Skip links

Burnout: Catching the Flame Before it Burns Out

This piece is part of our January Jumpstart Miniseries. Although a new year might not necessarily mean becoming a new you, it most definitely means new opportunities for you to do things to astound and impress yourself. All month long, we’ll be speaking with lauded and recognized women across industries about how you can activate the personal goals you might have been putting off for a while.


You wake up in the morning and before the day even gets started you’re already fatigued. Lately you’ve been having difficulty sleeping, frequent headaches, and no longer care about your responsibilities in home life or work. Each day at work, you feel trapped and disillusioned, and are rarely satisfied with your contributions. When the day ends, you feel helpless, unsure of how to disrupt this ongoing cycle. Does any of this align with you? If so, know that you are not alone and that the tumultuous times we live in have driven many of us to burnout. In the midst of a pandemic, recession, political woes, and the continued lack of protection for Black women it can be difficult to remain grounded and keep the flame ignited.

Burnout is defined as a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. I often liken burnout to that of a slow-burning flame. The idea is that the fire burns or develops slowly and gradually until the flame finally dies out. Similarly, burnout is not a sudden onset of symptoms. It builds overtime until it eventually becomes a chronic state of being. Burnout can be subtle and not easily identifiable until the symptoms worsen and reach the point that you feel you have nothing left to give. There are certain roles that can make burnout feel irreversible, such as being a caregiver, teacher, or working in service-driven professions to name a few. Typical discussions around burnout happen once we are already in it and are trying to find a way to pull ourselves out. But an important thing to note is that burnout is both preventable and reversible. Today we will explore not only how we can catch the flame before it burns out, but also how we rekindle the flame if it has already been extinguished. As we begin a new year, let’s hold each other accountable to identifying strategies that will support our well-being in 2023. 

What are the signs and symptoms of burnout?

Due to the gradual nature of burnout, the symptoms can often seem like normal responses to stress that we ignore and dismiss as trivial. When in reality, they are signs that the burnout process is beginning. Prevention is all about early recognition and intervention, so here are some common symptoms of physical, emotional, and behavioral burnout to look out for as we enter the new year. 

Physical 

  • Chronic fatigue and feelings of exhaustion
  • Lowered immunity
  • Recurring headaches, body aches, or stomachaches
  • Change in appetite and sleep patterns
  • High blood pressure

Emotional

  • Self-doubt
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of motivation
  • Detachment
  • Cynicism and negative perspectives
  • Disillusionment 
  • Decreased satisfaction and perceived sense of failure

Behavioral

  • Procrastination
  • Isolation
  • Increased irritability and taking out frustrations on others
  • Using alcohol and other drugs to cope

Risk factors that lead to burnout

So what gets us to the point of burnout? There are certain risk factors that contribute to the onset of these symptoms. As Black women, it is common to experience heightened levels of workplace stress due to our intersecting identities. It has also been a cultural norm in Black households to prioritize familial responsibility and serve in the role as caregiver to loved ones who may no longer be able to care for themselves. Below are some common risk factors that increase likelihood of burnout. Ask yourself, have you been experiencing…

  • Lack of social support?
  • Lack of recognition?
  • Feeling trapped/stuck?
  • Unclear job expectations?
  • Lack of control?
  • Unmanageable workload?
  • Poor work-life balance?
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamic?

If your answer to more than one of these risk factors is “yes” then you may want to start thinking about the measures you can take leading into the new year to mitigate the risks of burnout. Now, what about those that are already in an active state of burnout? Sometimes we miss the warning signs and have already reached a point where we feel like our flame has died out. We rekindle our flame by reconnecting to purpose, community, and considering change. According to Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter in Reversing Burnout, when burnout is counteracted with engagement, exhaustion is replaced with enthusiasm, bitterness with compassion, and anxiety with efficacy. It is important to acknowledge that we may not be able to remove some of the stressors that contribute to burnout immediately, but we can combat them by increasing our daily positive experiences and reimagining the future in a way that offers a sense of meaning and hope. 

Here are some tips on rekindling our flame:

  1. Realign with your values. Oftentimes, burnout is accompanied with feeling disconnected from our values and purpose. Be intentional about rediscovering your values and finding ways to express them in your daily life. You can do this by using an online values inventory, doing a values card sort, or writing a list that is easily accessible to you.
  2. Learn about the resources that are available to you. Burnout is not limited to the roles we occupy in the workplace. Sometimes it extends to familial relationships and beyond. Take some time to learn about resources in the community and at work that could help lighten the load that you are carrying.
  3. Reconnect with your sense of joy. When we get to the point where we are already burnt out, it can be hard to remember what joy felt like. It can be even harder to push ourselves to engage in activities that once brought us joy during a period when optimism is low. However, joy is not a feeling we simply experience without any level of control. It often takes repeated attempts at doing things we once loved to reignite a spark. 
  4. Give yourself something to look forward to. Too often burnout is reinforced by the notion that our circumstances are not only uninspiring, but that they will continue to be. Whether it’s booking a trip, making plans with friends a few months out, or planning a major self-care day, finding something in the future to be able to look forward to has powerful implications on our brain chemistry. 
  5. Find a therapist. Consider seeking treatment to address the array of symptoms that come with burnout. Sometimes having unbiased and professional guidance on ways to combat burnout can make all the difference.

Not burnt out, but worried you’re headed there? We’ve all heard the phrase “new year, new me” become a buzzword over the years, but if you have noticed any self-neglect this past year, now is the time to mitigate any carryover of bad habits and identify a new way of showing up that prioritizes self. First, let’s start with taking inventory of what did and did not work for you this year in relation to work. It sounds simple, but we often fail to reflect on the things that undermine our joy or bolster our peace. Once those are identified, we can start taking actionable steps to catch the flame before it burns out. 

Preventative steps to take along the way to avoid burnout:

  1.  Explore your options. Based on your inventory, realign your goals, skills, and passions and elevate any concerns or requests to your supervisor. If there seems to be a mismatch between what is being asked of you and what you have the capacity to do, don’t shy away from advocating for yourself and asking for what you need.
  2. Create realistic routines that invite in balance, breaks, and boundaries. Take work breaks aside from lunch to breathe, go for a walk, or connect with people from your support system. Practice saying “no” and setting realistic expectations for yourself to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
  3. Seek support from colleagues and loved ones. Developing deep and supportive connections can serve as a great buffer to burnout. Share what you are feeling with those who listen, understand, or may have a similar experience. 

Remember, that you have everything you need within you to avoid or reverse burnout. Just as burnout is a gradual process, caring for ourselves and attending to our needs takes time. We must be intentional about recognizing the signs early and acknowledging their impact. This is a reminder that you can overcome the stressors that currently exist or the ones that you anticipate carrying over to 2023. Take the rest of this year to look inward and practice the routines that keep your flame ignited.

References:

https://www.verywellmind.com/stress-and-burnout-symptoms-and-causes-3144516 

https://inside.ewu.edu/calelearning/psychological-skills/preventing-burnout/ 

https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/burnout-prevention-and-recovery.htm 

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642 

http://www.aspenstrong.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/reversing-workburnout.pdf