is in the home and with their families.
Who burnout affects
Whether you have a paid job or several ‘jobs’ that come without pay, the signs and symptoms of burnout are the same. There is energy depletion, increased mental distancing, feelings of negativism and cynicism, and reduced personal efficacy. And whether you are in a paid or unpaid work environment, the symptoms build on each other, leading to inescapable feelings of distress, shame, and guilt.
The difference is that people who experience job burnout have a few more options. They could set new workplace boundaries to help themselves manage expectations and workloads. They can take a break or holiday from work, re-evaluate their options, talk to a supervisor, or even search for a new job that gives them a better sense of meaning and fulfillment.
If you are a parent or caregiver, the options are limited. There is no paid vacation, supervisor, or new employment course to consider. And if you are a working parent or someone who works in the helping profession, the factors contributing to your burnout are more than doubled, while the options for help are more constricted.
We also tend to pay less attention to those who experience burnout vicariously. Think about the children, spouse, co-workers, family members or other dependents of the individual experiencing those feelings of exhaustion, mental distancing, negativism, and a lack of personal efficacy. The relational toll alone is quite costly.
So, is there a way to level up from burnout?
The truth is that everyone experiences burnout in some way at some point in their lifetime. Most of us can return from it feeling stronger and more meaningfully engaged in all aspects of our life. For some, their experience of burnout may have meant they needed to seek mental health treatment to restore a certain level of functionality. For others, their experience of burnout may have been enough to make them evaluate their options, set boundaries, and do other things to better care for their mental wellness and well-being.
Either way, burnout is real and recovering from it comes with one keynote: Leveling up from burnout is a practice of deepening one’s resilience. However, resilience does not mean pushing through, being tough, or withstanding. I agree with the American Psychological Association, which says that resilience means successfully adapting to conditions with mental, emotional, and behavioural flexibility.
Flexibility requires an unconventional approach to telling and absorbing stories about mental health, wellness, well-being, and resilience. For too long, we have been asked to accept and reify narratives that tell us that burnout is a ‘you’ problem, one that is related to personal failings or an individual’s inability to cope under pressure. For instance, we often hear about the need for individuals to overcome their tendency to perfectionism, yet we often ignore that our workplaces, family situations, and social circles demand and reward that perfectionism we are asking individuals to give up. We avoid emphasizing the ‘us’ component of burnout because it questions every rule and norm we have accepted as part of our prevailing cultural, social, economic, and ideological systems.
What it takes to Level Up
Levelling up from burnout requires a certain level of resistance to what we have come to take for granted. Here are my top five ways to bring a more flexible and human-centred focus to dealing with burnout in our work and personal lives.
#1. We need to normalize conversations about burnout and recovery. Getting social support from co-workers, friends, or family members is a core strategy for dealing with burnout. But to get there, we must talk about our feelings and experiences. This is always a challenging step. No one wants to admit that they are struggling, and feelings of shame and guilt can hold us back from seeking the support we crave. There is also fear that sharing that we are overwhelmed may lead to other people losing confidence in us, in our ability to do our jobs, raise our families, and maintain our social obligations. But burnout is quite common, and normalizing it as part of our everyday experiences and shared humanity is essential to building pathways to better mental wellness and well-being.
One way to normalize conversations about burnout is by sharing stories about our experiences with others. Lived experience stories like this one help us name challenges as we make room for empathy, understanding, and problem-solving. The core purpose of this kind of storytelling is that it helps to remove any notion of victimhood that would make burnout a ‘you’ problem. Connecting with people who share similar experiences is also a humanizing factor that reminds us that we are not alone in our experiences and their follow-on effect.
#2. You need to change YOUR story. Our mindsets are potent determinants of the reality we experience. I refer to mindsets as stories to remind myself that there is always room for flexibility. The storyteller (or holder of the mindset) can change the story’s ending. The language we use (for instance: criticism vs. feedback) and our problem-solving approaches (whether you are a both/and or either/or thinker) have more to do with your feelings of burnout than the actual circumstances themselves. Levelling up from burnout requires that we each work on changing the story we tell ourselves about who we are and why we are.
