Updated: Oct 14, 2022
The intention of this blog series is to bring more awareness to burnout, to make it more tangible vs something that happens to someone out there and not to us, to recognise how burnout could be showing up in our life and what steps we can take to recover from it.
Let's start the series off by taking a closer look at what burnout is and what causes it in the first place. I'll also share my personal story of experiencing and recovering from burnout.
To be honest, most of us have probably heard of burnout. It's been in the news, we've read articles about it, some of us may have experienced it ourselves, some might have heard of someone or know someone who's been through it.
What many of us aren't that aware of though, is that we may be experiencing burnout this very moment or have done so in the past without even knowing.
Burnout doesn't just include the more severe cases where people have reached a critical point: being so extremely exhausted that they need to take a long leave of absence from work to recover. The first warning signs and with it a mild burnout start showing up way earlier than that, it's just that the majority of us are so disconnected from our bodies that we don't pay attention to the signals, and/or we ignore our needs until we truly burn out and have nothing left to give.
Add to that a long list of judgments towards ourselves & our bodies for needing and wanting rest, for being weak, that we failed if we burn out, or what others will think of us, and you can see how sometimes we aren't willing to see what's happening even though it's right in front of our eyes.
What is burnout?
Here is a simple definition of burnout by Alyssa Nobriga, Licenced Clinical Psychotherapist & Founder + CEO of The Institute of Coaching Mastery that I resonate with most: "Burnout is when we're unable to function properly because we are completely exhausted from overwork or stress. Burnout is self-abandoning, it’s saying no to the part that wants to pause."
When we push, hustle, or overextend ourselves despite the signals our body is sending us that hurts us, it hurts our body, mind & soul, and it leads to burnout. It may get us quick wins, but it’s not sustainable in the long run.
We know from research done in Belgium that just within the last four years, between 2018 and 2022, the number of people off sick with burnout increased by 66% (analysis by the Independent Health Insurance Funds) and I believe the numbers are similar across Europe.
What used to be a phenomenon that was mostly connected with people-oriented professions, such as human services, education, health care (Maslach and Leiter, 2016), which are generally more demanding in terms of work hours, workload and the intensity of the emotional and personal contact (think physicians, nurses, social workers, etc.) is nowadays crossing all industries. (Source)
Whether you work in health care, construction, manufacturing, marketing, retail, arts... Whether you are an entrepreneur, business owner, or employee... The percentage of people experiencing burnout across all industries and organizations isn't that far apart.
Just to clarify: although burnout is defined and classified as a "syndrome that results from chronic workplace stress" (International Classification of Diseases, Eleventh Revision (ICD-11)) and most of the research has been done on burnout that occurs in connection with work environments, we also know that burnout can appear in other areas of life (Source):
a combination of the above.
Burnout often goes hand in hand with over-responsibility and not having healthy boundaries and if we don't have a closer look at those patterns and reprogram them, we could be burning out in several areas at the same time.
Often we shrug off the exhaustion, thinking that it'll pass, that we just need to push more, that it's just tiredness from the seasons changing, a particularly stressful period at work, lack of sleep, etc., but when it's been there for a while and you wake up feeling exhausted and unmotivated day after day, it's time to have a closer look.
Burnout isn't to be taken lightly. It not only has a huge effect on our well-being, the quality of our life, our joy, and happiness, but it also impacts people around us, our relationships, the quality of our work, and of course our health.
Researchers have found that "burnout is a predictor of 12 somatic diseases, among which are coronary heart disease, headaches, respiratory diseases and mortality under the age of 45 years old. Consequently, we can understand that burnout can have multifactorial psychological and somatic effects upon individuals." (Koutsimani et al., 2019).
The same study showed that burnout is interconnected with depression and anxiety and can probably develop in tandem with them. (It's important to note that burnout is different from depression and anxiety, but they can develop together and have some overlapping symptoms).
How to recognize burnout: the warning signs
Understanding burnout, its context, and the warning signs can help us spot it earlier so that we can course correct & get our energy back before overextending ourselves completely.
There are some general signs of burnout we'll go through, but it's important to be aware of how burnout shows up in your body (it will be slightly different for each of us).
I like to think of these warning signs as red flags: as soon as we notice a few red flags (1 or 2 is enough!), that's a sign that we've begun to overextend ourselves and that we need to start implementing some changes + add more nourishment.
What I've observed from my personal and professional experience is:
the longer we go without listening to the warning signs and not changing our behavior and lifestyle, the worse the burnout gets
the longer we try to push through the exhaustion, the longer we will need to recover
It actually serves us, the people around us, and our work if we start course correcting sooner rather than later.
A great way to start is to gather information, observe and listen to your body. Some warning signs of burnout could be (see which ones could apply to you):
🚩 Neglecting your own needs for rest and for ordinary things (eating, working out) + not finding time for non-work-related needs
🚩 Working harder
🚩 The drive to prove yourself (excessive ambition)
🚩 Isolation: prioritizing work above everything else, not finding time for hanging out with friends, not finding time for fun, playfulness
🚩 The feeling of inner emptiness, tiredness, exhaustion
🚩 The feeling like you have nothing to give (no energy) and having to push yourself in order to get things done
🚩 Lack of interest, feeling of meaninglessness
🚩 Tasks that used to be simple take a longer time to complete
🚩 Resistance towards going to work or to the work itself
🚩 Feeling resentful towards work, your coworkers...
According to A. Nobriga, it could also show up as:
🚩 Escape fantasies
🚩 Frequent illness
🚩 Brain fog
Whether you in fact are suffering from burnout can only be diagnosed by a doctor, but there are things you can do right now to start making changes to your lifestyle and start recovering from the exhaustion.
What causes burnout?
Whenever we feel exhausted, depleted, and overextended that's a sign that we are out of alignment and that we're abandoning the part of us that wants to rest.
