No one ever plans to burn out. But the sad truth is that as we go through life working towards that CEO position, rushing from one meeting to another or one project to another, somewhere along the way, we become incapable of striking a good work-life balance. And that’s how, at the peak of our careers, we might end up losing it all – good health, job and family.
A burnout is a state of mental and physical exhaustion resulting from chronic pressure to perform at the workplace. This, combined with doubts about your competence at work, is bad stress.
According to experts, some level of stress is good for us. As our stress levels go up, the adrenaline levels in the body shoot up, the body gets into a state of preparedness and our performance improves.
"But when stress goes beyond what the body and mind can handle, it causes exertion and a breakdown. When the body is in this state almost every day, it will break down at some point," says Rachna K Singh, lifestyle expert, Artemis Hospital, Gurgaon.
Normally, the human body and mind are capable of handling even acute stress, says Dr Ajay Pal Singh, a cardiologist at Max Healthcare in Delhi. "But, if stress becomes continuous, it takes a toll," he adds.
The ‘burnout’ phenomenon is on the rise, not just in India, but globally. According to a recent study by one of Germany’s top health insurance companies, one in five workers in Europe’s top economy fell ill from stress at work.
The study also noted that in the last four years, sales of anti-depression drugs rose by more than 40 per cent in Germany. And according to the World Health Organisation, the average burnout victim takes 30.4 days off work, costing billions to the world economy.
Your personality and ability to cope with daily stress is primarily responsible for whether you suffer burnout or not. According to Dr Rachna K Singh, "That’s because everyone’s coping mechanism to handle stress and problems is different. Every person has a different threshold and once you cross that limit, your whole mechanism collapses," she adds.
Certain people are more susceptible to a burnout than others – such as ‘Type A’ personality people. "High achievers who are ambitious and characterised by time-urgency are also most prone to burning out," says Singh. "As are senior-level and mid-level managers, since as you advance up the ladder, your responsibilities go up too."
Adds Anjali Ahuja, managing director, Cosmos Consultancy Ltd, a human resources company, "Mid-level managers too have targets and though they are under less pressure than their seniors, they also have less control over things. For instance, they might not have a say in hiring the kind of people they want or be able to take key decisions."
The odds of having high stress are the greatest if workers are managers or professionals, if they think poor job performance on their part could negatively affect others, or if they work long or variable hours, according to the findings that appear in this month’s International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
People who are in jobs that involve creative pursuits are better off. "They have some control over what they are doing, unlike a marketing or sales professional whose targets depend on other people," says Anjali Ahuja.
Unfortunately, the prevalent work culture is conducive to continuous stress. "One is on the job 24/7," says Dr Ajay Pal Singh. Since technology ensures that people are connected to the office all the time, there is no time to relax. We are either at work or worrying about work. Workplaces have become very competitive, so no matter how well you work, there is always someone working harder, longer and better. But do remember, trying to perform and deliver results at all times comes with a heavy price tag.
Check your anxiety levels
Almost always feel irritated when you’re at the office?
Always feel you are achieving less than you should?
Almost always feel the pressure to succeed?
Feel there is more work than you can handle?
Feel exhausted, confused or irritable much of the time?
Frequently have disturbed sleep?
Notice a change in your appetite?
Often have aches and pains?
Have to drag yourself to the office on most days?
If you ticked even three as ‘yes,’ chances are that you are in trouble. But it’s not too late. Get on the right track now.
The three stages
When burnout starts to set in, you are likely to feel exhausted and confused all the time, especially at the office. If you notice that you are getting irritable and losing patience too fast, it’s time to worry.
In the next stage, the intensity of all the symptoms described above increases. You feel the pressure to perform all the time, but this stress doesn’t translate into work – you’re too stressed to achieve anything substantial. You might also suffer sleep disturbances. Even if you are on a break, you still think about work. Other common symptoms at this stage: nagging aches and pains and changes in appetite. Says Dr Rachna K Singh, “You will either start eating a lot or you may not feel hungry at all.”
When the mind and the body are unable to bear the constant pressure, they ‘snap.’ This is when a total breakdown happens. It manifests itself in different ways in different people. If you already have a heart problem, a burnout might precipitate matters and trigger a heart attack. Or you may become clinically depressed, or suffer from panic attacks.
Other common medical issues at this stage can include blood pressure-related problems and psychosomatic diseases. Patients need professional counselling and therapy. Sometimes, doctors also prescribe drugs.
Pressure increases with hierarchy
Are in the line of fire
Are accountable for the company’s overall performance
Cannot take proper breaks from work
Also under pressure to achieve targets but have less control over activating logistics
Are constantly proving themselves
Have to keep seniors and juniors happy
Job stress is limited to efficiently finishing tasks
At high risk
Sales and marketing professionals: They have high, sometimes unrealistic targets to achieve. Their promotions, increments, job security depend on this.
Consultants and other professionals whose jobs require a lot of travelling: They are always on the move. They rarely get time to spend with their families, cannot indulge in hobbies to de-stress.
Finance jobs: Constant number-crunching and lack of creative outlets cause problems.
Relax... learn to take it easy at the workplace
Quitting your job is of course the last option, but it’s hardly a practical one. Also, you cannot change people, so the only way out is to tackle the situation and meet it head-on. According to experts:
The effort to avoid a burnout has to be your own. Situations will not change on their own (your work responsibilities will not decrease, nor will your boss or colleagues suddenly turn into great human beings). So all you can do is change your own attitude towards stress. Do not let work rule your life and self-esteem.
Accept that you too can be wrong sometimes. Don’t take the missing of a deadline or target as a failure.
Take short breaks from office with your family or alone to rejuvenate yourself and remind yourself that there are other things as important as your career.
Try and control your anger. Rage precipitates burnout.
Try and develop an attitude of positive thinking. Let go of things rather than constantly brood about them.
Too many things to do and not enough time? If you are constantly struggling to effectively fit in too many things in your routine, then start prioritising tasks and keep a to-do list handy. That way you can keep clutter (tasks that are not as important) from entering your life, making you feel less pressured.
Learn to effectively delegate work, and forewarn yourself that you may not be able to meet all your targets. That way, you will not suffer stress when it happens.
Focus on your strengths and turn stressful situations into learning experiences.
One of the illusions people have is that putting in more hours will make them more productive. But doing that will only tire you out and make you sick, and when you are sick, everything becomes more difficult.
Finally, also look for better opportunities – a job that you might like, that will have less pressure, or a job that has better timings etc.
(Information courtesy Anjali Ahuja, MD, Cosmos Consultancy Pvt. Ltd. and Sheetal Maira Kakkar, who is writing a book on the corporate world)
- From HT Brunch, February 13
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