I love work. The buzz of achieving goals, making new ones and pushing myself to fulfil this successful ideal that I have created. Like many of us, I am a perfectionist and a workaholic; an addictive, wonderful and often detrimental combination that if left unmanaged can result in prioritising work above health, a warped sense of achievable goals and personal limitation, negative bullying thoughts, and exhaustion. Allowed to persist, burnout is inevitable. Thankfully, I've been working really hard - especially in the last year - to notice when it's taking over and taking a break.
Little did I know that whilst preparing this article, I'd been pushing myself to the limit and it was starting to show. Financial pressures mean I'm working as much as I possibly can, whilst keeping the practice up and balancing my other non-musical commitments. I am a perfect representation of the spinning plates analogy. This fortnight however, I've been noticing things slipping through the cracks: anxiety dreams about missing deadlines or performance cock-ups leading to severe lack of sleep; feeling on edge all the time, terrified I've forgotten something; and possibly the most frustrating of all, my dyslexia popping up to say hello, tripping me up in my writing and leaving me struggling for the words in my speech, making me muddled and irritable.
After complaining about having no live arts for the past year, the idea of turning things down or complaining about workload seems ungrateful or like a wasted opportunity. But, when sick days equal loss of pay can any of us really afford to not put our health first?
It's important we starting taking the results of overworking seriously: stop glorifying crazy practice regimes and an uncontrollable workload; or feeling this overwhelming sense of guilt when putting our health first. I am no stranger to horrific burnouts - especially during my studies - however, their appearance made me feel like I'd failed instead of recognising it had nothing to do with failure but my body crying out to be looked after so the cycle continued. It's been a while since I've had a burnout; being completely honest with you, I'm a tiny bit cross I've gotten so close to it this time, but I'm trying to be compassionate. So, to help all of us gain some much needed prospective, I've invited a professional to drum some sense into us all. Dr Charlotte Maden, junior doctor and old friend has joined me this fortnight to shed some light on what burnout is, how to prevent it, and more importantly how to recognise when we need to just breathe and take a break!
So Charlotte, what exactly is burnout?
The term ‘burnout’ has been used a lot in the media recently, especially when relating to healthcare staff and their efforts in the Covid-19 pandemic. During my work as a junior doctor, I have seen first-hand the detrimental effects that burnout can have in colleagues who commit so much time and energy to helping patients.
‘Burnout’ was first used half a century ago by American psychologist Freudenberger for those in helping professions who were suffering severe persistent work-related stress. However, anyone in a stressful self-sacrificial position, whether that be in their career or personal life, can be affected by burnout.
Why do we get it?
Exhaustion is a major component of burnout. It can occur when people are worked or pushed beyond their limit of coping, are under time-pressures, or are experiencing inter-personal conflicts. This leads to feelings of being drained and depleted of emotional and physical reserve. When people are overworked, they have limited energy for important healthy activities such as self-care, exercise, and nutrition.
What are the signs?
In medicine there is no formal definition, but many agree that burnout often causes three main symptoms:
1. Exhaustion- feeling drained, depleted of energy and reserve
2. Detachment/cynicism- distancing oneself emotionally from the trigger e.g. workplace, feeling of numbness, being cynical about the workplace/colleagues
3. Reduced performance- difficulty concentrating, lacking creativity and enthusiasm.
How can we prevent feeling this way?
No one can avoid stress, and exhaustion itself is a normal reaction to stress. But burnout may represent a chronic unhealthy reaction. Left to persist, burnout can have negative effects on a person’s mental and physical wellbeing and affect work and relationships. An important step is to identify when you may be feeling these symptoms early on. Myself and my colleagues find talking through and ‘debriefing’ stressful situations at work and reflecting on our daily struggles hugely beneficial.
If we’re experiencing burnout, what can we do to recover?
There are no diagnostic questionnaires used in clinical practice as burnout can be difficult to distinguish from medical problems such as depression. So, if you think that you may be experiencing burnout it is important to speak to a qualified health professional. Self-care is hugely important. It may help to take a break from work and do something that you enjoy. I find creative outlets such as music and art really help distract me from work pressures. Make a commitment to set aside time every day to relax and unwind. Removing the trigger e.g. work, may be difficult, but talking to colleagues and people you trust about how to adapt the workplace and/or your commitments may help.
Thank you so much Charlotte for some much needed guidance. If you think you need extra help with the stress you're feeling here are some helpful charity links: Mind, AnxietyUK, the Stress Management Society and the NHS.
As for me? I have decided to take a few days off (until Monday). I'm still going to continue with the things in the diary I can't cancel, like teaching and rehearsals but in between, no work allowed. It's just walking, reading, Netflix and that all important chill! They call it a weekend for a reason!
Look after yourself!