Work-related burnout affects many of us. Here’s how to beat it

When Lisa Murray was 39, she felt like her world was falling apart. She was working as an operations manager at a job she says was wildly understaffed and underfunded. Consequently, Lisa was burning the candle at both ends, putting in extra-long days to stay on top of her workload.

But working harder didn't seem to be the answer. Instead, the more she slogged away, the worse she felt. At first, Lisa noticed her short-term memory failing. Then her body ached constantly and she became teary, often crumbling in a crying heap at her desk.

“There’s a cumulative effect of too much stress, so it needs to be prevented first and foremost.” Credit:Getty Images

"I was exhausted, cranky, and drinking a lot on the weekends so I wouldn't realise how bad I felt," she says.

Distraught, Lisa went to her doctor, who offered her a script for antidepressants. But Lisa didn't think she had depression. After some searching, she stumbled across a description of "burnout". As she read its associated symptoms, she realised this was the cause of her issues.

Lisa's experiences with burnout at work are typical, says psychologist Dr Marny Lishman, who explains that burnout is "much more than just feeling stressed". Instead, she says, it has a huge impact on the psychological and physical wellbeing of the sufferer.

Research confirms this, with a review published in 2017 finding that burnout leads to a plethora of negative physical, psychological and occupational effects. These included cardiovascular disease, pain, depressive symptoms and job dissatisfaction.

The World Health Organisation has now recognised work-related burnout as an occupational phenomenon. It defines this kind of burnout as "a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed"

WHO notes that there are three dimensions to the condition: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one's job (or feeling negative or cynical about work); and reduced professional efficacy. On reflection, Lisa can see she had all three of those in spades.

If you're teetering towards burnout, Lishman says there are ways to come back from the brink. "There's a cumulative effect of too much stress, so it needs to be prevented first and foremost, and managed."

She recommends pursuits such as exercise, socialising and spending more time in nature, and seeing a psychologist or health professional to equip you with the tools needed to manage your mental health.

If you're suffering from full-blown burnout, Lishman advises taking time away from your job. "That way, you can relax, rejuvenate and recharge, but also plan what you need to incorporate into your life to manage future stress."

That's what Lisa did. After a gruelling 18 months, she clawed her way out of burnout when she realised that job dissatisfaction was at the root of her issues. She discovered her "soul calling" was in a creative field and made the move to be self-employed in that area, which she details in her book Living Beyond Burnout.

Changing jobs after burnout is not unusual, says Lishman. Because reaching boiling point often brings people to a "total stop", she says they are then forced to take a step back and re-evaluate their lives. "In doing this 'recharge and reset' process, people often find out who they truly are, and that they may have been heading in a direction most of their life that wasn't innately the right one for them." When they're ready to step back into the workforce, people often then choose a job "that aligns more with their soul".

That doesn't mean you have to throw in the towel at work if your job doesn't nourish you. By learning to put boundaries in place in your current role, or doing more of the parts of it you enjoy, Lishman says you can boost satisfaction in your current job to help prevent burnout.

Channelling creative energy towards out-of-hours pursuits may also be an antidote to burnout. This might be via a new hobby, or endeavours such as volunteering. "Whatever elevates your consciousness and makes you feel alive," says Lishman.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale July 21.

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