Regardless of the situation – a problem at work or at home, a stressful teenager or boss, a needy relative or co-worker, the story you tell yourself about the place you occupy within the story is more important than the reality of the story itself. For example, if you feel stressed and overwhelmed due to a lack of control, you could ask yourself about the underlying stories that lead you to think you must be in control. Asking questions like: ‘is this a situation where I need to be ‘in control’ could help you change the story from one where you lost control to a story of a teaching moment for you and anyone else involved.
#3. You must learn to be present and aware. Burnout can lead to a desire to disconnect from those around you. Initially, this may feel like a psychologically safe move as you try to put mental distance between yourself and the people you see as part of the problem. But this checking-out is not helpful and could worsen the situation. Instead, I recommend checking in with mindfulness practices that help you build focus and awareness of what is happening with your thoughts, moods, and physical sensations.
When you cultivate an awareness of your presence in your lived body, you give yourself space to understand and relate better to your burnout and stress triggers. You also give yourself the room to see the people who are associated with your problems as fellow victims of the systems and structures that promote burnout. When we give ourselves time to focus our attention in this way through learning and practice, we learn a different way to tell the story of burnout, its causes, and who suffers.
#4. Support your boundaries with credibility and performance. One commonly discussed burnout remedy is boundaries. We are told that saying no, avoiding over-commitments, pushing the pause button, and setting limits are crucial to preventing the stress of feeling overwhelmed. What should be talked about is that we need to support our boundaries with credibility and performance. There is no use in having rigid rules about what you will do and when you will do it if you do not perform the things you choose to do well enough to build trust.
You can be more transparent about your actions when you have credibility and respect. People will learn and understand that whatever you choose to take on are things that you will get done. Conversely, when you deliver what you say you will provide, your ‘no’ immediately becomes more valuable, as does your time and energy.
#5. Know the difference between rules and boundaries. This applies in work and home situations. It is ok to have flexible rules about when and where you will do work, solve problems, or help others out. Sometimes those strict rules can be confused for boundaries, but there is a difference. Our boundaries are our value systems. They are innate beliefs that guide our interactions with others. Boundaries are consistently applied regardless of whom we interact with. Rules, on the other hand, are simply expectations about behaviour. Rules are the ‘if this happens, then I will enact this boundary’ aspect of our interactions with others. Many of the rules we work and live with are taken from the social, cultural, ideological, and economic structures in which we find ourselves. But our boundaries are personal.
To avoid the distress, guilt and shame often associated with burnout, it is essential to remember that you can be flexible with rules. Levelling up from burnout requires doing what works for you. This means putting aside the ‘should never’ language and avoiding self-judgement and comparisons about your work processes, lifestyle, comfort levels, and what you consider boundaries. Learning to adapt and to value that you can keep adapting as your lifestyle and personal needs change is essential for deepening your mental resilience.
The bottom line:
Burnout is an ‘us’ problem, not a ‘you’ problem. The more we employ flexibility in thinking about the issue, its causes, and how we can best address it, the more likely we are to cultivate mindsets and approaches that let us see burnout syndrome as the result of powerful social, cultural, and economic forces that come together to shape how we act in our homes and workplaces. Flexibility in thought, behaviour, mindsets, and even coping strategies are helpful ways to level up from burnout. Doing this takes time, practice, and a community of like-minded and like-experienced individuals.
A valuable starting point for embracing the unconventional is to admit that no one can level up from burnout alone. The experience of burnout is a community problem that, left unchecked, can impact families for generations. Community problems require community solutions. Whether your community is the people in your home, workplace, or a space like ours, these unconventional approaches are just the start.
What other unconventional or not-talked-about ways for levelling up from burnout have you tried? Leave us a comment to share your thoughts.