Jim Duffy: The danger of burnout and how to spot it

Jim Duffy
Jim Duffy
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Serious questions… Are you in danger of burning out at work? Do you know someone who is? Statistically, almost one in two of us is in danger of burning out, at some point in our careers, due to the pressures and rigours of work these days. Be careful it’s not you.

Serious questions… Are you in danger of burning out at work? Do you know someone who is? Statistically, almost one in two of us is in danger of burning out, at some point in our careers, due to the pressures and rigours of work these days. Be careful it’s not you.

Work and careers can become so all-encompassing in our lives that they tend to take over. There was many a time when I was attending a kid’s birthday party or sitting at Christmas dinner when my mind was in effect at work. I had not switched off. It’s not fair to say, either, that it is just entrepreneurial types who cannot or do not switch off. With so much change going on in the modern office these days and the pressures to hit targets, we can all suffer from over-indulgence at world, which eventually can lead to burnout.

So what is burnout and how can you spot it in yourself, in a colleague or in someone you manage or lead? Burnout is defined as “fatigue, frustration, or apathy resulting from prolonged stress, overwork, or intense activity”. Studies in the USA suggest that burnout can have the same harmful debilitating symptoms as clinical depression. It creates a mental roadblock and has serious psychological consequences for those who hit it. High achievers, those of you with that “I can do anything and deal with anything you throw at me” mindset are prone to burning out, but you rarely see it coming. Your passion and commitment for what you are doing, your loyalty to your boss, your team, your project and your organisation can mean that you put all them first, while neglecting “you” time. Working long hours, presenteeism [being first in and last out at night], all contribute to burnout. Add to that, you take on exceptionally high workloads with tight time periods together with a propensity to be first among equals and you are in pole position for a burnout episode.

Unlike other ailments or psychoses or illnesses, burnout can hide itself from you. You will not wake up in the morning with, say, a high temperature, swollen glands and a runny nose. These are obvious and a trip to the medicine cabinet or chemist will normally do the trick. No, indeed, you will not wake up thinking “Mmm, I think I have dose of burnout today. Maybe I should take the day off and look after myself. I’m sure my work can wait and my boss will be ok.”

Essentially as burnout is chronic stress, you will be in the throes of it before you realise what is truly happening to you. Physical and emotional exhaustion together with a feeling of treading water, potential disengagement, a bit of paranoia and the lack of capacity to complete stuff all are signs of burnout. A lack of energy, the need to drink more coffee, using high-caffeine energy drinks and snacking on poor-quality foods all build on the burnout treadmill. Insomnia is another classic sign, and can create a nightly ordeal, which also feeds into the burnout pattern. Interpersonal tension, arguments or disputes with colleagues and angry outbursts signal that burnout is creeping into your life. Perhaps even a couple more glasses of wine at night to “relax” adds to the picture. And this is when others can see it in you. Time to take action to combat it…

Overcoming burnout is very different for each of us. Many can take some time off and recalibrate what is important. But, simply taking breaks while at work, delegating and communicating with colleagues when you feel overwhelmed and most definitely not taking work home can all help with potential burnout and burnout itself. There is also nothing wrong whatsoever with seeking help from your organisation and your doctor.

Speaking from experience, having been there, done it and bought the T-shirt, while also having had the opportunity to help others deal with burnout, I know how important it is to recognise the signs and get speedy help. Work should not be making you sick.

Maybe time to take an inventory of life and look after yourself and perhaps a colleague…

Jim Duffy is co-founder of Moonshot ­Academy and author of Create Special.