Wednesday 7 December 2016

Crash and burn: Sometimes we have to experience burnout to find balance

Published 27/09/2016 | 02:30

Workaholism is a modern epidemic
Workaholism is a modern epidemic

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton continued on with her busy schedule after she was diagnosed with pneumonia, it was revealed recently.

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Her doctor told her to rest for five days but she ignored his advice and persevered with her campaign commitments before she fell ill at a 9/11 memorial service. "Obviously I should have gotten some rest sooner," she said afterwards.

Closer to home, entrepreneur and broadcaster Norah Casey recently admitted that she worked through the warning signs of a ruptured appendix to meet her work commitments.

"I had massive pain ripping across my tummy," she said. "I had to pull the car in four or five times on the way to work... I think I thought the world would stop if I didn't continue working."

Most of us can relate to these cautionary tales. In a world where the one-hour lunch break is a luxury and leaving the office at 5pm is a liberty, it's becoming increasingly common for employees to ignore their health in order to meet their deadlines.

Workaholism is a modern epidemic. We're all working harder and longer, even if it means jeopardising our health and, ironically, the very career goals that we are desperately pursuing.

Meanwhile, executive burnout is on the rise, even though the warning signs of an over-demanding schedule are ritually ignored. The trouble with workaholism is that it tends to escalate to the point of burnout before a lifestyle change is implemented. Occupational burnout is an insidious syndrome. It happens slowly and incrementally. The burnout sufferer knows that their schedule is unsustainable but they believe that they can somehow work their way out of it.

Dr Dina Glouberman, author of The Joy of Burnout, says the burnout sufferer's "soul is whispering" for respite, while their body marches on. Certain personality profiles are predisposed to burnout, she adds. They tend to be Type As - ambitious, competitive and perfection-driven by nature. "We are generally very driven and have a high need to be needed or approved of, or special," writes Glouberman. "We often show a pattern of overdoing and over-giving without regard for ourselves."

Fatigue is the first symptom of burnout. Sufferers never feel properly rested and often have headaches upon waking. Later on, they begin to feel 'tired but wired' - the result of exhaustion coupled with elevated cortisol production.

Concentration also becomes impaired. Productivity dwindles even though the burnout sufferer is spending longer than ever in front of their computer. They have difficulty completing tasks and often have dozens of unfinished emails in their drafts folder at the end of each day.

Social withdrawal is another tell-tale symptom. In an attempt to compartmentalise, the burnout sufferer starts to withdraw from their social circle.

Eventually the immune system becomes weakened. Burnout sufferers tend to get sick the very moment they take their foot off the gas - sneezing at the airport check-in desk is especially common...

Researchers use a tool called The Maslach Burnout Inventory to measure burnout. It examines three key components: Emotional exhaustion; depersonalisation (burnout makes us become negative, cynical and vaguely paranoid) and reduced sense of accomplishment (burnout sufferers lose confidence and begin to question their abilities).

In the extreme, burnout can metamorphose into anxiety, depression, panic attacks or a nervous breakdown.

As Bertrand Russell wrote: "One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important."

Unfortunately, in a culture where overwork is encouraged and burnout is stigmatised as a sign of weakness, we tend to ignore these warning signs.

The Dalai Lama, speaking about burnout, says it is best to "withdraw and restore yourself". He also encourages a "long-term perspective". This is the fallacy of burnout: We never think of the long-term consequences of our short-term actions. For instance, how many bedridden burnout sufferers only wish that they had taken a few days off?

Likewise, it's wise to ask if you could work smarter rather than harder. Countless studies show that productivity declines as working hours increase. Meanwhile, it's proven that taking regular breaks increases performance.

Overworked employees need to get into the habit of valuing themselves above all else, and finding coping mechanisms (a lunchtime walk, a weekly massage) other than working harder. When deadlines mount, ask yourself if it's worth getting sick? Better still, restructure your order of priorities. When you get into the habit of adding recreational and relaxational activities to your diary first, you can slowly overcome the live-to-work mindset - or at least have something to look forward to.

While burnout can be avoided, it shouldn't be feared, adds Dr Glouberman. She considers the syndrome more of a breakthrough than a breakdown. It's an opportunity to overhaul your lifestyle, identify your passions and honour your "whispering soul". Sometimes we have to experience burnout in order to find balance...

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