OP-ED

Did Covid-19 steal your mojo? Watch out for the burnout danger zone

By Freddie van Rensburg 23 February 2021

(Photo: Unsplash / Nikko Macaspac)

Burnout is real, but it can be prevented and addressed. We need to reach out for help when we realise we are in the danger zone. We won’t ignore a cyst growing on our face – why ignore other obvious symptoms that something is wrong?

One of my favourite one-liners from a movie comes from the 2002 Spider-Man movie where Tobey Maguire plays Peter Parker. He is sitting with his grandmother in hospital. She tells him that he looks tired and he should look after himself. Then she drops the bomb: “You are not Superman, you know.” 

A good start in the prevention of burnout is to accept that we are not Superman. We all have physical limits as to the amount of stress we can endure, the number of hours we can work and how long we can concentrate.

People from all walks of life are being diagnosed with burnout syndrome these days. Yet, burnout is not a modern phenomenon. The US psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first identified it in people in the helping profession in 1970. Yet, as burnout is predominantly caused by (work) stress, it can debilitate anyone, at any level in society – and many people suffer from burnout and are not aware of it. 

What is burnout?

Dr Christina Maslach, the creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, defines burnout as “a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job”. It leaves its victims in a constant state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. It further causes feelings of being overworked, an inability to meet life’s demands and being overwhelmed. Time pressures often lead to conflict with colleagues and loved ones, while a general absence of motivation and lack of interest (in anything) can occur.

If we look at what we are all currently living through because of Covid-19, burnout is probably far more prevalent than diagnosed. One of the most serious contributing factors, as stated in my podcast Meet me in the field by my guest Carl Herman, is: “The reality is that we don’t work from home, we live at work.”

We have lost the ability to close our office doors behind us to go home to relax or exercise. For many of us our lounge or dining room is our office. As much as we love our partners and children, we don’t get a break from them any more. Let’s not beat around the bush – family dynamics can be and are stressful. As cute as our little ones are, we need to be able to distinguish between work time and family time. We no longer get away from our stressors, because we live in them, day in, day out. Our exhaustion does not leave us, because we often exercise and/or sleep right next to the desk we work at.

Worst of all, contact with our friends and support systems is limited, which reduces our downtime and contributes to our stress. The virus has robbed us of our ability to trust our friends, neighbours, and fellow humans. We are more isolated and alone, while what we need are hugs and true connections.  

When I see someone with their face mask hooked under their nose, I respond irrationally in anger. I struggle to accept how inconsiderate people can be and I react in anger. I don’t want to live in a society where every person next to me in an aisle or in a queue is a potential weapon of mass destruction. Covid-19 contributes negatively to my anxiety, anger, depression, hopelessness, and isolation. I am generally a positive person (this is a new thing – before coming into recovery from addiction, I was the Grinch personified), but this virus is starting to affect my ability to be rational and tolerant. I don’t like who I am becoming because of this pandemic.

When we look at the symptoms of burnout, it helps to know how these symptoms present in early onset and what late-stage burnout looks like.

  • Anger: We may start off by feeling irritable more often, which could grow into having anger outbursts, which may end up in violence.
  • Anxiety: Feelings of tension and worry may creep into our day. This can lead to extreme anxiety, accompanied by a loss of concentration, with the consequent negative personal and professional consequences. 
  • Appetite: We may start off by feeling less hungry and skipping meals and end up having no appetite at all and losing weight. 
  • Concentration: We become forgetful and lack focus. We end up feeling completely incapacitated to contribute to our work.
  • Depression: We start feeling worthless, sad, and guilty, which may escalate into severe depression.
  • Detachment/disconnection: We start isolating. We become more absent at work and less present in life. This may develop into a total lack of contact with the outside world, not answering our phones, emails and messages.
  • Fatigue: Burnout starts with a lack of energy and feeling tired regularly. This can lead to total exhaustion, being depleted and dreading life.
  • Hopelessness: We feel that nothing is going right, and everything is wrong. These feelings can lead to complete immobilisation, where we end up doing nothing. 
  • Insomnia: At the start of our journey into burnout, we may frequently struggle to fall and stay asleep. This may progress into nightly sleeping problems, which are exacerbated by over-tiredness.
  • Isolation: Time alone is treasured more, and we socialise less. We may even start avoiding interaction completely and feel anger or resentment when forced to interact.
  • Lack of enjoyment: We start not enjoying things that we used to enjoy. This becomes a wide and general lack of interest and we avoid situations we do not want to deal with.
  • Irritability: Burnout causes feelings of ineffectiveness and inefficiency, which leads to irritability.
  • Pessimism: We may find we are talking to ourselves more harshly and negatively, while always seeing the negative side of life. We can end up loathing ourselves and our lives, with a lack of trust in people and a sense of loss because we feel we cannot depend on anyone.  
  • Poor performance: Stress kills productivity. The more stress we feel, the less productive we are going to be, despite working harder and for longer hours. This cycle of working harder and performing more poorly feeds burnout.

