“It’s time to recognise burnout as a medical condition,” organisational psychologist, Adam Grant tweeted. “Burnout is emotional exhaustion—been so drained that you have nothing left to give at work. In other words, it’s job-related depression.”
Back in life BC (before COVID), feelings of burnout could be mitigated by varied forms of escapism, with travel, spa days and wellness retreats providing much-needed outlets for recalibration. Aside from the #relatable coping mechanisms such as wine, outdoor workouts, Instagram wormholes and Netflix marathons, COVID-19 has changed our relationship with how we actively and mindfully keep burnout at bay. In a season where ignoring emails from work as you vacation from home feels, well, almost naughty, it comes as no surprise that the 2019 Cigna 360 Well-Being Survey found Singaporeans to be among the most stressed at work globally. With the anxiety brought on by financial uncertainty coupled with dire world events, a hazy work-life balance and our inability to switch off (no thanks to technology), it’s no wonder that many feel stuck on repeat where the burnout track is concerned.
Tired of being tired
“Burnout is a state of chronic stress, often from the workplace,” explains Yan Yi Chee, founder of development coaching business, Matter Inc. “It is usually brought on by the pressure to be the best and proving yourself until it sometimes becomes a compulsion. You then work harder and devote everything to work, which leads to having no time for anything else.”
The internalised pressure to be ‘always on’ takes a physiological toll on our health and sleep. For those of us who associate productivity with self-worth, resting—even the psychological kind where we unplug and disconnect—can be hard to do.
The face of burnout
Existing on autopilot can have a domino effect on your physical health, mental well-being and relationships.
People with burnout often experience a “decrease in enthusiasm that spills over from work to home”, says clinical psychologist, Dr Annabelle Chow of Annabelle Psychology. “Over an extended period, it can significantly impact our performance at work or our relationships with others.”
Physical manifestations of burnout can include gastrointestinal discomfort, “frequent headaches, changes in sleep patterns or appetite, lethargy, chest pain or heart palpitations, and shortness of breath”, says Chow.
For Chee, burnout is insidious as “you begin to neglect your own needs and self-care”. Relationships with friends, family, even eating and sleeping start to take a backseat as they become less important to the “time and energy that could be spent on work”.
Spotting burnout: you always feel unrested
To Buddhist philosophers, a ‘monkey mind’ is one that can’t silence the mental chatter within. Instead of healing the body through rest, the mind replays a ‘greatest hits’ of its worries, fears, to-do lists and more when you should be getting restorative sleep. Other distractions that have you sleepless in Singapore: mindless scrolling or bingeing on K-dramas as a means to carve out some ‘me time’ in your day. Revenge bedtime procrastination or ‘報復性熬夜’ is what writer Daphne K Lee describes as “a phenomenon in which people who don’t have much control over their daytime life refuse to sleep early in order to regain some sense of freedom during late-night hours”.
Burnout is indeed “often worsened by a screen or phone addiction with the constant need to check emails”, says Pauline Howard of Bloom Coaching. “This tends to aggravate a profound state of tiredness, stress and vulnerability already fostered by the demands of life.”
You ride a rollercoaster of emotions every day
It’s easy to feel numb and depleted when you feel flat and mentally drained. Another key warning sign of burnout is when simple, everyday tasks become overwhelming. From washing your hair to deciding what to eat for lunch, decision fatigue—the sheer exhaustion felt from having worn your critical thinking cap for too long—contributes to the sensation of drowning.
You’re finding yourself short with people, curt with your words, and generally have little interest nor patience in emotionally investing in conversations and interactions as you once did.
“Early stages of burnout could include forgetfulness, general lack of interest, irritability, sadness, frustration,” says Chee. “A less common sign could even include envy of those who are happy.”
You’re withdrawing from life
The act of existing has become exhausting and conversations feel like hard work. “These sensations often go hand in hand with a loss of confidence and rising despair, feeling that the situation is draining and getting out of control,” says Howard.
Because victims of burnout try their best to keep up appearances, the signs may not always be obvious to colleagues or loved ones. “Although some people start withdrawing and become irritable, many maintain a ‘normal’ façade for fear of losing it completely in a society where positivity, success and control are highly valued.”
The little things no longer bring you joy
It’s ok to feel like you’re living out your calling and still feel burnt out. In a bid to shake off feelings of hopelessness or failure, many work harder and increase productivity only to feel nothing. Perhaps you’re falling ill often with stress weakening your immunity or are turning to harmful substances to distract yourself. Or, you feel that you can’t help but escape real life through fantasies or what psychologists call ‘maladaptive daydreaming’ to revive the spark within.
Chee, who spent two decades living the gruelling, adrenaline-fuelled advertising life before setting up Matter Inc in May 2020, says that healing begins by assessing why you’re still racing ahead despite running on fumes. “Are you putting more pressure on yourself than expected?” Is the pressure coming from external factors such as targets and deadlines from the job or corporate dynamics, or are you driving yourself too hard with unrealistically high expectations? “Differentiate and get clarity, then put in place some actions to reduce stress levels.”
For Chow, it’s about getting real with your capacity and threshold levels, and addressing what you can and can’t do with humility and honesty. “To avoid long-term exhaustion leading to burnout, we should also incorporate individual self-care needs into our daily routine. Engaging in relaxing activities such as meditation, a few minutes of exercise or prioritising your needs by delegating your workload or reorganising your sleep schedule are various healthy approaches to manage burnout.”
The silver lining is that chronic burnout doesn’t happen overnight but accumulates from a sustained build-up. This slow burn also makes course-correction possible—if only one is willing to take the time to pause, rethink priorities, redraw boundaries and advocate for the self within.
“Sometimes, what is required is an honest review of your current workload, reprioritising goals and managing your expectations,” says Chow. “Sustainable recovery is achievable with small, realistic changes made over a consistent period of time.”
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