Petra * (41) never thought a doctor would diagnose her with something like burnout. She is a financial director at a company in Johannesburg, and in the past couple of months, she had to face several challenges at work. In addition, the economic crisis drastically influenced her work.
She attributed her chronic tiredness and mood-swings to work pressure, but she never realised that it could become something serious. It was only when she was admitted to hospital with heart palpitations, that doctors warned her: “You are busy burning out. Reduce your stress levels, or you could suffer a heart attack!”
“I had to drastically change my life and it was and it was touch-and-go whether or not I lost my job. “
“I learnt that I should rather just put in normal hours and deliver my best, rather than overwork myself and become useless like that,” she said.
Ronel du Toit from [the support group] Positive Attraction says that eight out of ten top management executives in South Africa suffer from severe stress, but seven out of eight [of them] deny it.
“It is a given, with the [current] economic situation, that companies reduce personnel. Employees increasingly feel pressure on them - be it financial or emotional - because they fear that they might lose their jobs”
Claire Newton, a psychologist from Durban, says that burnout is a symptom of physical and emotional exhaustion. “It usually happens when you work too much, or regularly experience frustration at work”.
Burnout plays a big role in low morale amongst employees, as well as a high level of absenteeism, increased alcohol and drug use, marital and family conflict and other problems.
Claire says that burnout amongst women is an interesting topic, because there is an argument that business women suffer a higher rate of burnout than their male counterparts. “They would, however, be less likely than men to admit it because of the fear that it will be seen as a weakness. Even female aerobic instructors experience burnout and this can lead to physical injury,” she says.
According to Claire, it is important that women, such as Petra, must admit that they can not be super-women, and they should not even try to be. “A burnt-out woman has no value. Not for herself, and not for the people around her,” she warns.
How to Recognise Burnout
Claire lists the following as symptoms of burnout:
- Your work performance diminishes. You are absent from work more often, have less enthusiasm for your work, use your sick-leave, and are less productive. You work more, but enjoy it less.
- An increase in working overtime, with no holiday leave taken. You feel you are indispensible to the company and find it difficult to say “no” if asked to work on your scheduled free days.
- You skip rest times and meals. You do not take lunch breaks or coffee breaks. A person needs these to build up stamina.
- You withdraw socially. You avoid colleagues, friends and family, and find it difficult to confide in others.
- You use self-medication. Your alcohol intake increases, you use painkillers and other pills or medication to improve the way you feel.
- Increased physical problems. You complain of tiredness, muscle pain, regular headaches and upset stomach. You get sick very easily, enjoy sex less, and have difficulty sleeping.
- Internal changes. You could experience emotional exhaustion, loss of self-respect and frustration. You feel as if you are trapped, and experience pessimism, paranoia and feelings of loneliness and guilt. You struggle with decision making.
Claire explains that burnout develops over five phases:
- 1) The “honeymoon” phase – In this phase the employee is generally satisfied with her work and tasks that she has to perform. She is enthusiastic about her work. As the phase develops, the tasks become less enjoyable and she loses energy.
- 2) The “fuel shortage” phase – In this phase, tiredness sets in and the employee reacts to it by taking pills or other substances to feel better. Insomnia is also a symptom of this phase.
- 3) The “chronic symptoms” phase – now she begins to feel that work is having a physical and psychological effect on her body. She is constantly tired and has a low resistance to illness. Psychological symptoms include feelings of anger and depression.
- 4) The ‘crisis phase” – the employee's sickness becomes so serious that she cannot pay attention to her work. Relationships at home are also affected as a result of her feelings of pessimism, self-doubt and / or an obsession with problems.
- 5) The “hit the wall” phase – by this stage, the physical and psychological problems are severe enough to cause life-threatening illnesses. The sufferer now has so many problems at work that her career is being threatened.
Prevention Is Better Than Cure
Claire says that there are several things you can do to prevent burnout.
“Ask yourself why you are working. Make a list of all the things (material and otherwise) that you get out of your work. Identify your motivations, values and the meaning of your work. Does it justify the amount of time you put into your work?”
Ask yourself what you really want to do. “List all the activities you enjoy, and arrange them in a sequence of importance [priority]. Also write down when last you did each of these activities.
”Make a circle diagram of your activities for yourself so that you can see how you are currently spending your time. Include all aspects of your life, such as work, shopping, exercise, family time, preparing food, assisting children with homework, etc. Make another circle diagram where you record how you would like to spend your time.Place this diagram where you can see it every day. Make it your goal to achieve it.
Start a support group where you can get together with colleagues and / or friends regularly. Start with a health programme which includes exercise, a healthy diet and exclusion of bad habits such smoking. Also start with an emotional health program which should include recreation, as well as time and stress management.
Claire says it helps to do something different or funny every day.
“Go and skate or blow bubbles with your children. Relax, smile and try not to take yourself too seriously.”
You do not need to burnout if you decide against it. Claire says that you are in charge of yourself and your feelings. “If you have difficulty exercising control, it might be necessary for you to consult a psychologist or a professional counsellor for advice.”
Tips Against Burnout
- Learn to do relaxation exercises. A psychologist would be able to assist you in this. Learn how to meditate.
- Learn skills to manage your time. Learn to be assertive. Ask for what you need and say “no” to those things you don’t want.
- It is important to learn how to breathe correctly. It has an instantaneous beneficial and relaxing effect.
- Learn to delegate, and ensure that you get a good night's rest.
- Monitor your symptoms and do something about them, before you reach the burnout phase.
According to Ronel, the founder of Positive Attraction, Nella Francom, developed a CD for today's employees. The ten-step programme teaches you to think more positively. The steps are: clean out all clutter in your workplace; learn how to give; count your blessings daily – even the ability of being able to get up every day is a blessing; be grateful for everything, even the small things; be aware of what you think and control it – otherwise it will control you; stop worrying about what is going to happen – or not going to happen - to you; believe that you will receive, and know that you have the right to ask; laugh more often; visualise the situation in which you would prefer to be; and trust yourself.
Test yourself according to the following questions. Answer Yes or No.
- Are you less productive at work?
- Have you lost some of your initiative at work?Have you lost interest in your work?Are you stressed more often than before?
- Do you feel tired and lack energy?
- Do you get headaches?
- Do you get stomach pains?
- Are you gaining or losing weight without your making any attempt to do so?
- Are you having difficulty sleeping?
- Are you short of breath at times?
- Do you experience frequent mood swings and / or depression?
- Do you get angry quickly?
- Do you get frustrated easily?
- Are you more suspicious than you have been before?
- Do you feel more helpless than before?
- Do you use mood altering substances (such as painkillers or alcohol)?
- Are you becoming increasingly set in your ways?
- Are you becoming more critical of your own, or other people's inabilities?
- Are you working more but feel as if you are getting less done?
- Have you lost your sense of humour?
Claire says that if you have answered yes to more than half these questions, then you are probably half-way to burnout. If you have answered Yes to more than 15 of the questions, you are already burning out, or may even have already burnt out. Pay immediate attention to the situation.
*Petra is a pseudonym
Claire Newton: 031 261 7466