• Prevention is a much better strategy than having to face a long period of recovery from burnout

  • Petra Velzeboer explains how to identify where you are on the burnout scale and offers tips to help

  • If you are struggling with stress, we have therapists available here

So many people think that burnout just crept up on them and suddenly from one day to the next they couldn’t move, walk or function. But of course it’s much more gradual than that, often taking years of build up with plenty of signs both physically and mentally, but we just never took the time to notice them. That’s why, show me a person who has great personal wellbeing boundaries and I’m usually right in assuming they’ve been through a crashpoint of some kind, as it’s forced them to open their eyes to the small signs and preventative measures they now take in order to never have that happen to them again. 

In my book Begin with You, I highlight the many early signs and of course, what to do about them. There are 12 stages according to Herbert Freudenberger, the man who originally coined the term burnout when assessing people in helping professions such as nurses, doctors and social workers and once you know them, you can’t unknow them – you see yourself on the path and can begin to pull yourself back from the brink with awareness.  

Of course, the western hustle-culture environments as well as comparing our experience to other people’s through social media is normalising a world where busyness is seen as a badge of honour and self-care is seen more as a hack for the purpose of making you more productive than ever. We think everyone else is achieving more, more balanced, and Zen as they succeed in ways we pretend are possible for us but secretly we’re riddled with imposter syndrome, wearing masks that pretend that everything is ok when in fact it isn’t. 

It’s wearing these masks that is the real trouble. I find that as soon as I’m honest about where I’m at other people say me-too and we are able to support each other. It’s taking off the mask and getting real that enables us to understand that we are not alone and there are many ways to live our lives - it’s really up to us. 

When we are in survival mode – which many of us are these days – we cling onto extremes. Black and white, right or wrong, this way or that way. I’ve had many clients come to me saying they need help with a polarised decision…for example, either quit my job and live life like I want and be poor or, sacrifice myself to the corporate world, kill my soul but make money for a lifestyle I want. 

But what if there are many more choices in the middle? What if we thought creatively about ways to make a good living while listening to our gut, living according to our values and reducing the pressuring signs of anxiety, depression or burnout?

What if there was another way? 

Firstly, I bet you’re curious. Here are the 12 stages of burnout as outlined in my book as this may very well be the first step to assessing where you’re at deciding what kind of action to take. 

  1. Proving yourself

  2. Working harder

  3. Neglecting your needs

  4. Displacing conflict

  5. Revision of values

  6. Denial of emerging problems

  7. Withdrawal from social interactions 

  8. Odd behaviour changes

  9. Depersonalisation

  10. Inner emptiness 

  11. Depression

  12. Burnout syndrome 

Assessing where you’re at

So there you have it. Review where you are at on this scale, where you’ve been in the past and at what point you woke up to the issue and began doing the things that you know help. 

This is essential information for preventing a full on burnout which can take several years to recover from. So many of us say we don’t have time to invest in our wellbeing and mental health – but the question is, have you got time to recover? 

Recognise if you need help 

The habits that got us here are not necessarily going to be the habits that get us out. You may have needed to hustle to get yourself to where you are, however as we grow older, pushing in exactly the same way is not going to be the skill to help us thrive long term and crucially, may prevent us from enjoying the journey. 

But there might be many layers to why you work in the way you do, historical trauma that perhaps has not been processed and environmental pressure to just keep going etc. So sometimes, we may need backup. We may need to talk through our story, our patterns and the pressures that are keeping us stuck. We may need back up to find the options that lie between the polarities we think we have to choose from. A trusted friend, partner or professional can be useful to help us challenge our thinking and evolve our habits to support our wellbeing. 

Burnout is not cognitive 

I realise I just said you might want to talk through your history or get backup for creating habit change, but it’s important to note that burnout is physiological (in your body) not psychological (in your mind). So if stress is stuck in our body well then we need physical ways to release it. 

Dr Emily and Amelia Nagoski in their book, Burnout: How to Solve your Stress Cycle, talk through the science and offer insight into how movement, laughter, tears and hugs are all ways to solve or complete your stress cycle. These can be done daily and we should radically assess our lives to see if our basic needs are being met – creating positive accountability in families and teams to ensure we can prevent burnout collectively as well as individually.  

For example, the science says that the 20-second hug is an evidenced-based way to reduce the stress-hormone cortisol in our body. This is free and as long as there’s a consenting friend, partner, child or pet, you can be reducing burnout in simple ways that will probably put a smile on your face too. 

Of course, the issue is bigger than our individual strategies. We live in a culture that normalises busy, the side hustle on top of the main hustle and has reduced community so that it’s not just a given that we’ll manage our stress levels, instead we need to be much more intentional than ever before. We need a bit of challenge in our lives, but the type of challenge that bucks the trends - gets us away from our desks, gives us space to daydream, and bravely reaches out for connection and support. 

Prevention is definitely different than recovery when it comes to burnout. When you hit full on burnout syndrome often it feels like these things no longer work, that your body and thinking don’t function and this is when a total break from work often takes place – with a slow journey of recovery back to a place of strength. If you’re in phases 1-8, prevention strategies work much better and ideally investing in yourself, what you want and your overall wellbeing is simply a part of life, something you reflect on regularly in order to ensure performance, happiness and fulfilment. 

Petra Velzeboer is a psychotherapist, executive coach and author of Begin With You: Invest in Your Wellbeing & Satisfaction at Work

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