How to avoid burnout.

It’s been intense! 

I don’t know about you, but these last few months have been super intense for me. On top of a pandemic, I’ve been renovating my house, homeschooling my sons, adapting my coaching business to the online sphere, recording my podcast – and writing a book about Imposter Syndrome in BAME achievers – with an October deadline! At times – particularly in the last few weeks of extreme pressure and ridiculously long hours drafting the book manuscript, I worried that I might be overwhelmed by the sheer mental and physical effort required to get it all done. Recognising the warning signs, I was hyper-aware that I might be heading for ‘burnout’. So what did I do? I had a quiet word with myself and did what I could to mitigate the effects of the highly stressful circumstances, thankfully averting a crisis.   

What is burnout?

But what actually is ‘burnout’? The term is bandied around a lot when it comes to balancing challenging work and home circumstances, but what does it really mean? Is it the same as depression, exhaustion, stress, a nervous breakdown or a combination of those things? And how do you know if you are heading towards it?

The term was originally coined in the 70’s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in relation to people suffering from acute stress and intense dedication in the caring professions because of self-sacrifice causing extreme exhaustion, numbness and an inability to cope. These days psychologists have realised that it’s not only in the caring professions that people can arrive at this feeling of crisis and physical and emotional overwhelm. 

This is the official definition of burnout from the WHO’s  International Classification of Diseases:

“An [occupational] syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, 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.”

Burnout in the legal profession

As a lawyer working in a high-pressure, high-stakes environment with long hours and tight deadlines, you’d be right in thinking that burnout is a very real risk in your particular profession. In England and Wales the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division’s resilience and wellbeing survey report in 2019 found that 93% of respondents reported feeling stressed by their job in the preceding month and almost 25% of those people said they felt severely or extremely stressed. (You can find more statistics about the risk of lawyer burnout in this article) If you add family commitments and a global pandemic into the equation, the burnout ante is very definitely upped! Now, more than ever, it’s important that you recognise the warning signs of burnout – and implement  strategies to ensure that you don’t reach that point of no return.

The warning signs of burnout

So – how do you know if you’re heading for burnout? As with many things, the symptoms of stress and burnout are on a spectrum. It is not unusual to feel stressed and fatigued if you’re undertaking a challenging project with a deadline for example, and a certain amount of stress and adrenalin can do wonders for focusing the mind on the task at hand. (I can certainly testify to this with my book!). What you need to watch out for are the signs that these naturally useful feelings of stress and concentration are ramping up to harmful or unmanageable levels.
An extensive description of what to look out for can be found here but here is a summary:
Exhaustion – if you are starting to experience unusual levels of physical and mental fatigue
Loss of concentration – if your focus is slipping or you are experiencing forgetfulness
Anxiety – if your feelings of adrenalin are turning to feelings of tension, worry or dread
Physical symptoms – if you are experiencing physical feelings like increased heart rate, headaches, faintness or insomnia – or your immune system is weakened and you are starting to suffer from colds or infections.
Anger – if you are finding yourself to be short-tempered, irritable or prone to emotional outbursts
Detachment – if you are starting to feel detached or disconnected from your job, your environment or other people
Loss of enjoyment – if you are losing the feelings of pleasure from your job or your life in general
Loss of productivity – if your performance or productivity is suffering despite your increased effort.

Take action

‘Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you” – Anne Lamott

The most important thing you can do to avoid reaching a crisis point is to recognise the risks of burnout before they happen. If you know you have an exceptionally stressful project and a tight deadline approaching, take steps to mitigate the risks at the same time. Perhaps you know that you are going to have to work super long hours for several weeks and will have a reduced amount of proper sleep, like I did when writing my book, for example. Rather than just getting on with it and suffering the consequences of exhaustion, introduce small pockets of self-care:
Take regular breaks. Release the intense pressure by walking around the block for 10 minutes, or even lie down and shut your eyes if you can. You may be missing hours of proper sleep, but taking a few power naps can go at least some way to replenishing your energy levels.
Hydrate and nourish.
It’s easy to forget to eat and drink when you’re super focused and functioning on adrenalin, but remind yourself to drink water regularly and make yourself have some nutritious snacks (nuts, bananas, oatcakes etc).
Exercise. You may feel that there’s no time for exercise when you’re under pressure, but for me it’s the absolute key to reducing stress, increasing my energy and enabling me to work to the best of my ability. Fit in whatever you can. A 30 minute HIIT session, a brisk walk, dumbbells under your desk or running up and down the stairs.
Practise relaxation techniques. As I mentioned earlier, a certain amount of stress and adrenalin is needed to complete challenging tasks – they keep you going and provide razor sharp focus. But you need to keep this stress at a manageable level. Learn to practise physical relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation. These practices need only take 10 minutes of your time but can be hugely helpful in keeping you calm and positive.
Write things down. A big part of overwhelm is the feeling that your brain just can’t take any more – that it’s full and your emotions have reached tipping point. Get everything out of your head and onto paper (or screen). Put everything you need to do onto a calendar so that your brain can forget about them. Write down what you are feeling – it gives you more distance, objectivity and perspective. (Have a look at my blog on keeping a journal here.)
One step at a time. Don’t focus on the enormity of the challenge ahead, or the outcome. Concentrate on the present and the one next thing. Manage your mind – have one thought at a time and don’t let your thoughts spiral or get distorted.

These are small steps you can take when you know you are facing a challenging situation or a particularly stressful period. See it as a crisis management strategy. Obviously you can’t function efficiently on no sleep or under acute stress for an extended period of time, but if you know you absolutely have to do it for a finite period – this is how you keep your head above water, avoid burnout, and survive to tell the tale! If you’d like more tips on managing stress and avoiding burnout, tune into this week’s podcast. And contact me for information on my Having it All Coaching Programme.