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It is important to understand that burnout is a state of physical and mental exhaustion that comes from chronic and high levels of stress. At the moment, healthcare professionals (HCPs) are more vulnerable to experiencing symptoms of burnout due to the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the burden this is placing on healthcare services. Before we consider how to prevent burnout, it is important to recognise the symptoms so that you can identify when your stress levels are becoming problematic.
Symptoms of burnout include:
Since burnout is the result of chronic and high levels of stress, taking frequent breaks both on a macro and micro level can be helpful. Think about the reason why people space their exercise throughout the week rather than doing one huge workout per week – because recovery is important, and it is not sustainable to exercise for long periods of time like that! It is the same when it comes to our brain. Small breaks throughout the day can be helpful as well as having frequent and designated downtime each day.
In addition, there are anecdotal reports of more and more people not taking their holiday leave at the moment as there is “nowhere to go”, however taking a break from the chronic stress of work is still important to look after your mental wellbeing. Make the most of your “staycation”!
Perfectionism and setting very high expectations of oneself is the first step to burnout. Given that most people are (to some extent) struggling at the moment, it can be helpful to lower our expectations of ourselves.
Psychologist Kimberley Wilson recently put it like this - imagine you are carrying a backpack on a long walk and that backpack is really heavy. It is important to accommodate for that extra weight by taking more breaks and by giving yourself some recovery time. The weight of the bag does not get lighter; instead, you cut yourself some slack to manage it so that it does not stop you on your way.
This principle also applies to the current pandemic that we find ourselves within. We are all carrying a weight on our shoulders, and it is important to recognise that things are more difficult at the moment. Things are not what they used to be and holding ourselves to our standards of pre-Covid life is not helpful.
Adapting to this new way of life without burnout requires us to not push ourselves as hard as before and to not strive for the same high standards that we usually would when all of our coping resources were available to us. Focusing on being “good enough” rather than “perfect” at the moment is just fine.
People are really struggling with setting new routines and work boundaries at the moment. This is totally understandable. Previously, going into work meant there were clear and pre-defined start and end times. It gave us a break from home, we enjoyed set lunch breaks and overall, there was a feeling of structure to our day.
At the moment, most people are working in different environments. For those working from home, work hours are spilling over into home time making it hard to switch off. Not to mention the challenges associated with juggling work and home schooling. Others have been re-deployed and may be working in new and unfamiliar clinical environments.
It is easy to overlook the importance of structure and routine, but they are fundamental when it comes to looking after ourselves. Most of us are feeling less productive at the moment due to the mental strain associated with a global health pandemic. Whilst it may be tempting to work longer hours to compensate, this can be counterintuitive as it places additional stress on ourselves.
Instead, set your own work schedule and create clear boundaries. It may be helpful to communicate your plan to those around you such as family, friends and colleagues. Set a start and end time for your work day and allocate set time for breaks such as meals and exercise. Most importantly, make sure you factor in time for relaxation and the things that you enjoy.
One way of managing high stress levels is through sleeping well. Sleep is sometimes the first thing that we de-prioritise when we feel overwhelmed. You might find yourself thinking “I’ll stay up late to work on that” or “I’ll get up early to start”. Unfortunately, getting poor quality sleep or less sleep than you need increases the stress response in the body. If you do one thing only, prioritise getting into a good sleep routine.
As you might expect, other important lifestyle factors to consider include exercise and diet. HCPs may well have a good understanding of the importance of lifestyle, but sometimes it is easier said than done practicing what we preach! When we are busy and stressed, putting exercise or good nutrition on the backburner is common. But neglecting the things that keep our heads above water when we are not feeling great is a major trigger for burnout.
It is also important to remember that the brain is built from the same nutrients that our body is built from. We need to nourish our brain in order for it to respond appropriately. If you are not providing the brain with the right nutrition, it will not perform to the best of its abilities – and part of its job is managing stress.
Humans are not built to carry heavy emotional weight by themselves. From an evolutionary perspective, humans have always needed human connection to get by. One way to relieve yourself of the heavy burdens associated with a global health pandemic is to share that weight with others. Turn to someone in your life that you can trust, that you can be vulnerable with and open up to. If you are worried about your mental health or feeling that you may be experiencing burnout, consider seeking support from a mental health specialist or your GP.