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The science of burnout (and how to beat it)

As work invades all other time zones, here are warning signs to watch for, and ways to keep from fizzling out.

wellness Updated: Oct 30, 2020, 22:22 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times
(Shutterstock)

There is no commonly discussed definition of burnout, and so most people dealing with it don’t know that they are experiencing one.

Dr Rajesh Sagar, professor of psychiatry at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), defines it as a condition of “continuous stress which places overwhelming demands” on a person’s mental and physical resources.

It’s when the strain caused by the quantity and intensity of tasks assigned to the mind, begins to affect the quality and quantity of a person’s sleep, their ability to switch off and their ability to focus. It’s essentially the brain short-circuiting usually as a result of months of accumulated pressure from being constantly on.

Burnout has been an issue since the birth of the modern workplace, with its emphasis on to-do lists, scheduling and coordination rather than routine manual tasks. It’s become more talked-about and more common since the invention of email and the smartphone. Now, work-from-home is adding another layer of stress.

In addition to each task taking more time and requiring more coordination — phone calls, texts, emails, instead of just walking up to a team or person — with the economy hit hard and companies downsizing, employees are ending up overburdened too. The classic case of burnout, Dr Sagar says, occurs when one worker does the job of two.

“My days are without limit,” says Rimi (last name withheld on request), 42, a location manager with a CSR foundation in Kolkata. “There’s the actual work and the work-related Zoom calls, the team catch-up Zoom calls, endless emails and WhatsApp queries, counter queries, follow-ups.”

“No one acknowledges the fact that working from home means dealing with housework as well,” adds Disha (last name withheld on request), 40, a Delhi-based country commercial manager with an MNC. “There are days when I just fall into bed and am instantly asleep because I’m so tired, and there are days when I’m so keyed up and stressed that I can’t even manage that.”

Both Rimi and Disha spoke of feeling listless, numb, like automatons; their day shrinking into just two zones — exhausted sleep and exhausted work. “I sit in the same space and work; in the same space I also have my lunch and dinner. I can no longer walk up to the desk of a colleague and vent. That’s adding to it,” Disha says. “I’m so tired, I’ve started waking up just in time for my first call. And that sometimes means noon.”

One of the problems with burnout, Dr Sagar says, is that it isn’t taken seriously, and so it isn’t identified or alleviated. “Initially, the person is in denial or thinks they just need to learn how to cope,” he adds. “When the situation persists, there can be long-term effects ranging from irritability to lethargy, feelings of hopelessness or dejection. It can even lead to food dependencies and substance abuse, since initially these become props that energise, only to later become destructive crutches.”

The other thing about burnout, Dr Sagar says, is that you need your colleagues, your boss and yourself to work together on prevention or recovery. Here are five steps he suggests you could start by taking.

Stick to the plan: Because workflows are more erratic and tasks tend to take longer when working and coordinating from home, employees are trying to do more within the day, to create buffers. This means that even if the tasks for the day are done, they don’t log out. Instead, stick to the plan and achieve what you set out to achieve in the day. Enjoy the sense of achievement, and log out.

Create work-free zones: There should be physical spaces in your home where you never work; and times in the day when you do not check your email, laptop or phone. Keep your lunch and dinner hours work-free, if possible. If you can built in mid-day breaks, all the better. There’s nothing quite like a run, a walk or just an hour of leisure reading to refresh the mind.

Teach, don’t do: If you’re a quick worker with a lot on your plate, it’s tempting to take on tasks that have been or ought to be assigned to other people, to speed things along amid heightened pressure. Resist this urge, and delegate. Teach, when needed; but don’t do.

Ask for autonomy: Everyone doesn’t work the same way or get work done by sticking to the same timetable. See if you can rework your day to try and suit your current situation better.

Decompress: “Different techniques work better from person to person. Find what works for you, and make the time to do it — whether it’s talking to people you’re close to, going for a walk or doing yoga, and then make that time non-negotiable,” says Dr Sagar.

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