The prevalence of burnout has reached alarming levels today.
This is true for all of us, but even more so for our fellow human beings who dedicate their lives to caring for others.
Therapists, addiction professionals, doctors, nurses, social workers, and first responders appear to be paying a high cost for their commitment to helping others in their healing journeys.
We are all aware of the problem. The lifetime occurrence of compassion fatigue and burnout reaches a staggering 85% in helping professionals, creating a workforce crisis, but also impacting their well-being and the health outcomes for those whom they care for.
My examination of my personal experience of burnout and the long journey of recovery has revealed some mistakes I made, which contributed to my burnout.
I am hoping to inspire you to assess your current situation and be more proactive in safeguarding your well-being and happiness, as well as your job performance and satisfaction, from compassion fatigue and burnout.
My burnout mistakes
1. I perceived the symptoms of burnout as weakness so I decided to “fix the problem” by keeping quiet about it and working harder.
If you are a driven person with high expectations of self, maybe you too perceive exhaustion, stress, irritability, or even anxiety, as simply the price one has to pay to be successful.
Perhaps you even view these cumbersome symptoms as signs of weakness, so you attempt to hide them under the rug and work harder to make them go away.
You work late, give up time with your loved ones, skip a meal, or sacrifice your gym ritual in order to “fix the problem.”
I urge you to rethink this approach!
Do you recognize any of the symptoms below in yourself?
Burnout Signs & Symptoms—Gradual onset and slower recovery.
Physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. (Signs: forgetfulness, insomnia, frequent illness, irritability & anger, anxiety & depression).
Cynicism and detachment. (Signs: Negative outlook, isolation, disengagement, loss of employment).
Feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. (Signs: Hopelessness, increased irritability, diminished productivity, and poor work performance).
Compassion Fatigue Signs & Symptoms—Rapid onset but faster recovery
All of the burnout symptoms above, as well as the following:
Nervous system arousal resulting in anxiety, sleep disturbances, and heightened sense of fear.
Overall increased emotional intensity.
Decreased cognitive ability and impaired judgment.
Loss of hope, meaning, and sense of self-worth.
Isolation, depression, PTSD.
Depersonalization (The feeling that you are observing yourself from outside your body, or you have the sense that things around you are not real, or both).
These signs and symptoms are the ultimate notification that you have exceeded your capacity to meet the demands of life without harming yourself, which is what burnout is.
Compassion fatigue is a type of burnout, which has a more rapid onset of action, characterized by secondary traumatic stress when caring for individuals in distress. (Charles Figley, 1992).
Although it is normal to sometimes feel out of sorts—especially after giving your all to a big project—no title, salary, or career advancement is worth jeopardizing the well-being of your body, mind, and spirit.
The good news is that we can prevent and overcome burnout and compassion fatigue as long as we recognize them promptly and do something about it.
I know that I did not recognize these symptoms for what they were until I was forced to as a result of a major health crisis.
If you are concerned about your level of burnout or compassion fatigue, you can assess where you are by using Dr. Beth Hudnall Stamm’s Professional Quality of Life Screening Tool, which you can access here: www.proqol.org.
Here are some simple things you can consider doing today if you identify with any of the signs and symptoms of burnout.
—Recognize that these symptoms are not normal and speak up about them. Early recognition and seeking help are the first and most critical steps in preventing the development of burnout.
—Take a purposeful break. Getting off the hamster wheel for a moment and doing something that helps you relax will give you the opportunity to reset and get back to a balanced state from which you can make wise decisions.
—Resist the urge to isolate and work harder. As much as we may perceive exhaustion as a sign of weakness, the high prevalence of burnout in our world clearly indicates that you are not alone.
—After you re-charge your batteries, re-prioritize your life to provide opportunity for ample self-care in between sprints of intense work. Uncover and challenge any unconscious, limiting beliefs that place a negative connotation on self-care, like believing self-care is self-indulgent. Let the robust research remind you that the most critical predictor of your clients’ outcomes hinges on how well you can care for yourself first.
—Create an ongoing inventory of all the activities that help you relax and make sure you dedicate time to do some of them every day. As much as you think working late will help you catch up, a thirty-minute walk in nature will boost your productivity and enhance your mental clarity a lot more than working late.
