Don’t let anxiety overshadow your life

BY Jayashantha Jayawardhana

Often, deadlines that won’t budge and heavy workloads overwhelm all managers. While it’s burdensome and puts you off, it’s not a major cause for concern. But relentless work stress and concomitant fatigue over time can push you into a debilitating state known as ‘burnout,’ which is a serious enough matter.

Burnout hurts your performance and wellbeing on and off the job. It also undermines your team’s performance and hampers organisational growth.

Executive coach Dr. Monique Valcour writes in the Harvard Business Review (HBR): “Hard data on the prevalence of burnout is elusive since it’s not yet a clinical term separate from stress. Some researchers say that as few as seven percent of professionals have been seriously impacted by burnout. But others have documented rates as high as 50 percent among medical residents and 85 percent among financial professionals.”

“A 2013 ComPsych survey of more than 5,100 North American workers found that 62 percent felt high levels of stress, loss of control and extreme fatigue,” she reveals.

Research has also linked burnout to many physical and mental health problems including coronary artery disease, hypertension, sleep disturbances, depression and anxiety, as well as alcohol abuse. Burnout has been shown to trigger feelings of futility and alienation, weakening the quality of relationships and diminishing long-term career prospects.

Pioneering research conducted by social psychologist Prof. Christina Maslach and several collaborators reveals that burnout is a syndrome consisting of three components, which arise in response to chronic stressors on the job. The three main symptoms of burnout are exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy.

Let’s examine each of them…

EXHAUSTION This is the most important and unmistakable sign of burnout. It involves profound physical, cognitive and emotional fatigue that undercuts people’s ability to work effectively or feel positive about what they’re doing.

This can result from the unrelenting demands of an ‘always-on’ 24/7 organisational culture, intense time pressure or simply having too much to do – especially where you have little control over your work, don’t enjoy it or haven’t the right skills to execute it.

CYNICISM Also known as ‘depersonalisation,’ cynicism represents an erosion of engagement and even trust. It’s essentially a way of distancing yourself psychologically. Instead of feeling invested in your assignments, projects, colleagues, customers and other collaborators, you feel detached, negative and even insensitive.

It can arise from work overload but it’s also likely to occur in the presence of high conflict, unfairness and a lack of participation in decision making. Constant cynicism is a clear sign that you have lost your emotional engagement with and pride in your work.

INEFFICACY This refers to the feelings of incompetence, and a lack of accomplishment and productivity. People experiencing this symptom of burnout feel their skills slipping and worry that they will fail in certain situations or tasks.

It often develops in tandem with exhaustion and cynicism, because people can’t perform at peak level when their metaphorical battery is too low and they’ve lost that connection to their work.

Now that the main symptoms of burnout are clear, let’s explore how we could beat it.

Begin with prioritising self-care. Don’t take on more work than you can handle simply to impress your superiors. Have a good night’s sleep, eat healthily, and exercise and connect socially. This will help you replenish your physical and emotional energies, and the capacity to focus.

Next, change your perspective. While rest, relaxation and replenishment can ease exhaustion, curb cynicism and enhance efficacy, these won’t completely address the root causes of burnout.

Ponder what’s fixed and what you can change. See what you can delegate to free up your time for more meaningful work and how you can insulate yourself from things that frustrate you. Check whether you need to upskill yourself to be more effective at work.

Cut your exposure to job stressors after identifying the triggers. This entails resetting the expectations of colleagues, clients and even family members, for what and how much you’re willing to take on, as well as the ground rules for collaboration – even if you encounter resistance.

Seek out meaningful social connections. The best antidote to burnout – especially when it’s engendered by cynicism and inefficacy – is seeking out rich and meaningful interpersonal interactions, and continual personal and professional development.

If even after putting in your best efforts you’re convinced that the current organisational setup won’t allow you to beat the burnout, it may be time to quit your current employer and start afresh.