The Gift of Burnout

Is worry about work causing you to ruminate, or is your mind spinning at bedtime? Are you working on weekends and through lunch? Are you drinking a lot, or fighting with your partner on a regular basis? If any of these sound familiar, you’ll want to pay close attention. They’re signs that you’re approaching burnout. 

Our nervous systems have a optimum zone of arousal. It resides between the “comfort zone” (where there’s too little stress) and the “panic zone” (where there’s too much). The optimal zone, where we have “positive stress”, can be divided into learning and growth. Burnout happens when we spend too much time in the high-anxiety panic zone. This was first illustrated by Robert Yerkes and John Dodson in 1907, and is called the Yerkes–Dodson Law.

According to the World Health Organization, burnout is defined in ICD-11 as follows:

“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.”

It’s the feeling of exhaustion that’s caused by constantly feeling like there’s too much to do. 

Research on anxiety shows that our reactions to living in the panic zone of high stress differs by gender.

Females tend to internalize their feelings, showing a loss of appetite, fatigue, sleepiness or insomnia, phobias, panic, social disorders, PTSD, OCD, and a wide variety of types of pain.

Males tend to externalize their feelings, and are more likely to show violence, aggression, or addictions such as alcoholism, drug abuse, or workaholism.

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s time to make some lifestyle and mindset changes.

You need to reteach yourself that it’s healthy and safe to set appropriately self-protective boundaries, that you aren’t in it alone, and that you don’t need to do it all. Focus on your highest-value contribution. Learn to prioritize, delegate, and coach others. Say no more often. And critically — develop a daily mindfulness practice.

Burnout is a great teacher. Not the one you wish you had, perhaps, or the one that makes you smile when you think about it in hindsight. But it’s the one that teaches you the most valuable and hardest lessons about what’s important. 

To your success,