Ever since the World Health Organization (WHO) redefined burnout and added it to the International Classification of Diseases, organizations and individuals have become more open to talking about burnout’s symptoms and potential causes—which, at face value, seem to come solely from the workplace.
Don’t kid yourself. While we can all point the finger at unrealistic workplace demands, difficult managers, and the convergence of work and home life into a not-so-neat bundle, burnout isn’t just “a work thing.” The truth is, all of us can move from burnout to breakthrough if we first recognize common real-world triggers that prompt exhaustion, anxiety, and overwhelm.
Trigger #1: Mental self-talk.
Yes, burnout is a condition that stems from working and doing too much, but ask yourself: why do you push at that pace? In every single case study, I’ve explored, people realize they’re responding to the voices of parents, ancestors, religious teachers, and others who set standards that may no longer be viable or reasonable. Ask yourself:
- What do your voices say to you? Is it true?
- Is this what you believe and want in your deepest self?
- What is the price you pay? Is it worth it?
Sure, you might be the first one in your family to go to college. You might relish the praise of being a can-do-it-all guy but think again if burnout is the result.
Trigger #2: Tyrannical technology.
Do you jump to answer every text message ping? Do you shift focus as soon as an email pops up on the screen? Do you check email right before falling asleep? If you do these things, you’re now under the control of a technology tyrant, one that’s has persuaded you to believe that multitasking is a skill of only the most intelligent.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Some researchers suggest that multitaskers are 40 percent less productive. Not only will they need to work longer to get “caught up,” but, according to Stanford researcher Clifford Nass, heavy multitaskers have a hard time regaining focus and sorting out relevant information from irrelevant details.
Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, has long been a proponent of deep focus and digital minimalism (both are titles of two of his six books). Specifically, Newport proposes that limited time with our devices and social media is a way to gain control and attain what matters. Ask yourself:
- Do you consider yourself a multitasking genius?
- Do you have a hard time shutting off at the end of the day?
- Are you addicted to your smartphone?
- What would it take to limit all digital devices and social media to only those that are essential?
Trigger #3: Broken personal connections.
Last year, Scientific American revealed that a staggering 47 percent of Americans often feel alone, left out, and lacking any meaningful connection with others. Humans are wired for connection. When loneliness rears its ugly head, emotions of distress, anxiety, and even despair appear. Indeed, one can burn out by thinking no one cares, so work becomes a surrogate for human companionship.
In our work-from-home and socially distant world, loneliness becomes even greater. But there are steps you can take. Whether on Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp, FaceTime, or other platforms, we can see and hear each other. From virtual happy hours, virtual dinners, or candid conversations with a morning cup of java, it’s possible to break this isolation pattern. Now’s the time to ask:
- When was the last time you had a meaningful conversation with a friend?
- If not, what’s holding you back?
- Do you know someone who could use a friend?
- Are you willing to challenge yourself and smile at a stranger?
- If you’re sharing a space with others, can you put away all smartphones and talk with one other? Play a game? Share cooking? Connect?
Trigger #4: A caretaking crisis.
Burnout can also flame when juggling the care of a sick family member or aging parents. So much mental anguish, guilt, and even anger can stir up an emotional stew when we’re confronted with the need to care for another. Self-care gets pushed to last on the list. If this situation resonates with you, consider these questions:
- How often are you “on-call”?
- What resources, if any, do you have available?
- Do you ask for help? If not, why not?
- What would it take to allow yourself time for self-care?
- What will happen if you don’t take care of yourself?
Trigger #5: Uncertainty about your life purpose.
From the horror of a World War II concentration camp, Viktor Frankl wrote his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning. His conclusion was that man (or woman) can survive anything if they have a “why.”
As we face a fast-paced, confusing COVID-19 world filled with economic upheaval and uncertainty, feeling that we don’t matter is a sure-fire way to light the burnout flame. More and more, organizations and individuals are becoming clear that work-life has to be more than a paycheck, a profit margin, or market dominance. Take a moment and think about:
- Who benefits from the work you do? What would happen if you didn’t do it?
- How can you bring a unique talent (that makes your heart happy) into your work or home life?
- Are you the person who can find humor in anything and make others laugh?
- Are you an artist who can leave drawings for others to find? A baker of cooked goods for those who can’t get out?
- Are you a facilitator who can get a team to speak candidly?
- Are you the type of person who creates understanding and harmony?
The questions that accompany each of these five triggers are there to prompt your thoughts. What helps control burnout is breaking free from beliefs and actions that drain your energy and resources. Find your points of control. Build them. And may the force be with you.