Avoiding and Managing Burnout

Many people like an element of challenge in their life as challenge can be interesting and exciting for us to overcome and a little stress can be a positive force to give us energy, to motivate and improve our performance. However, stress is like an electric current, and if the current remains too high for prolonged periods, it can impact our wellbeing negatively.  Physically stress can manifest in many ways including; headaches, chest pains, stomach upsets, skin disorders and high blood pressure.  The psychological and emotional impact of too much stress can also manifest in many ways including; irritability / aggression, anxiety, low mood, overwhelm, insomnia and memory problems.  If stress levels continue to build without relief, and we keep on ignoring the signals, it can lead to burnout.  Burnout is like stress on steroids!  It is a state of complete exhaustion – mental, emotional and physical.  Individuals can lose interest in all areas of life, especially their work.

If you are struggling to meet the demands of daily life, with a dwindling sense of engagement in the things that once brought you joy, then you may be at risk of burnout.  It is important to know that you can rediscover your innate resilience.  Firstly, give yourself permission to have strong feelings (rather than masking them); and listen to your body.  By paying more attention to self-care and adopting a more self-compassionate mindset you can bounce back to health.  In many cases individuals can ‘bounce-back’ relatively quickly, in other cases recovery needs more time and more support.

On top of our own daily stresses, we also unconsciously pick up other people’s emotions and this can be felt in the body.  The autonomic nervous system responds to trauma and this can affect our rational thought processes as well.  A ‘trauma heavy’ workload, can contribute to being more susceptible to burnout.  Low job satisfaction is also a contributory factor to burnout, whereas a supportive and healthy work environment is helpful in avoiding it.  Having supportive colleagues, in a work environment where there is permission to talk about the emotional impact of stress is very helpful. 

A number of studies report higher burnout rates among the Police, Medical and Fire Service professionals.  The neurological impact of vicarious trauma is significant – therefore it is important to find ways to ‘burn off’ adrenaline and cortisol.  Certain exercises help to physically ‘shake off’ stress, whereas grounding and anchoring exercises (such as breathing and visualisation) help to regulate emotions.

Some key signs and symptoms of burnout:

  • Difficulty separating work and home life.
  • Difficulty making decisions, concentrating, and managing workload.
  • Feelings of futility and cynicism about life.
  • Irritability, resentment and feelings of worthlessness.
  • Physically rundown and difficulty sleeping.
  • Intrusive thoughts and hyper-vigilance.
  • Problems managing boundaries between yourself and others.
  • Less connected to what’s going on around you and within you.
  • Loss of empathy and compassion fatigue.
  • Loss of meaning, joy and hope.

How to return to a state of wellbeing

The World Health Organisation defines wellbeing as the state in which an individual realises their own abilities, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to contribute to their community.  “A good or satisfactory condition of existence; characterised by health, happiness, and welfare.”  Therefore, to ask what wellbeing is, is to ask what is ultimately good for human beings to help them to thrive and to flourish.

It is also very important to set and maintain clear boundaries especially when supporting others with stressful narratives.  It can help to be mindful of empathy versus emotional identification – for example telling yourself ‘this isn’t my pain’.  It is also key to structure your day in a balanced way to allow yourself to recover if necessary before ‘pushing on’ to the next endeavour, it is important to make time to process any stressful material you may have been immersed in. 

Some form of debriefing through reflective supervision has shown to help reduce the risk of burnout.  In research on reducing work-related burnout in the Police Force, results indicated that a health-oriented leadership style was associated with more positive wellbeing and significantly lower levels of burnout among officers.

Make self-care strategies realistic

Pace yourself and press pause.  We switch off our mobile phones and our computers to give them a chance to cool down and recharge – what about the more complex human machine?  We also need time out to completely switch off otherwise we too will overheat and ‘burnout’.  The ability to remain non-anxious and calm, especially when dealing with stress and trauma, is one of the key ingredients to preventing burnout.  Staying in the here-and-now can be protective, even when a person is telling you about a traumatic event.  Try using sensory anchors – E.g. using touch to anchor self, an object with a pleasing texture, the fabric of the chair, or a stone while putting both feet on the ground.  Use grounding techniques – for example safe place imagery and meditation. 

Incorporate some simple breathing exercises into your day.  Abdominal breathing reduces anxiety and stress, increases the supply of oxygen to the brain, and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system – which induces a state of calmness.  Square breathing, for example, is one technique used to reduce anxiety and to get back into an optimal calm state.  It is also used by Frontline Services, including the Military, the Police and Nursing professionals.

  • Pay attention to the basics like nutrition and sleep.
  • Make time for annual leave.
  • Spend time in Nature.
  • Make time for yourself, planning activities not related to work.
  • Nurture personal relationships; spend quality time with friends and family.
  • Reconnect to your body through gentle exercise; physically ‘shake off’ stress.
  • If you have to take work home, or work from home, have designated work areas.

The benefits of spending time in ‘Blue and Green’ spaces

Regular daylight exposure is known to boost our mood.  Scientific research into the health benefits of walking in the ‘great outdoors’ is catching up with what people have always instinctually understood.  Beyond any doubt Nature is good for us, and helps to significantly lower stress levels.  Seeking out ‘Blue and Green’ spaces, switching off and disconnecting from the digital world and spending interludes in woods or by water calms, soothes, grounds and grants us a bigger ‘perspective’.  The Japanese also practice something called forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku.  Shinrin means “forest,” and yoku means “bath.” In other words, bathing in the forest atmosphere, taking in the forest through your senses.  Simply by being in nature, connecting with it through the senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch, it is said to bridge the gap between us and the natural world.

Remember you are not alone

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Reach out to colleagues, friends and loved ones and confide in them about what’s going on.  If you’re stressed about work, discuss your concerns with your manager.  Some may find talking to a trained professional, such as a counsellor, or psychologist, can help to gently navigate a constructive way forward.  Neuroscientists, whose area of study includes the brain and emotions, state when you can identify a feeling – including stress, sadness or anger – the feeling loses some of its charge, and you won’t feel so overwhelmed.

Practice self-compassion and rediscover your purpose

Paradoxically when we experience stress it becomes harder to adopt self-compassion – and yet it is likely that we would treat a good friend very differently.  It can help to think about what we would say to a friend in a similar situation; and what we could do to be kinder to ourselves.  Explore what you really enjoy doing – or used to enjoy before burnout!  What brings you a sense of purpose and helps you feel more connected to yourself?  Take time for personal growth through activities that will be meaningful to you.

Finally, focus on what is important now – W.I.N

Learn to ‘park’ what you have no immediate control over.  This means giving this moment right here, right now, your full attention.  Stay grounded. Take deep breaths.  Focus on the one moment, the one task, and realise that whatever we are experiencing – this too shall pass.

Written by Danya Martoglio, Counsellor


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