2. I relied on organizational change for relief of my symptoms, overlooking my personal power to prevent burnout.
The American Institute of Stress reports that job pressure is the #1 cause of stress in the United States.
Without a doubt, there are many steps organizations can take to protect their employees from burnout. Decreasing work load, increasing support, cultivating a positive culture where employees feel valued and cared for, and increasing environmental wellness are all great initiatives.
However, nobody but ourselves can safeguard and maintain the necessary state of balance we need to function properly.
In fact, one of the most effective recovery programs for compassion fatigue substantiates the critical importance of self-directed interventions toward rebuilding professional and personal well-being. (Accelerated Recovery Program for Compassion Fatigue.Gentry, Baranowsky, and Dunning, 1997).
From the standpoint of neurobiology, the stress-related negative effects we experience are a result of our perception of our workplace circumstances as threats.
This does not negate the impact of unreasonable workloads or poor leadership skills that use harsh criticism or motivating by fear as a way to improve work performance.
However, only we can control how we respond to stressors. By associating work demands to perceived negative outcomes and seeing them as threats, our nervous system shifts to the “fight or flight” stress response. When we are in that state, we lose access to our optimal functioning, such as reasoning, decision-making, wisdom, judgment, self-control, and so forth.
How do we re-gain access to that optimal functioning? We can become scientists in our own lives by training our minds to shift our perspective and stop viewing work and life situations as threats. This action can intercept the unnecessary activation of our stress response. Instead we can access the part of our nervous system where we grow, repair, restore, and access invaluable higher-functioning skills and strengths. (Parasympathetic branch, known as our relaxation response.)
Our mind is an effective portal to regulate the energy and information flow that will determine which part of our nervous system we are tackling life from. (Dan Siegel, Mindsight, 2010).
Here are some practical ways we can cultivate our ability to quiet the over-activation of our stress response and mitigate the development of burnout.
- Practice mindfulness. Increasing our ability to direct the focus of our attention from imaginary threats to the reality of the present moment has shown incredible benefits in reduction of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization in as little as six weeks. If you are not sure how to begin a mindfulness practice, you can read my last article by clicking on this link: https://myndzen.com/the-solution/the-positive-perspective/the-magic-of-mindfulness/ and even try out a guided practice I recorded by clicking on this link: https://youtu.be/zAavQ4aSzko
- Cultivate your emotional intelligence (EQ) by working with difficult emotions. EQ has been researched extensively and has been correlated with robust, positive outcomes in all areas of life. Asking yourself powerful questions to assess the nature and validity of your emotions redirects your energy back to your thinking brain. For example, you can simply ask yourself, “What am I afraid will happen? What is the feedback my fear is trying to give me?”
- Take back control. One of the predisposing factors of burnout is the perceived loss of control. When we depend on outside factors to become healthier and happier at work, we give away the control we have over the situation.
It is our responsibility to cultivate the skills we need to ensure our well-being, our performance, and the quality of life we all deserve. Not to mention that by taking ownership, we take back control of feeling more content and calm and no longer generate the negative symptoms of burnout.
3. I did not realize the long-term recovery time and consequences of burnout.
Once upon a time, I was considered a force to be reckoned with. For the majority of my life I was “untouchable.” I was an athlete with incredible physical strength. I had a sharp intellect that could solve any problem. And I was a ferocious leader and top performer with a proven track record of success. I could literally solve any problem and exceed every goal I set my mind to, even synthesizing cancer drugs that surpassed the efficacy of existing treatments at the time.
Burnout replaced all those traits with brain fog, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, panic attacks, fainting spells, self-doubt, and a painful spinal condition.
From my usual driven and high-achiever stance, I thought I could conquer burnout all on my own.
I did not realize the long-term consequences of operating at such high levels of stress or how long the journey of recovery from burnout is.
Research shows that chronic stress actually causes structural changes in our brain in non-favorable ways. Our invaluable pre-frontal cortex, which is involved in motivation, problem- solving, reasoning skills, and mediation of rewards shrinks significantly under prolonged exposure to chronic stress. The hippocampus, which is involved with memory and learning, has been shown to reduce in size as well. And our amygdala, the alarm that goes off in the presence of a threat, actually increasesin size, which then makes us more susceptible to recognizing events as threatening.
