Burnout – Why Our Brain’s Need Help!

I want this year to be the year you actively managed the demands you have in your life so you can avoid burnout!

On my last webinar of 2021 with a group of business leaders from Auckland, it was clear looking at the faces on the screen that everyone looked exhausted. Each leader had to summarise their current focus for their business and share a funny moment. I was shocked at the difference between the words that came out their mouth and their body language, they seemed poles apart. One individual particularly stood out to me, I’ll call him Mark (not his real name).

Mark was reflecting on his year, he had just posted the largest profit the company had ever made, things were going great and his board were very happy and then he said “I’m about 80% decided that I am going to leave in the New Year and probably take 6 months off to rest, maybe have a holiday and then decide what I am going to do after that”. I was watching Mark on my screen, his body language was screaming at me  that he was broken, completely overwhelmed as if he had been fighting on the front lines in a war he could not win and realisation of his defeat had finally sunk in. It was not pleasant to see, watching what appeared by all normal checks and balances, a very successful CEO look, sound and feel defeated.

Mark was suffering from burnout!

Burnout is not recognised as a standalone clinical diagnosis (which I find astounding in this day and age!) but what we do know is that it develops over time, usually months, and according leading experts in the field, researchers from UNSW’s School of Psychiatry and Black Dog Institute the following factors commonly affect people experiencing burnout:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Lack of empathy
  • Reduced performance
  • Anxiety / stress
  • Depression and low mood
  • Irritability and anger
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Lack of motivation or passion
  • Lack of concentration, memory loss or brain fog
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Physical symptoms such as aches, headaches, nausea, and low libido

Identify the Signs Early

The key to avoiding burnout is not (what New Zealanders typically do) to wait until the end of the year to take that 3 week holiday, the key is to reduce the cognitive load our brain has to deal with on a daily basis. The thing about burnout is, we create it ourselves, WE make the choices that put ourselves under pressure, we take on too much, we don’t rest enough, it is ultimately our decisions that cause our burnout.

There are factors which put us in those positions where we feel we have no choice but to take on that extra job; overly demanding clients wanting things yesterday, bosses that demand things get done faster and more accurately, children wanting help with something now, the list goes on, so what can we do about it?

Listen and observe your body

  • Is your attention wandering – this is the earliest sign that your brain needs a break
  • Is thinking to hard, like trying to find something in fog? – your brain is now screaming at you to take the break. You brain has an overload of waste by products from all your neurons firing off and it needs rest to flush those by-products away.
  • Is your fuse short, are you quick to get frustrated or angry – often a sign of decision fatigue, again your brain is asking that you take a break, it needs a rest.
  • Is your ability to recall names, places, facts compromised to levels lower than they would be normally – this often happens as a result of increasing levels of stress, the hormones’ released in this state inhibits our ability to form short term memories and recall long term memories.
  • Aches and pains around the head and shoulder region – could be the early signs of tension building up in your body caused by increasing stress levels, again your body is asking you to slow down and take the break.

Avoid the Burnout Path

In my observations working with business leaders over the last decade and having studied the phenomenon of burnout over the last 4 years, here are my thoughts on avoiding burnout. The key here is that whatever you choose to do, you must rest your brain regularly and when I say regularly, I mean 15mins in every hour as an average. Treat your brain like any other muscle in your body, recognise when it is getting tired and rest.

  1. Do your most cognitively demanding tasks when you are at your freshest and most energised (figure out what time of the day you are most alert and do it then).
  2. Take at least a 15minute break away from the cognitively heavy task and remove yourself from that task (e.g. if you were doing something in a computer, walk away from your desk).
  3. Get yourself outside regularly during the day, absorb some sunlight or even better go for a walk, again 5minute walk to the local cafe will do wonders for your mental and physical health.
  4. Have a laugh / fun when you are taking those breaks.
  5. Turn your phone off and put it away when you are working on tasks that require your full attention. The constant distraction of the phone speeds up the fogging process in your brain.
  6. If you are not checking emails, then close down your email programme and turn off all notifications on your computer to reduce your distractions.
  7. Stop taking on the extra tasks if you know you don’t have time to do them.
  8. Reset your client and colleague expectations to reduce their demands on your time.
  9. Make a “NOT to-do list” – decide what things are just not important enough to suck up your time.
  10. Learn to say “NO” more often and prioritise your time and your mental health significantly more than you are currently doing.

If you can do as many of the things in the above list regularly, then you will be well on your way to looking after your brain and it’s health, combine that with activities that “fill your bucket” you should be able to avoid the trappings of burnout!