Burnout is a symptom of something deeper, so if we truly want to heal and prevent ourselves from recovering from it and then falling into the same cycle at a later point (this happened to me!), we have to look under the hood and see what this is really about.
Why are we pushing ourselves and hurting our bodies? What's the payoff? What do we think pushing ourselves will give us? What do we fear will happen if we stop pushing?
By doing the inner work, we get to find out what's really driving it and heal it at the root. It could be:
limiting beliefs (for example: "I'm the only one who can do it well", "If I work hard enough I'll be successful and then I'll be happy", "This is life, I just have to keep pushing and keep going.")
unconscious programming (maybe your programming is that you need to take care of everything and everyone)
lack of healthy boundaries or intense timelines (too many things on the schedule)
fearing something "bad" would happen if we don't overextend ourselves (I will fail / I won't be successful / Not feeling good enough)...
Through this blog series, I want to empower you to truly prioritize your well-being, your joy, your needs, your truth, your health and to take your self-care into your hands - knowing how to do that will change your life.
You may be very aware that your work environment isn't the most supportive, or the culture is lacking, or you're noticing that this isn't the work you want to continue doing - nevertheless, I want you to know that you don't need to wait for things at work to change in order for you to feel better.
Your well-being is always in your hands and you get to take that power back and make positive changes for yourself right now.
As you do the inner work (on your own, with a coach, or with a therapist) you will feel more empowered, clear, and nourished, and that's the best time to choose how you want to handle your work situation and what you want to do next.
We always want to make changes from an empowered vs. disempowered place because from there, we see more options, it feels lighter and we have more energy and creative ideas.
My experience with burnout
I always find it helpful to hear other people's stories and want to share mine to normalize burnout and to help you can see that burnout isn't always straightforward / it can show up slightly differently for each of us.
I had my first experience with burnout about 4 years ago when I left my corporate job. By the time I quit, I was feeling extremely exhausted, empty, and unmotivated. Those sensations have been there for quite some time, but I was so caught up in the hampster wheel of going to work, coming home, pushing through work I didn't enjoy, and catching up on everything over the weekend, that I somehow got used to the emptiness and resistance and just ignored the signals of my body. (If you're reading this: this isn't how we're supposed to feel! Resistance and pushing are not "how life is supposed to be like", they're not "normal" and "how everyone feels about their job"!)
Ok, back to the story. I didn't have a new job lined up (thank god - looking back now, I think I intuitively knew that that would crush me!), but since most of us (including me) are wired to just push through and go straight on to the next thing, of course, my mind wanted to start a new career asap. 🙈
Well, bless the mind, but my body just wasn't going along.
Whenever I sat in front of my laptop to do some work I felt huge resistance and I just wanted and needed rest. For me personally (and again, this is different for every one of us), it wasn't as much that my body was physically tired or ill, but more like my mind & soul were empty, exhausted, and malnourished. It felt like I had lost my spark, my aliveness, my joy. I stopped smiling, nothing felt like fun, I didn't have any creative ideas, and every work-related task felt difficult.
Most importantly, I was judging myself really hard for taking a break, which also left me feeling depleted.
That went on for a few months until I decided to change something. I began working with my then coach and then slowly, step by step, week by week, I started to put new, supportive routines in my schedule and I could feel my energy coming back.
It honestly felt like I was watering, nourishing, and replenishing myself, my body, and my soul. And that came through many things:
I worked with a coach
I meditated regularly
I did yoga and exercised
I spent a looot of time with my friends and family
I did things that brought me JOY and were FUN & EASY
I picked up hobbies again that I loved and enjoyed (singing, dancing, reading, learning)
and most importantly, I gave myself permission to rest & recover and stopped judging myself for taking time off
It took me about 8 months to completely recover and to get to a point where I could feel the aliveness in my body, mind & soul again: I felt that my spark was back, I was happy, I wanted to create, give, learn, do, and be in service.
The timing will be different for all of us, but I want you to understand that it's a process. And the more we pushed and overextended ourselves, the more time we'll need to recover.
I was pushing myself, staying in a job I didn't love, in an environment that wasn't what I truly wanted, and going beyond my limits for 2 years.
After that, I could feel myself on the verge of burning out two more times (both times in my coaching business). Since I did my inner work around my burnout pattern, I was able to quickly recognize the signs and I course-corrected faster. It only took me a few weeks/months to recover fully + it didn't take me completely out of the game (I was able to work and recover at the same time). 🙏
In the next blog post, we'll be diving deeper into how burnout is related to stress, why more and more people are experiencing burnout, and why some people burn out and others don't.
And if you feel like you may be burning out / want to learn how to prevent yourself from burning out again and are wanting more support around this topic, you're welcome to join my upcoming workshop RECHARGE: OVERCOME BURNOUT AND GET BACK YOUR PASSION & ENERGY, where we'll be doing deeper work around burnout and set you up with tools and resources that will support you in recovering from burnout. The workshop will be taking place on Wednesday, 28. September at 17:30 CEST, you can find more information here.
I'd love to know whether you've experienced burnout before and what specifically helped you to recover. Share in the comments so we can support and inspire each other. 👇
With all my love & gratitude
Catch up on previous posts from the series
3️⃣ Third part: How To Recover From Burnout
Maslach C, Leiter MP. Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry. 2016 Jun;15(2):103-11. doi: 10.1002/wps.20311. PMID: 27265691; PMCID: PMC4911781.
International Classification of Diseases, Eleventh Revision (ICD-11), World Health Organization (WHO) 2019/2021, https://icd.who.int/browse11
Article: Burnout, Psychology Today
Koutsimani et al. The Relationship Between Burnout, Depression, and Anxiety: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Psychology. 2019, Volume 10.