Furthermore, the long-term effect of the over-exposure to neural, endocrine, and immune system stress mediators associated with our stress response can cause organ system damage leading to disease.
For example, when facing a threat, our blood pressure and heart rate rise and insulin and blood sugar increase in our blood stream in order to provide us with the necessary energy to address the threat. In the case of acute stress, these changes are short-term, adaptive actions that are protective. (McEwen & Wingfield, 2003).
However, chronic stress can result in our body having to make too many changes to be able to return to normal levels so that abnormal levels of blood glucose and blood pressure continue. The amount of this effort to return to normal levels is referred to as allostatic load and this effort can lead to disease. (Allostatic load, McEwen 1993).
For example, when the allostatic load becomes too high and our body is unable to shut off the increased blood glucose level this can lead to the development of Type 2 diabetes.
High allostatic load has also been linked to cognitive, skeletal, endocrine, immune, and cardiovascular disease.
I am the poster child of the long-term organ damage that can occur as a result of the great amount of work my body had to perform to reinstate the equilibrium of high functioning. There are several studies exploring the mechanisms of how stress may affect the physiological processes involved in musculoskeletal disorders, such as the one I was diagnosed with.
But as I continue my work to reinstate not only my physical health, but also my self-concept, I came across a profound epiphany.
The debilitating effects of burnout in my life became an incredible catalyst to restructuring my self-concept and identifying and cultivating undiscovered resources, skills, and meaning that have the potential to result in unfathomable growth, transformation, and improvement of the quality of my life.
Dr. Joyce Mikal-Flynn’s trauma research underscored concepts of stress-resilience and post-traumatic growth, resulting in a revolutionary framework to guide one in recovery from traumas, challenges and personal life crises.
Her extensive research, led to the development of Metahabilitation, a new structure and clinical pathway of rehabilitation that supports and guides survivors to move beyond a simple restorative state to a heightened existence, not despite our crisis but as a direct result of our crisis (Mikal-Flynn, 2012).
You can learn more about metahabilitation and the research of Dr. Mikal-Flynn by visiting www.metahab.com
My personal review of Dr. Mikal Flynn’s work and research helped me choose a different way of dealing with my crisis based on the characteristics of metahabilitated survivors.
- I embrace personal control – cultivating self-compassion and refusing to see myself as a victim of my circumstances. Instead I choose to practice self-compassion daily, extending kindness to myself as I would to my best friend.
- I continually practice and work toward cultivating and maintaining an optimistic outlook, refusing to live in anger and despair, instead focus on creating a new life plan armed with the insights I have uncovered about myself.
- I practice gratitude daily, including the recognition of my burnout adventure as a catalyst for positive growth.
- I have chosen to live my life driven by a new mission: Serving others and giving back by transforming my experience and science into guideposts for positive growth.
- Burnout can wreak havoc in our lives, the way we view the world and how our life unfolds from it. However, it can also be an incredible opportunity for transformation, growth and unimaginable meaning and quality of life. If only we see it that way!
Burnout and Compassion Fatigue are significant problems, affecting up to 85% of care-giving professionals.
Central to this problem is the propensity to suffer silently, hoping external circumstances will change to relieve the cumbersome symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout.
No matter how great your workplace is, chances are it will demand more and more of you the more you give.
However, by recognizing the signs and symptoms early and taking an active stance against the inevitable health consequences of burnout, we can prevent and overcome these devastating coping mechanisms.
There are several practical ways we can conquer the insidious impact of burnout in our lives.
If you want to learn more skills that can help you build resilience and become burnout resistant, I am here for you.
You can book a free 15-minute consultation, by emailing me at email@example.com, or calling me at 916-212-3042. You can also join the Myndzen community by clicking on this link http://bit.ly/JoinMyndZen to be notified of new resources and courses that will help you take your power back from burnout.
However you choose to proceed, never forget this one truth: There is only one you in this universe. Don’t let burnout and compassion fatigue overshadow your true potential!