Recognizing Burnout: Seven questions to ask
by Brent Roy
“That's the thing: You don't understand burnout unless you've been burned out. And it's something you can't even explain. It's just doing something you have absolutely no passion for. “~ Elena Delle Donne
Just before Christmas last year, I hit an emotional wall. Physical and emotional exhaustion had taken its toll and I felt like I was having a minor version of an out-of-body experience, like a poorly-inked colour newspaper cartoon…part of me was just a little outside the lines.
It wasn’t immediately clear (to me) what was going on. Burnout was a term I’d bandied about in the past without clearly understanding the depth of its meaning. I’d even counseled others to avoid its perils but had somehow felt I was immune.
All I knew was that it seemed to appear rather suddenly. Had you asked me in November, I would have told you I was on top of my game and extremely happy in all areas of life and career. But by mid-December, I found myself irritable, questioning my judgment and wondering whether what I was doing had any meaning to it anymore.
I felt as though I had lost my edge and was incapable of making decisions that until that moment had always been second nature to me. It had created a brain fog that had me feeling that I wasn’t really myself.
One episode that really jolted me awake that December could have resulted in a serious accident. It occurred while driving to work one morning. While at the intersection at the end of my street waiting to make a left turn, I looked both ways and the coast was clear. At least that’s the message my exhausted, sleep-deprived brain had sent me. In reality, the coast, like my thought processes, was not so clear. A car was barreling down on me fast and nearly broadsided the passenger side of my car as I pulled into traffic! The only damage was a horn blast and a not-so-friendly one-finger salute from the other driver.
On the work front, it felt as if God had reached into my heart and turned off the desire switch for my career of nearly 25 years! I knew something serious was going on but still didn’t know what it was. I contacted my doctor who insisted I take some extra time off work between Christmas and the New Year and see her for a reassessment in early January.
During my time of recuperation, I at first thought I was dealing with mild depression. Later, I found a definition that seemed to know almost exactly what I was feeling:
Burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to:
- physical and emotional exhaustion (check!)
- cynicism and detachment (yup!)
- feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment (ditto!)
Let’s cut to the chase. Here are some questions to ask yourself that MAY indicate you’re burning out…
- How is my sleep quality? Waking up exhausted every morning could be a sign of something physical contributing to the way you feel. Sleep apnea or a similar condition could be one of the culprits contributing to your exhaustion and slowing your recovery. Make an appointment with your doctor to rule it out.
- Is my concentration and decision-making ability a little off? Pulling into oncoming traffic when your brain is telling you it’s safe should be a sign that something is not right. Your brain is overtaxed.
- Am I more pessimistic than usual? When normally optimistic people seem to suddenly be more focused on the negative, it could be a sign that something deeper is going on. Listen to your body.
- Do I find myself becoming increasingly more cynical and irritable about things that never bothered me much before? We all have things in our jobs and lives that are less than desirable, but we learn to deal with them for days and weeks and years on end. Suddenly you start to feel that you can’t take these irritations anymore.
- Do I feel like I’m not as effective at my job? You’ve always been the go-to guy or gal in your area of expertise. Despite a confident track record of getting the job done well, suddenly, you’re doubting your efficacy.
- Do I feel less interested in my work than before? You used to be the enthusiastic cheerleader of all things new and interesting in your field. Lately, you could care less.
- Am I doubting the significance of my work? You had a great vision and purpose for your job when you started but now you’re wondering what the meaning of it is? In better days, you were the one to pull the team together; now you just want to get through the day without interruptions.
I asked myself these questions and went so far as to purchase the Maslach Burmout Inventory General Survey Individual Report to gain deeper insights into what I was experiencing. It confirmed my suspicions…I was experiencing burnout but the degree was far deeper than I’d expected.
The good news is that you can recover from burnout, emerging from its clammy grasp to become more productive than ever before. It takes time, but I did it and I feel much better having regained the passion and balance I thought was gone forever. I will warn you, if you are experiencing burnout, be proactive. It will not go away on its own and, if left untreated, according to my doctor, it can lead to serious physical and psychological illnesses like depression, heart disease, and diabetes.
With that in mind, soon I’ll post about some of the things that were vital to my recovery.
I hope you're doing OK with maintaining your balance. If you're not sure, download my balance assessment to see.
If you have expperienced burnout, I would love to hear what was helpful to your recovery. Please post your thoughts ubder the article on LinkedIn or Facebook and I may incorporate it into an upcoming article.
Brent is a life and leadership coach with a goal to help exhausted leaders reclaim their balance so their family life and careers bring equal amounts of joy most of the time.