Burnout has recently been recognised as a medical condition, an important step on the wellness ladder. At a time where workplace wellness is the buzzword to beat it’s easy to dismiss burnout as a fad but the struggle is real. It’s costing employers and employees mountains in terms of health and money but what exactly is it and how can we spot it, prevent it and recover from it? We chat to Ann Marie Griffin, Senior Learning & Development Consultant at LinkedIn who aside from launching her own consulting business has worked with global brands such as Burberry and The Happy Pear in developing talent and driving company culture from within. 

So what exactly is burnout? The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He used it to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in ‘helping’ professions. Like the doctors and nurses, who sacrifice themselves for others and end up being ‘burned out’ – exhausted, listless, and unable to cope. Today the term extends beyond these helping professions, to anyone affected by the dark side of self-sacrifice. It seems it can affect anyone, from stressed-out careerists and celebrities to overworked employees and homemakers.

How can you spot it?

Ann Marie has been on both ends of the burnout spectrum having both experienced it herself and helped others spot and recover from it. But the burning question is how does it show up?

It shows up differently for people. It can really sneak up. The physical signs are usually easier to spot and changes in energy levels is definitely something to look out for. It can be difficulty getting up in the morning, or just an overall sense of feeling unwell or very tired. Other physical symptoms include things like changes in appetite – either an increase or a decrease, or craving sugary foods or foods that will give you a quick energy boost. On top of this there’s physical pain like nausea or inflammation which includes things like acid reflux or hernias. These are all signs we’re pushing our bodies to the limit.

But that’s only the physical side. Our emotional state tells a bigger story. “Things like an inability to focus and shorter concentration. As well as generally having a shorter fuse, being triggered by things that wouldn’t usually trigger you and being less able to deal with them. These are all emotional symptoms of burnout.” 

But why now? Why so much burnout? It all goes back to Millenials. We get all the flack. We are hailed entitled, easily distracted and unable to take criticism, as well as the ‘ the ‘Me Me Me Generation’ (a bit harsh no?!). And on top of being adorned with all this negativity we’re also known as Generation Burnout. Now whether we’re working too hard or not equipped to deal, there’s no denying that this is a real issue.

There’s been a huge societal change in the last 10 years and employers are trying their best to reach the requirements of the world around us. We want it all and we want it now. And millennials have grown up through it all so some tend to have very high expectations of what success looks like. In a society where everybody wants things yesterday, we’re all working harder, longer and faster, it’s the economic and social ecosystem that’s driving that.

A woman in the bathtub with clothes on in Daytona Beach

It’s a mindset change more than anything. Millennials and Gen Z aren’t interested in having a job for 50 years. Values are changing. They traded in their parents values of loyalty, integrity and security for fun, freedom and flexibility. And their expectations and lifestyles are changing all the time. 10 years ago students were interested in partying, having fun and living life. Today students are pushing themselves. They’re studying hard, working hard, pushing themselves in the gym and their expectations of themselves are very high. Which is great, until it gets to the point of burnout. Then we need to put some mechanisms in place to sustain it.

And how exactly do we do this? According to Ann Marie one of the biggest contributors of success is emotional intelligence (EQ). This emcompasses everything from how we build relationships with colleagues, to how we communicate and manage stress day-to-day. “The output of EQ is health and happiness. If we look at how success is measured it includes great relationships, communications skills, decision making ability and managing stress, a thread that all work together.” Is EQ something that is fixed or is it possible to build on it? “We can do loads of things to improve our EQ but we need to approach it from a few different angles. We can start by taking an honest look at our self-regard. On top of that communication and flexibility are key areas for consideration.” 

Self-regard is essentially self-respect, it’s how we regard and treat ourselves. “The first thing to look at is how you talk to and about yourself. Are your thoughts empowering or disempowering? Are they critical? Are you using words that put you down? It’s hugely important to catch this and start to change the way you talk to yourself. If you wouldn’t say it to a friend then don’t say it to yourself” 

Next up we need to consider our communication skills. These too have a huge effect on EQ. “When we can assert ourselves effectively we can get more achieved that has mutual benefit for ourselves and others. When we don’t say what we mean, we leave people second guessing. It’s a great thing to be able to fear the fear and do it anything. We should really try to push ourselves to have those challenging conversations, without worry about the perceived outcome stopping us.” 

The last thing to consider is flexibility. That is the ability to adapt to the situation at hand.

Flexibility is an interesting one to play with. If you’re someone who is stuck in your ways pushing through this can create stress but it’s good to start pushing in tiny ways. Let’s say you’re someone who’s super tidy, you could play with being messy for a day just to see how it feels. If you take the same way to work you could consider mixing it up, or changing your hairstyle for a day. All these are little ways you can start to push your flexibility boundaries. These simple changes can help you adapt more easily to situations.

On the other hand if you’re someone who likes to eer more on the side of chaos there are things you can do to help create some balance. “Make a plan and stick to it. Set a goal a day for the week or create a schedule for the week. The key is to start small. Create simple goals and commit to achieving them. If you start with big intentions and don’t achieve them, this can be really discouraging. Build on small wins and you will start to see results. When you start to succeed you’ll start to see yourself as someone who is structured, who does what they say and this in itself is great for self-talk.” 

And this applies to a chaotic workplace. Creating those corners of quiet in a chaotic environment can give you the armour you need to survive the mayhem. “It’s really important to create your own structure,” says Ann Marie. “It allows for chaos but also builds resilience. A great way to create stability is with a morning routine. It’s a set of habits around how you nourish yourself and how you start your day. This can include rituals like mindfulness or gratitude. Movement of any kind is a great way to boost energy levels first thing. Creating a plan for the day is the ideal. One that allows for flexibility so you know what you’re trying to achieve but you can take some knocks and hits along the way. When you go in blind the knocks can really knock you off course and achieving success becomes more challenging. By starting strong you’re already physically and emotionally stronger.” 

The other thing to note is the environment you’re in. Be sure to embrace it when you’re in it but do make a point of taking time and space away from it. Make time for lunch and get a break away from your desk. And take those other breaks too. It’s a great time to build relationships with people which is one of the most important things you can do in work. Those smaller, shorter, burst breaks are great. Checking in with colleagues and managers is a great way of restoring balance and creating an ‘all in this together’ atmosphere, helping relieve some of the fear of the unknown.

When it comes to technology Ann Marie has a thing or two to say on this too. “When it comes to technology, as boring as it sounds it really is all about company policies and procedures around the use of technology. We are contactable around the clock across 5-6 platforms which on the one hand is great, but on the other hand it’s completely overwhelming. It doesn’t give employees time to switch off or separate their work from personal lives. The onus is on the employers to lead this. They need to identify key platforms and implement some parameters around this, like ‘let’s use this whatsapp group for team communications but it’s not to be used outside of working hours, tight boundaries are key.” 

The ideal situation is that we have quality time both in and out of work. So much so that it doesn’t feel like a difference. We should start to look at work like part of life, aim to work towards a fulfilling job so that it doesn’t feel like stress. “When we put effort into something we hate it’s called stress.” But at the end of the day it’s all about balance. Balance with work, relationships, hobbies, passion and community, “aim to give yourself purpose, passion and fulfilment across various parts of your life and a knock in one won’t hit you so hard. That in itself is balance.”