This is the final of three blogs unpacking the impact of burnout. Many clients speak about the way that stress and sustained pressure take their toll and result in depletion, exhaustion and overload that can be labelled as “burnout”. In previous blogs, we’ve explored what burnout is and some of the typical symptoms of burnout. We’ve also looked at practical steps that can be taken to help recover from burnout. But, mindful of the old adage, “prevention is better than cure”, here we take a look at strategies that help to prevent and safeguard against burnout.
Burnout: Keeping your Vehicle on the Road.
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Think of it like a vehicle that’s driven too fast for too far without stopping to re-fuel. Once you’ve got to that point, it is a slow and difficult trek to the nearest petrol station to purchase a canister and fuel, and then a hike back to put the few litres, (gallon in old money!) into the tank. Either that, or an expensive callout to a roadside assistance provider. With this analogy, its fairly easy to see what preventative action to guard against burnout involves might look like. Regular “filling the tank”, stopping to replenish and refuel before we become exhausted and overwhelmed. Keeping a close eye on the measuring gauges and dashboard indicators that tell us about the status of our vehicle.
So, preventative action to guard against burnout includes self-awareness: noticing and recognising our own indicators and early warning signs that we are facing stress and pressure and that our coping reserves are dwindling. It involves responsive action to then find ways to stop, rest and replenish. At its heart, preventative action to guard against burnout is being serious about a robust self-care routine.
It’s tempting to think of self-care as luxurious trips to day spas or holidays on exotic beaches. Of course, these things can be part of a self-care routine, and it’s great to have a bit of pampering and take a holiday every now and then. But, in terms of burnout prevention, self-care is very much about the regular things that help to replenish and restore. That can be staring the day with a healthy breakfast, a weekly phone call to a friend, attending to medical appointments and taking time each day to enjoy a lunch break away from your desk. It could even include weekend hikes and getting out into nature.
Another way to think of self-care is to consider the various domains of your life, and to consider what actions and strategies you can implement to ensure you are taking care of yourself in each domain. For example, you may consider some of the following domains to be important areas of your life where you can consider appropriate self-care:
- Physical self-care
- Psychological self-care
- Emotional self-care
- Spiritual self-care
- Study related self-care
- Work related self-care.
Let’s think about some practical self-care examples for some of these domains. A work-related self-care activity could be to ensure that you do leave work on time. Or that you book in with your line-manager to discuss any concerns you have before they escalate.
Physical self-care can be to drink enough water each day and remember to stretch and move if you feel tension in your body. It can also include taking medication as prescribed, eating well and attending to sleep hygiene to help get a restful night’s sleep.
Psychological self-care can include considering and implementing appropriate boundaries: saying no to an extra commitment when you feel you don’t have capacity. Considering self-talk can also be a key aspect of psychological self-care. If you find yourself berating and berating yourself up for perceived failure or not achieving what you feel you “ought” or “should”, it might be time to attend to kind and compassionate self-talk: telling yourself that you did the best you could with the resources you had.
Each of these domains are worthy of our awareness and attention. Each domain contributes to our overall sense of wellbeing. When we are lacking in appropriate self-care in any domain, its likely we begin to feel a bit “lopsided” and out of sorts. When we allow that situation to continue, it begins to take its toll and we risk burnout.
Resistance to Self-Care
Perhaps you are reading this and feeling some resistance, or irritation? If so, good spot! That irritation may have something useful to tell you. I know that for many clients I have worked with, talk of self-care and self-nurture can feel cloying and uncomfortable. I am interested and curious about the unique meaning of this for my client. Yet, I also notice that there are some common themes in resistance to self-care.
For some, self-care feels indulgent and almost frivolous. Perhaps you’ve never had important and significant people in your life model self-care, and it feels alien to you? You may have grown up with the encouragement to be strong, tough and to keep going. To ignore any warning signs that you weren’t managing and instead “try harder”? Perhaps self-care feels too much like self-pity and you’d rather focus on the things you can do now? For some people, they become aware that much of their self-image and self-identity is tied up in doing, or even giving to others. To stop and “be”, or to attend to self may therefore feel selfish, or a waste of time. Stopping the busy-ness of life might just open up the chance for self-reflection and that can feel daunting. In which case, staying busy can seem preferable.
So, if you are aware of any resistance, its worth noting and being curious about that, and what meaning it holds for you. Therapy can help with this self-discovery process. Once you are aware of any resistance, you have choice. The choice to remain resistant, or to consider other responses to self-care.
Challenging Self-Care Resistance.
Let’s look at one possible response for someone who is committed to experimenting with challenging resistance to self-care:
Consider someone that you care about: this could be a friend or a family member. Now think about what you’d love to do for them on their birthday, to show them you care? If money weren’t a barrier – what gift would you buy them? What words would you write in a card? Where would you like to take them to celebrate? What would you want to say to them face-to-face to show that they matter to you? And, how might you respond if you also knew that they were finding this particular birthday really tough as things had been hard for them lately?
When we care about someone, we like to find ways to show our love, care and kindness. This is especially the case they are in a time of need or crisis. It’s unlikely that in this scenario, you’d tell your loved one to just put-up and shut-up, or chastise them for finding things tough in the first place.
It’s strange, therefore, that it can be so hard at times to be a friend to self, to care for yourself. Beliefs and established ways of being and doing can get in the way of being a friend to ourself.
Being a friend to ourselves means offering compassion and kindness as if we were our own best friend. It means avoiding self-criticism and self-attack. It means choosing to show ourselves kindness and love and making sure we build in self-care activities into our daily schedule. Self-care means an appreciation of one’s own worth or value. Those very times are when we might feel like we don’t deserve care and compassion. Our inner critic can be quick to say we are being extravagant or indulgent. However, when that voice surfaces, it’s the exact time when self-care is needed.
Self-Care: Attend to Your Own Mask First
COVID means it may be hard to remember the specifics of the last time you flew on an aeroplane. However, any flight always includes the safety briefing, when the flight attendant instructs you to “put your oxygen mask on first,” before helping others in the event of an emergency. It seems almost counter intuitive to look after yourself before helping children or other people. But if you run out of oxygen yourself, you can’t help anyone else with their oxygen mask. The same principle applies to so many situations in life. If we only ever care for others, and pay no attention to our self-care, we will burn out and be of no use to anyone.
If you aren’t sure if you are at high risk of burnout, then its good to take time to take stock of how things are for you at the moment. What stresses and strains might you be under – and what helps you cope? We can think of this as an audit. One that is likely to result in some change to your routines around self-care, as you may identify some areas where you’d benefit from taking action. Such an audit can be as simple as having a think through the sorts of self-care and also the stresses and pressures you face in the various domains of life at present. You may also be interested in more formal diagnostic and audit tools around burnout. There are various evidence-based measures, including the Maslach Burnout Inventory.
To return to our vehicle analogy, a regular self-care / burnout audit allows you to have a bit of an MOT, or a Service. A great way to spot and then respond to any minor issues before they escalate. For many people, a self-care audit every couple of months seems a helpful tool in preventing burnout. This can then lead to the development of a self-care plan that includes action points in each of the life domains that are significant to you.
So, prevention is better than cure when it comes to burnout. There is only one unique you, so it makes good sense that you do take looking after you seriously – which also includes having fun!
If you do feel that any of the issues raised in this blog have left you curious or unsettled, please do get in touch. I’d be happy to discuss how counselling can support you with any self-care or burnout concerns you may have.