Bridge to Burnout and Managing It

Most bridges are designed and built to sustain pressure to a certain capacity. But when under overload, it may have disastrous effects. Humans are similar but don’t come with a plaque describing capacity limitations. As a result, burnout can happen as many of us don’t set capacity limitations or understand the warning signs.

Burnout is an overused term which has minimized the seriousness of it. Many health-related challenges are due to burnout and by understanding what they are, we are in a better position to notice and reverse the effects.

Burnout happens in stages and each one stacks on top of another.  Our ‘bridge’ capacity is put at risk when it’s lost in endless “to-do’s”, resource limitations, COVID uncertainties, fear of the unknown and more. Eventually, our neurological bridge that connects our entire mental and physical body may collapse – it can only handle so much capacity. It’s like trying to suck up a maraschino cherry through a straw.

Stages of Burnout

There are 5-12 stages of burnout (12 according to – don’t stress out about the exact number. I adapted the terminology and kept the stages to five for the sake of simplicity. Also, I framed it as a personal checklist:

Stage 1: The Design
You are driven, like to control, worry, take on more work, and don’t always assert yourself. You tend to neglect your own personal needs and may lack the awareness of the long-term impact of your choices. Part of you knows the choices you’re making may not be the right ones.

Stage 2: The Build
Work is piling up and you are losing a sense of work-life balance. You often focus more on work demands rather than personal needs like self-care and family. Some days are great, others are a struggle to get through. Your blood pressure is increasing, you have the odd headache, and are more forgetful and fatigued.

Stage 3: The Pressure
You are increasingly anxious, worried and missing deadlines. Behaviours are starting to shift to ones that create disconnection with others.  You may even resort to mind-numbing techniques like consuming alcohol. You are starting to feel resentful, apathetic, exhausted and life’s problems seem to be increasing.

Stage 4: The Crack
The gap between who you were and who you are now is widening. You have disruptive sleeps, feel empty, your body aches in parts, muscle knots are regular, heart palpitations show up and you are irritable. This is true burnout. Your attitude shifts to pessimism, escaping and feeling alone and empty.

Stage 5: The Collapse
Your mental and physical side-effects are chronic. You are depressed, fatigued, in pain, and you feel lost. You are at a point of needed intervention as you can no longer cope. Burnout is now a habit and your character has changed.

What to do

The earlier you notice these stages, the better. For many of us, we may start researching our side effects when it’s too late – in stage 4 or 5. By that time, it’s best to seek the advice of a medical doctor or therapist as they may be better equipped to work with you on mental and physical solutioning.

Here are some practices that can help you reduce stress and burnout.

  1. Breathe: Breathing is a lost art and according to James Nestor, the Author of ‘Breath’, we have evolved to be terrible at breathing and the effects on our body and mind are tremendous. There are a variety of breathing techniques to choose from that help in retraining the mind and body to calm down and reduce stress.
  2. What’s Underneath?: We have an ability to choose a response and when it violates what you know is the right response, ask yourself, “What’s underneath that?” The root cause of a response could be a need to control, be liked, be perfect, to prove yourself or other underlying needs that are generally fed by the emotions of fear or sadness.
  3. Get Clarity: Don’t make assumptions about the needs and expectations of others. Set your judgements and perceptions aside (‘what you make things mean’) and identify the facts and reality of the situation.
  4. Relax: Stare at a flower, look at the blue sky, meditate, lie down and scan your internal body with your mind. Many of us are distracted and this is amplified through technology use and social media. Stop. Be with you and focus on something other than the monkey mind.
  5. Rewind: Consider that much of how you react under stress is automatic and based on the first seven years of your life. Think back about ways you thrived and survived through childhood. There are likely some old habitual patterns at play. Get support through coaching, self-reflection techniques or therapy.
  6. Speak Up: Focus on what you can change by addressing it. Stand up for you, ask colleagues for support or perhaps get some new ideas on how things could be done or other options available.
  7. Set and Stick to Boundaries: Draw lines in your sandbox so that you have the room you need to take care of you, important work and your family/social activities. Boundaries set you up for avoiding what sucked you into burnout in the first place.

Stress and pressures are a normal part of life. Without stress, there would be no progress; however, it is up to each of us to make sure we are here for the long haul by managing the dark side of stress – how well our bridge is designed.

Kwela’s Stress Management course provides additional tools and techniques to help us better manage our stress responses and take ownership of our reactions.

Glen Sollors, Partner