Burnout- What you need to know about burnout and boundaries

Burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress and a lack of boundaries in your personal or professional life. Any area of your life that demands a disproportionate amount of your time and energy can create burnout and affect your physical and mental health, your productivity, and your quality of life.

Key points​

  • You can experience burnout in your career, relationships, schooling, or your personal life.​

  • Burnout is a wake-up call that your life is out of alignment and you need to take action.​

  • Setting boundaries can help you recover from burnout, and prevent a relapse.​

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Burnout is the result of a prolonged imbalance in how you spend your time and energy, where one aspect of your life depletes how much energy you have to spend on the other areas of your life. While burnout can result from any area of life, it is most commonly experienced from work or having a particularly demanding relationship in your life, such as caring for a high-needs relative.

Types of burnout

Burnout can result from an over-investment of your time and energy resources in several major areas of life:

  • Work burnout: Prolonged stress and excessive work demands such as working long hours, lack of control over your work, having a high workload, and a lack of support from your colleagues or management can lead to physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. If you have burnout from work, you may experience decreased work satisfaction and reduced productivity at work and feel too stressed and exhausted to fully enjoy your personal life.
  • Relationship stress: Having a particularly demanding relationship in your life can cause burnout, whether the relationship is with a spouse or another demanding family member. For example, being in a romantic relationship with someone who has a severe mental illness can be exhausting, especially during and after experiencing a mental health crisis. Similarly, caring for a parent or child who has complex medical needs can be especially draining, physically and emotionally.
  • Parental exhaustion: Burnout can also occur when you feel burdened by excessive parental responsibilities, without sufficient support or opportunity for reprieve. Parental burnout is especially common in single-parent families and for parents caring for a special-needs child.
  • Educational meltdown: Diligent students can experience burnout from a demanding course load and high pressure, especially at times of peak pressure such as during exams, when a particularly important paper is due, or when facing a thesis deadline.
  • Personal life: Having multiple interests, hobbies, volunteering, and active social life can be very fulfilling. However, taking on too many personal commitments at once can lead to burnout instead of happiness. It is important to find a balance between your personal interests and taking care of your well-being so that you’re able to enjoy your recreational engagements without becoming worn out in the process.

Symptoms: recognize six signs of burnout

If you’re suffering from burnout, you might:

  1. Be physically and emotionally exhausted, feeling tired or lethargic frequently.
  2. Feel unmotivated and apathetic about your work or experience a decline in productivity.
  3. Find it difficult to take care of yourself by eating properly, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly.
  4. Procrastinating or taking longer than necessary to get things done.
  5. Feeling hopeless/ trapped in your circumstances.
  6. Suffering from headaches or stomach aches or other unexplained aches or pains.

Diagnosis – distinguish between depression and burnout 

Burnout can imitate depression in how it manifests (lack of energy, fatigue, reduced motivation, and lower productivity). However, burnout is not a medical condition in the same way that depression is.

Unlike depression, burnout is the result of prolonged or excessive stress that accumulates over time until you find yourself having difficulty functioning.

When your stressors drop, burnout tends to resolve. It is essential that you make the necessary changes and build coping skills to prevent a relapse. A trained mental health professional can evaluate what might be causing your symptoms.

Treatment for burnout

If you think you are experiencing burnout, it is important to slow down enough to get your life back in balance.

Reach out to friends for support, cut back on your responsibilities, learn healthy skills to manage your stress (such as deep breathing and meditation), and take time to prioritize taking better care of yourself. Make sure that you get enough sleep, eat healthy meals, get outdoors, and build regular exercise into your schedule.

Establishing boundaries can help you recover from burnout, and prevent a relapse

Quite simply, the antidote to burnout lies in doing the opposite of what caused your burnout to occur in the first place! Burnout happens when you over-invest your time and energy into one area of your life and don’t have appropriate boundaries to ensure that you are also taking care of your own needs. The best way to avoid burnout is to establish and maintain appropriate boundaries in your life.

For example:

  1. Have fixed times for your work, sleep, and exercise. Keep to your schedule as strictly as possible.
  2. Allocate specific times in your schedule for meals, recreation, hobbies, and anything else that is important to you.

If your work tends to overtake your life:

  1. Prioritize your most important tasks for the day and get those done first, for maximum productivity.
  2. While working, focus only on work. After completing your daily work hours, log off until the next day.
  3. If necessary, think about how you can work more efficiently, and which tasks can be delegated or possibly even crossed off the list entirely if they are not truly essential.

If you feel worn out from a relationship, consider:

  1. Establishing times when you are/are not prepared to be available to your loved one, such as after a specific time at night or while you are working or exercising.
  2. Have an honest and direct conversation with your loved one about how their demands on you affect you and what you would like to be different.
  3. If necessary, consider what resources are available to alleviate the burden on you. You might be able to organize a weekly care worker/babysitter if you are a full-time caregiver, order groceries online, or get a few ready-made meals that can lighten your load.

Burnout is a wake-up call that your life is out of alignment and that you have to change how you have been doing things. If you heed the wake-up call, burnout can be an opportunity to improve your life. You can take charge of your life and establish boundaries.

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