Life sciences professionals are burning out at an alarming rate in our fast-paced, overworked societies in the United States and around the globe. And with COVID-19, this is becoming more prevalent and amplified due to the demands of finding a treatment and/or vaccine to end this pandemic. With the ongoing pressures to find the latest treatments and to meet the demands of healthcare and government needs, people are feeling a constant demand to deliver. As a result, people are either burning out or leaving their professions altogether due to high stress and overwork.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout is a state of prolonged emotional, physical and mental exhaustion that is coupled with excessive and prolonged stress. There are five common signs of burnout:
1. Exhaustion due to lack of sleep. Our bodies need a proper amount of restful sleep to repair the damage we do to ourselves daily. Even if you live the best life of proper nutrition and activity, avoiding as many toxins as possible, you still do damage to your body. When you don’t get restful sleep, your body loses the opportunity to repair the damage. This accumulates over time and will make you fatigued and susceptible to burnout.
2. Lost motivation. When you are burned out, you lose motivation to do anything. Things that used to bring you joy and fulfillment no longer seem worthwhile, so you continue down the road of just working with no leisure activities.
3. Increased mistakes and poor memory. One of the signs of burnout is someone having a poor memory and increasingly making mistakes. Burned out individuals get frustrated when they can’t remember simple things, and because they’re so fatigued and scattered in their minds, the number of mistakes they make in their work increases.
4. Decision-making becomes a struggle. “What do you want for dinner?” is one of the most challenging questions we face every day. When you’re burned out, simple decisions like this seem like a matter of life or death.
5. Irritability increases. When I had my burnout journey a decade ago, I wasn’t a very nice person to be around. With the combined fatigue, increased mistakes, lack of motivation and feeling overwhelmed with work, I was very short-tempered with people, which isn’t my normal demeanor.
Burnout happens because of:
• Working long hours. Many individuals work extremely hard and long hours at work only to come home and continue working late into the night. This habit leads to fatigue and poor sleep patterns, which will build up stress and lead to eventual burnout.
• Staying constantly connected. Coupled with working long hours, we are constantly connected to work, social media and more through our smartphones. We receive so many notifications through our dozens of apps that we are spending hours and hours looking at screens, which causes both physical and mental issues over a long period of time.
• Lacking boundaries. We do not have strong boundaries around how we spend our time. We merge our work and personal lives too much and don’t have a proper amount of leisure and rest time.
Burnout doesn’t happen overnight; it builds up over time and impacts every facet of our lives. Recovery doesn’t happen overnight either, but there are some short-term steps to follow to bounce back from burnout:
• Get restful sleep. Cut down your screen time significantly at night. I recommend that one hour before bedtime, at a minimum, you stop using electronic devices (computers, TV, smartphones, etc.). Establish a nighttime routine, and I highly recommend you start journaling how your day went. Highlight the good things that happened and be thankful for the opportunity of life. With your restful sleep make sure your bed and pillow are comfortable. The room should be at a cool temperature, so you sleep better.
• Eat healthier. I’m not going to tell you to go with a 100% kale diet, but I recommend you use a food journal to document everything you eat, as well as document how you are feeling throughout your day. You may discover that you have some food intolerances or allergies to certain foods that impact your energy levels.
• Track your interruptions. Document your interruptions daily. Interruptions include phone calls, text messages, emails, people stopping by your desk or talking to you while you are working. You will be amazed at how often you are interrupted in your day. Also, turn off as many notifications on your phone as possible.
• Set boundaries on your time. If you do nothing else in life, you need to have firm boundaries around how you spend your time. Set a firm start and end to your workday, stop checking emails after hours and block off personal time on your calendar. Don’t fill up every minute of your day though, you need to schedule some “do nothing” time each day to help you relax and find clarity.
• Schedule a couple of things that bring you joy every week. Develop a list of things that bring you joy and fulfillment in your life. These could be as simple as sitting in your favorite coffee shop or bistro, going to the movies, spending time with friends, reading, etc. From the list you create, schedule 2-3 of these list items every week. Treat these appointments as if they were the most important meeting with your boss — the boss of your life is you.
For long-term burnout recovery, you need to determine why you burned out in the first place. Many of the items listed in this article are surface-level reasons, but often it is behaviors, past traumas, thought patterns and personalities that play a huge part in why we burn out. To deal with these issues, I recommend working with a therapist or counselor to find out the root causes that led to your burnout so you can address those behaviors and thought patterns.
Michael Levitt is chief burnout officer for Breakfast Leadership Network. Email Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.