These symptoms must be seen as lying on a continuum. At the low end, they represent stress. The more intense they become, the closer we move to the burnout stage. If we can learn to identify the symptoms early on, we can prevent reaching burnout. The symptoms will not just go away. They need to be treated. If anything, they will only get progressively worse the longer they stay unaddressed.

One of the challenges of diagnosing burnout is that many of its symptoms can be caused by something else, like certain physical, mental or psychosomatic illnesses. Anxiety disorders, depression or chronic fatigue syndrome can also contribute to a false burnout diagnosis. 

Results of on-line tests, or as I like to call it, “Dr Google”, should be used with discretion and any such diagnosis should be backed up by an appropriate professional. If you suspect that you have burnout, consult a suitable professional, like a doctor, counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist, for a formal diagnosis and the correct treatment.   

When it comes to burnout, most of the causational problems are work-related. Make a point of being honest with yourself in assessing your stress levels at work and how that affects your life in general. Stress levels can be reduced.

Prevent burnout

Here are some tools to use when we feel we are heading towards hitting the burnout wall:

  • It helps if we know what causes our stress levels to rise. We can become proactive in reducing our stress where and how we can.
  • We need to take some time to figure out how we really spend our time. We can take control of our time by focusing on how we want to spend our time. We can start by collating information on what we do with our time, what robs us of time and consequently adds stress to our lives. We can create an action by setting goals for blocks of time and focus on reaching these goals. 
  • It helps when we set priorities for our time (day, week, month) and regularly check in on where we are with them. We must stay connected to our big priorities. 
  • We have to focus on a structured day and work toward sticking to that plan.
  • We can switch off from work when the day is done. Remove ourselves from our phones and computers and concentrate on other things, like family.
  • Celebrate the progress. We should not beat ourselves up for failures, but rather learn from them – take the lesson and move on.
  • Regular check-ins with ourselves on our own mental health will serve us well. We can go through the symptoms of burnout and take action when we seem in danger.
  • Self-care, self-care, and more self-care. Sleep hygiene is imperative, eat well and healthily, get exercise and read a book or relax appropriately.
  • Use any support network at our disposal, be it church, online support groups, friends, or 12-step fellowships (Co-Dependents Anonymous and Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families are applicable to many people who don’t have addiction problems).

Treatment

Although certain diagnostic tools do not classify burnout as a separate mental illness, it is real. Burnout can be prevented and addressed. We need to consult mental health practitioners when we realise we are in the danger zone. We won’t ignore a cyst growing on our face – why ignore other obvious symptoms that something is wrong?

It is important that once we have been diagnosed with burnout we get appropriate information to enable us to manage our treatment and healing. Treatment will mostly focus on getting to understand our stress, learning what our triggers are and teaching us effective coping mechanisms.

When wellness mental health practitioners work with burnout, we help clients to reduce their stress and teach them new and more appropriate ways of reacting to stressful situations. We not only help them to create healthier coping mechanisms to address the current burnout, but we also work on preventative measures for long-term stress reduction, inhibiting them from developing it again. We focus on their wellness.

A wellness approach to burnout treatment

Wellness revolves around mind, body, and spirit. We need to ensure a balance between these aspects of our lives. Wellness will go a long way in reducing our susceptibility to burnout.

  • A better self-esteem. It sounds unrelated to stress, but a poor self-image contributes to unhealthy coping mechanisms. By addressing a flailing self-esteem, we learn how to be kind to ourselves and how to appropriately ask for our needs to be met and take the correct action when they are not met. 
  • A healthy mind in a healthy body. It stands us in good stead to investigate our current relationship with our bodies (food, exercise, and body-image) and explore how to improve the areas that need attention.
  • We need to feed our souls. Like our bodies need movement and food, and our brains need to learn new things to perform optimally, we need to increase our emotional intelligence and investigate appropriate ways to connect with our souls and spirituality. A fast-paced life easily drives a wedge between these aspects of our being that need to be connected. 
  • Writing about what is going on is an excellent way to connect with our realities. To diarise and draw up an inventory of your day and even your life is a marvellous tool of processing and learning. It is recommended that we do work on getting to know ourselves better and critically evaluate where we are in life, where we are going, where we want to go and how to get there.

Hope

It does not matter how hopeless we feel while suffering from burnout, there is hope. All we need to do is ask for help and be honest, open-minded and willing to get better. DM

Freddie van Rensburg is a senior wellness and addiction counsellor in his private practice. He is the in-house counsellor for Daily Maverick team members. 

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  • I am surprised that DM allows comments on this piece as the underlying topic is Covid. Can we really comment? In addition to all the BS that we have been fed on this topic without even the privilege (right?) to comment, I also suffer from burn-out. But the burn-out comes from the frustration of not being able to express oneself under these conditions. And the biggest frustration of it all is that DM gave in to a little pressure from government.

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