I has started bike riding in 2018 for some health and fitness, mostly because I needed to lose weight. Nothing serious, just some paths and walkways down around the lakes near home. I wasn't a lycra wearing road warrior that so many think of when they picture a cyclist.
Another reason I had started cycling was because I needed a hobby. Badly. I had toyed with a couple of hobbies previously and did not seem to find one that I really enjoyed. There was cycling of course. Then there was the drone phase. The computer games phase. And a couple of other phases in between. They were all fun in their own way but I did not realise until much later that they weren't the hobby I was looking for because of one simple thing: they were all solo activities (at least I was doing them solo).
Years of working too many hours, having a family and a home to maintain had seen my social circle leave me in the rear view mirror. I was either never available for outings, I was working, or I was otherwise too busy.
I didn't know it at the time but the reason I needed a hobby so badly was burnout. I knew I was tired, but I had no idea how tired I was.
All of my adult working life I had worked above and beyond the call. I had a work ethic that was instilled in me from a young age and not only did I do more hours that I should have, I also took on more responsibilities than I should have. I completely ignored the mental health consequences of doing so. While I had volunteered to do all of these things, that did not free me from the consequences of doing them. If anything it probably made it worse because I kept telling myself I had volunteered for it and that it was OK. Or sure, I was busy, but I wasn't too busy. Things crept in so slowly and subtly I didn't notice it until the stress of always working or always losing sleep becxause of work had taken its toll.
Burnout is often described as depression without the sadness. That is true for some sufferers and to some degree, but only because the symptoms are so similar. It's kind of like saying the flu is a cold without the fever. They have similar characteristics but they actualy have different causes. So too with depression and burnout: they are similar but different mental health disorders even though they have similar features. Someone with burnout can suffer depression and vice versa.
So what is burnout? The term burnout is wildly misused, with many claiming they are burnt out after a long or busy week or two. Burnout as a mental health issue is not just being tired, it is being exhausted. It is being exhausted all the time. It is a condition that takes a long time to build up, and a long time to be "cured", if it ever is. Real burnout is a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion caused by excessive or long term stress.
The general symptoms of burnout include:
* Lacking motivation in work, or feeling detached or unfulfilled by your work (work is the most common source of burnout)
* Experiencing lower productivity in work output
* Having little to no energy, even for small or menial tasks
* Feeling detached in relationships
* Getting sick more often than usual
* Having a pessimistic outlook and experiencing lower work satisfaction
* Taking time away from work or family commitments, especialy for non-essential or extra curricular activities such as parties or functions
* Small obstacles create a heightened or excessive response (a dropped food item might lead to you punch a wall for example)
* Inability to focus or concentrate
What are the Stages of Burnout?
Like many similar conditions, burnout doesn't just happen. You don't just wake up one day being burnt out. Like depression, anxiety, and other disorders, burnout builds up over time as a result of many factors though satress is the most notable. That is what makes these disorders so insidious: they are often on you before you realise it, and by then it is too late. One of the most common models of burnout is adapted from a book published in 1981 about work stress. It is from the University of Wisconsin and includes the following 5 stages:
1. Honeymoon: In the honeymoon phase, there is high job satisfaction, high work output, and high levels of energy. Many develop effective coping strategies for dealing with acute and chronic work stresses and if these work then it is possible to remain in the honeymoon phase indefinitely. Few people can actually maintain this for too long.
2. Balancing Act: After a period of time you become aware that you aren't working as effectively as you would like and that some days are better than others. You might notice yourself "snapping" at loved ones or work colleagues as things get on top of you. You may notice more job dissatisfaction, your productivity may be declining, or that you are still tired even after good rest (although your sleep may also be suffering), and you may increase "escape activities" where you will choose something that requires little or no physical or emotional exertion such as watching television over getting work done.
3. Chronic Symptoms: The experiences of stage 2 get worse and exhaustion becomes chronic. Prolonged stress causes the body to shut down the immune system so you may find yourself getting sick more often, and you may experience anger and depression.
4. Crisis: It is during this stage that you realise you have a problem and seek help though it may be too late for immediate relief. Physical symptoms increase in number and intensity, and work frustrations intensify and you will find yourself obsessing about them. They will often "creep" into your thinking even when you aren't thinking about them or when you are doing something unrelated. Pessimism (generally thinking in a negative way about many things) becomes a normal pattern. As a result of the total consumption of the burnout, you may develop a plan to escape - changing work, early retirement, or just quitting your job all seem to be more viable than staying.
5. Enmeshment: In this stage the symptoms are so pervasive (run throughout many aspects of life) you may get labeled as something different by those around you. Rather than being burnt out you will be called disagreeable, rude, angry, pessimistic, lazy, or other generally negative terms. Even after your bosses, colleagues, and family know they may continue to use these terms or say generally unhelpful things like "just try to be happy", "be thankful you have a job", or "snap out of it". By this stage it is not possible to "just" do any of these things.