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Workplace burnout: Recognising the signs

By ILX Team | 14 December 2020

Project professionals are notorious for remaining calm under pressure. They may work long hours, but they pride themselves on perfectionism. Generally speaking, it takes a lot for a project manager to become visibly stressed, making it even more challenging to notice when they are experiencing burnout. Here we take a look at how to spot the signs of burnout and mental exhaustion, and how to deal with it.

What is burnout at work?

A common misconception is that those suffering from burnout will hit a type of breaking point. This will come out as a ‘car crash’ moment or meltdown when the stress gets too much; but whilst you are coping with stress you are just fine. In fact, quite the opposite is true, and reaching a disastrous breaking point can be avoided by diagnosing burnout early.

How do I know if I’m suffering from burnout?

Burnout is essentially chronic stress. It simmers away in the background and it can go unrecognised as the sufferer battles to cover it up – whether to save face, or in order to trick themselves into thinking that nothing is wrong.

Just some telltale signs of burnout include:

Exhaustion and lack of motivation

Even when you want to do something, getting going can become challenging and you don’t have the enthusiasm you once had. In work terms you may find your performance declines despite working longer hours than ever.

Lack of self-care

One of the first things to slip for those experiencing burnout is their self-care. Looking after number one no longer seems important and this will show itself in various ways with different people – it may be that they no longer make any effort with their appearance, stop taking exercise, or partaking in hobbies they once enjoyed.

A pessimistic attitude

Stress can easily have a negative effect on our attitudes. Whilst we may paint on a smile to cover it up, that can only last so long before our negative thoughts rear their head. This can come out as snappiness towards others, deteriorating relationships with those around us, or simply as disengagement from everything.

How does burnout differ from mental exhaustion?

Burnout and mental exhaustion are in essence the same thing. Stress, negativity or obsessive thoughts can become all-consuming during burnout. For sufferers, despite all efforts to carry on as normal, these stresses are always taking place in the brain and this will inevitably result in mental exhaustion.

Mental exhaustion can show itself in physical ways. At work, you may find that whilst you are physically present, you are tuned out mentally. You may also notice you are constantly run down, lack energy and feel physically drained. It can lead to inability to concentrate, problem solve or make decisions. You will not be able to perform at work as you would with normal functioning.

How to recover from burnout

First up, remember that everyone is different. You may have less on your plate than a colleague who is coping fine, but that doesn’t mean that you should not, or cannot be stressed and burnt out. Likewise, the path for recovering from burnout is going to be different for everyone. Be mindful of that and find what works for you. Here’s some ideas for overcoming burnout:

Slow down

Easier said than done, we know. Project professionals are renowned for going a hundred miles an hour, prioritising productivity above all else. But slowing down could be the key to overcoming, or avoiding, burnout. Hit pause and reflect. Stop trying to be everything for everybody, and delegate wherever possible.

Open up

The old saying goes ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. Whilst this may not strictly be true, talking can help when you are suffering from burnout. Some may prefer to talk to a spouse, friend or family member, whilst others may prefer to open up to a stranger, a therapist or professional. Either way, opening up about how you’re feeling can be a great step on the path to recovery.

Talking at work can be a great way to instigate change too. Have a chat with a senior colleague or your HR team. Workplaces are becoming increasingly clued up about mental health matters and should be able to offer you support and make changes to your role.

Lifestyle changes

Some tweaks to your lifestyle could go a long way to recovering from burnout. Let’s start with sleep. Maintaining a regular sleep pattern can do wonders for our physical and mental health. Next, improving your diet to include foods with plenty of nutritional value can improve your mind health, as can monitoring your alcohol and caffeine intake.

Finally, exercise – we know this can-do wonders for our physical well-being, but it can do so much for our mental well-being too. Exercise releases endorphins which can reduce stress and lower cortisol levels. Don’t assume you need to start some major fitness regime either! Exercise can be as simple as building 20-30 minutes of movement into your everyday – we recommend a lunchtime walk.

Final thoughts

Though not exhaustive, our list of telltale signs above can help you to recognise when you are suffering from mental exhaustion. If you feel that you could be suffering from workplace burnout, open up to a trusted senior staff member or your HR department. That said, you know yourself best and should always seek professional advice from your GP or other medical professional if you feel you may need it. It may be that there are underlying problems such as depression, for which further treatment, support and help will be required.

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