Burnout (a.k.a. 'Drastic Measures')

“If you’re wondering whether you’re burned out, you already are.”

— Sean McCabe

Four days.

It’s nearing the end of June and I’ve only taken 4 vacation days so far this year.

My math isn’t exact, but as of this writing we’ve had approximately 120 working days so far this year. Out of those 120 days I’ve taken a couple sick days (because my allergies are horrible in the spring here in South Carolina), we’ve had something like 3 paid holidays where I work, and I’ve taken just 4 vacation days.

To top it all off, those vacation days weren’t even strung together. I took 2 days are the very beginning of the year, 1 day a couple months later (for something … I can’t even remember), and a couple of afternoons for various things I needed to do or be at.

I have yet to string together any significant amount of time for rest from work for almost 6 full months.

I’m starting to feel it.

I’m not saying all of this in any way to boast. I’m also not some type of martyr. I’m just not very smart. I’m still learning. In fact, I’m writing this series of posts on rest not just to help you, but to help me.

Remember when I said that I was hesitant to mention vacation time as a practical way to rest? It’s because I have a hard time taking vacation time and using it to rest.

I’ve come to realize that I have a scarcity mindset when it come to vacation time. I want to save it and care for it and not use it. I feel like there will be something that will happen that will require my use of it for something other than rest. I’ll need time off from work for this or that thing and if I take my vacation time and use it for rest then what will I use when I actually need to take off for some other unexpected event? When it comes to vacation time, I live in the land of “What If?”

Suffice it to say that I don’t do vacation well and it’s leading me to burnout.

What is burnout?

“Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress,” says this article by Help Guide.

It’s my opinion (and I’m not a doctor) but the importance here isn’t so much on the “excessive” as it is the “prolonged.” A constant stressor or stressors over an extended period of time without a break (or rest) is the main cause of the problem. Yes, an excessive amount of weight can quicken the pace, but it’s been my experience that it’s the slow, long, drawn out kind of stress that leads to the biggest burnouts. You just don’t notice it creeping up on you until it’s too late.

Pretty much anyone can hold a weight, even a heavy one, for a short period of time. But they won’t be able to hold it forever. Even the lightest of weights will eventually need to be put down in order to give the muscles a chance to rest.

It’s the same with life. We can all handle some form or fashion of stress, of weight put upon our shoulders. At some point though, we all have to be able to put down that weight for a time in order to rest and recuperate. The purpose of this rest is a temporarily relief of the burden of stress in order to come back stronger and be able to handle more stress the next time around.

Some ways you can know you’re on the road to burnout:

  • You are exhausted all the time. You feel like it takes all of the energy you have just to get out of bed in the morning.
  • You have a loss of motivation. The things that once brought you joy no longer make you happy.
  • You start skipping out of work. Coming in late and leaving early on a more regular basis.
  • You start withdrawing from your responsibilities everywhere.
  • You notice a change in your eating or sleeping habits.
  • You constantly feel like a failure and defeated.

For me, I can tell when I’m starting to hit the burnout wall because I start to feel like not going in to work. I love my job and I feel like I’m doing good work the majority of the time. When I start thinking “I really don’t want to go in to work tomorrow,” that’s a clear sign to me that I’m getting close to the burnout stage.

An item of note: A lot of these symptoms of burnout sound a lot like symptoms of depression, don’t they? I don’t think that’s a coincidence. One of the things that can lead to a full-blown bout of depression is burnout. Burnout is no joke and should be taken seriously.

Why is burnout a problem?

Like depression, burnout and the symptoms it displays are a problem because it affects your whole life. You can’t compartmentalize it. The stressor might be only coming from one place but it affects everyone and everything around you.

You might be stressed at work but when your kids do something that annoys you, you lash out in anger that you just can’t seem to control. Your family life might be the source of your stress, but it affects you in such a strong emotional way that you just can’t get out of bed … which affects your work performance (and maybe your paycheck).

What can you do to recover?

So if you identified with some of the symptoms above and are starting to feel like you might be burned out, what can you do? I have some thoughts.

  • Identify the stressors: Take a long hard look at your life and determine what it is right now that is causing the majority of your stress. What is it that you absolutely need a break from?
  • Gimme a break: You need to take time off as soon as possible. You can’t keep doing the same things over and over again and expect different results. You need to get away from whatever is the primary culprit to your burnout. It could be work, family, extracurricular activities, or something else perhaps. Whatever the case, it’s imperative that you take a break from whatever it is that’s causing the majority of your stress. And you need to do it now.
  • You can start small: If you’re only starting to feel like you might be getting burned out, maybe just start with a small time away. If it’s work or family, maybe a short weekend away where you only do the things you love to do is enough to get you started back on the road to recovery. If it’s an extracurricular activity or something else, perhaps it’s time to take a month off. Just a short break to get things back in order.
  • Go big: On the other hand, if you are in full out burnout mode then you need to take more drastic measures. It’s time to go all in on rest. You need time away from your stressor as soon as possible. If you can, make this a real, large, extended time. Two weeks at least. You’re probably going to use that vacation time, but it’ll be well worth it.
  • This isn’t just an escape: Family or relational stress is tough and it’s real. The thing is, you just can’t up and leave your family for a month as an escape from the stress. But you can identify what it is about your family that is causing your stress, take time away from everything else, and work on that problem. Maybe it’s a week away with your significant other where you talk through all the things. Maybe everyone in your family is all on edge and you all just need a way to work some fun into your lives again. The big deal here is that you can’t just run away from your problems. You need to face them. No matter how much time you take away, if the problem isn’t handled, then you’re just going to come back to the same problem. Which isn’t going to relieve your stress long-term. What we’re looking for is long-term recovery.

Note: Generally speaking, you can follow the plan I’ve laid out in the other posts as a way to catch up and pay back your energy debt. In case of burnout, those rules really don’t apply. You have to do any and everything that you possibly can to find rest and recovery as quickly as possible.

What can you do to prevent it?

I’m reminded of a couple of quotes here:

The best defense is a good offense.

… and …

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

They might sound cliché but they are 100% true. Once you’ve done everything you can to recover from the initial burnout you’ve got to put some guard rails in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again. So what can you do?

  • Take time off regularly: You’ve got to make rest a priority going forward. Sleep. Sabbath. Vacation. Sabbaticals. These are all the building blocks of a life without burnout. Use them as often as possible.
  • Have a check in: Set up a regularly scheduled check in with yourself to see how you’re doing. It doesn’t have to be every day or even every week. But set aside some time once a month or so just to make sure that you’re still in a good spot. Identify any early stressors and do what you can to handle them before they become a problem.
  • Talk to a counselor: They are trained to handle situations like this and can help you decide the best course of action going forward. They can help you make the best decisions and can keep you on the right path moving forward.

Now breathe.

Whew! Thanks for hanging in there with me on this one. Burnout is serious and it’s important that we take our time and do it justice. It’s important to identify if you’re burned out, take the necessary (even hard) steps it takes to recover, and then put up those guard rails to keep yourself (and everyone around you) healthy.

I’ll be back next week to wrap up this series on rest. Don’t miss out on the exciting conclusion!