According to Psychology Today, the definition of burnout is a ‘state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress’. Burnout is often a word associated with work, but can be from any factor of a person’s life: athletic training, relationships, parenting, caretaking.
A 2020 survey conducted in the UK by YouGov for the charity Mental Health UK found one in five people felt unable to manage pressure and stress levels at work. Other research found that 88% of the UK workforce has experienced burnout since 2020.
Burnout is real.
In our world as (non-professional) athletes managing a career alongside the desire to train/race – while being present in the rest of life – being knowledgeable of the signs of burnout is never a bad skill to have in the toolbox.
Advice from Dr Rangan Chatterjee on Burnout
Dr Rangan Chatterjee recently dedicated an episode of his podcast Feel Better, Live More to this phenomenon and offered 7 signs to look out for that you might be on the path to burnout. It’s worth noting, as athletes, we can be very self aware of our bodies to know when something is wrong physically. However, we can be less aware of the less obvious stress of life and how that manifests itself in our behaviors. The combination of both is key to being our best athlete self and the best version of our human self.
Always one to offer a practical solution, Chatterjee also offered 10 steps to help nip burnout in the bud. They are powerful in their simplicity. Take note, and give yourself permission to prescribe yourself some anti-burnout solutions if you see the balance changing in the wrong direction.
7 Early Signs of Burnout
- Disconnection: You start to go inwards and don’t want to be with other people. According to the National Institute of Aging being lonely can be as harmful for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day
- Emotional exhaustion: Small things start to agitate and bother you and you become cynical about the world and the people around us. These are all signs of emotional exhaustion.
- Lack of creativity: For some people this can be a tell tale sign. Your work performance can start to go down. Solving problems and coming up with new ideas become much more challenging. This can be at work and also at home, the latter being not able to come up with solutions to To Do items at home.
- Inability to gain pleasure from everyday things: The things you used to enjoy, you now find mundane. For word lovers, the term anhedonia, is the ‘inability to feel pleasure’ in something. Remember that and be mindful if you see this in yourself or in others around you.
- Procrastination: Going over the same thing over and over again, but you don’t take action or make a decision.
- Self-care starts to slip: This could manifest in different ways. Food choices, motivation to cook, over- or under-eating. It could be lethargy about training, not wanting to get to bed early enough, or personal self-care.
- Physical exhaustion: According to Chatterjee, this is probably the most common sign of burnout. As athletes we are often physically exhausted after training, but hopefully we are aware of ourselves enough to know the difference between ‘good’ tired and ‘bad tired’. The latter being a time when you feel physically exhausted, but the mind is racing and cannot switch off over a consistent period of time. The term ‘tired and wired’ is a good way to remember this.
If you are aware about these signs to look out for in yourself, the knowledge does not go amiss in being observant of other people in your life: your family, friends and co-workers. Likewise, if someone stops reaching out, or becomes withdrawn, reach out to them. It could make all the difference.
10 Simple Practical Steps To Help Stave of Burnout
Doctor Advice: These are the steps that Dr Chatterjee has used with his own patients and himself. He notes, this is a list of ten to pick and choose from depending on what will work best for you at any given time.
- Awareness: Being aware is the first step to taking action in not getting to burnout in the first instance. With that in mind, write down the list above, set a recurring check in with yourself in your calendar, and be honest.
- Intentionally engage with another human being. This is a counter balance to the disconnection example above. Human connection is a tonic. Eliud Kipchoge never runs alone. He knows the value of a group and the connection of being with his team. Whether it’s athletic or just a coffee, make the time for others and put down the phone.
- Sleep: Prioritizing sleep is no surprise. Even going to bed 15 mins earlier can pay dividends. If you think your days are too busy to go to bed any earlier, clock your eyes on the time you spend on your phone per day, and see if you cannot find the time to scroll less and sleep more. Physical, mental and emotional health all benefit.
- A daily dose of something you enjoy: Regularly doing things you love helps negate stress. But not being able to experience pleasure in everyday things can be a precursor to burnout. Spending time on something you in joy can be as little as five minutes a day: playing a song you love, sipping a coffee without interruption, or your daily, non-negotiable run.
- Saying no: This is arguably a hard call for many of us. When you say ‘yes’ to a request, it also means you’re saying ‘no’ to something else in your life. For example, taking on a project at work that means working extra hours in the evenings or weekends means saying ‘no’ to your family and friends. Sometimes these projects are necessary, but other times they are not. Mastering the art of saying ‘no’ is a topic we’ll revisit, but for now, be mindful of what you take on. Learning to deliver a respectful ‘no’ might be one of the top skills to add to your toolbox.
- Schedule rest: This moves on from the previous recommendation of respectfully saying ‘no’. If you are prioritizing your time, make sure to use that time you get back in a way that counterbalances the path to burnout. Athletes need reset to repair the body. As humans we need rest to repair the mind. Getting to bed at a reasonable time on a regular basis can pay huge dividends. Setting an alarm to go to bed is a stark reminder to do just that!
- Exercise and movement: A easy one we know as athletes. Outside of training though, getting up from the desk every hour or so and moving can add value to the quality of the day and help recalibrate the mind.
- Food and nutrition: As mentioned above, when burnout is ruminating, the motivation to cook, plan, prepare good food can be challenging. If you sense this happening, take stock and focus on a few days of getting back on an even keel. Check the sugar intake and consciously make good choices to recalibrate.
- Define the end of your work day: With more remote work and the constant access to tech, this is a low-hanging fruit to implement. I think we can all acknowledge that the To Do list will never be completed in a professional setting. What we can control though, is defining what ‘done’ look for you. I am testing shutting my laptop down at a specific time each day for at least 4 of the 5 days of the week. It has taken a gargantuan effort. Spoiler alert: so far, it’s surprisingly not impacting my work output and I have less latent anxiety about my life balance.
- Know your core values: When you clearly are aware of what makes you tick, what drives you and what is important, the easier it is to lead your life in accordance with those values. Ultimately, this is your long-term outlook for what you want your life to be. The more you honor those values, the easier it is to leave behind things that do not serve you.