No matter what profession you are in, the concept of burnout is all too familiar to working women. As working moms we have an added layer of challenges, expectations, judgments and time constraints that can take the feeling of stress to the next level. Many women hit the proverbial wall and surrender by announcing that burnout has beaten them; they just can’t do it all.
We have been taught to believe that burnout is caused by working too many hours, having too much to do or just working too hard. But we’ve also gotten the mixed message that hard work, loyalty and paying your dues are expected.
There are women’s initiatives that thankfully fight for equal pay for equal work and women deserve to win that battle. But what steps can we personally take to avoid waking up one day and realizing we’ve been slowly roasting on the fire pit of career and family expectations?
This week I’m going to discuss the signs of burnout and how to beat it at its own game.
Catching burnout before it blazes
An article by Psychology Today, describes burnout as a “chronic state of stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment as well as feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment”. Do you see yourself or others in this definition?
The good news is that we don’t just wake up one morning with burnout. There are signs and symptoms that can give us a nudge to do something before it becomes a bigger issue.
These are some signs or symptoms to pay attention to:
- Beginning to feel a lack of energy
- Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Lack of focus or forgetfulness
- Prone to catching whatever cold is going around the office
- Feeling on edge
- Feeling hopelessness
- More tense and irritable than usual
- Loss of enjoyment
- Noticing a good deal of negative self-talk
- Isolating yourself
- Not able to be as productive as usual
As working moms we may normalize a lot of these signs and symptoms. We can excuse them as just the way it has to be if we want to balance it all. But what if these signs and symptoms are an indication to pay attention?
When we aren’t using the decision making part of our brains to plan and instead are constantly reacting and putting out fires, our brain will get used to declaring everything an emergency. It becomes high on the cortisol released under stress. Cortisol is like nature’s alarm system. When your body is on high alert, cortisol can shut down functions that get in its way such as your digestive system, reproductive system and your immune system.
If you are under constant stress and the alarm button stays on, cortisol can lead to anxiety, depression, headaches, heart disease and much more. The state of too much stress and too much cortisol is when your body will begin shutting down its functions and burnout will set in.
We may even believe that by working incredibly hard now, that in some future moment life will be much easier to enjoy. We’ve become accustomed to using the feeling of fear to “inspire” action as in:
- If I don’t work 14 hour days now, then how will my kids go to college?
- If I don’t get all this laundry folded right away, then I will look like I’m lazy.
- If I can just get a few hours of sleep a night, then I can be the first into the office and the last to leave.
- If I don’t say yes to joining that school committee, then I will look like a bad mom.
- If I skip the dance recital, then I can get into the office and get a jump start on next week’s projects
When we try to outrun negative emotions like fear or anxiety by trying to work harder, that’s when burnout begins its slow blaze. Thankfully there are ways to extinguish it before it does any permanent damage.
The burnout extinguisher
Learning how to managing our minds is how we can beat burnout. By choosing a better feeling that will lead to more balanced action, we can live intentionally rather than reactionary.
In the Manage Your Mind Model, burnout is a feeling. It’s a feeling of being depleted; not having anything left to give. The reason that we feel burnout is because we aren’t managing our minds or our energy (for help with the Manage Your Mind Model get your free copy here of “5 Simple Steps To Reduce Overwhelm Today”).
The feeling of overwhelm can be the first place to start. Overwhelm is often an early warning sign of future burnout if left unchecked. The feeling of overwhelm is usually due to confusion about what to do, procrastination and an unclear plan. Since our feelings create our actions or inactions, the feeling of overwhelm will often create a state of mind-spinning inaction. Without a clear plan, we spin in confusion or indecision and never seem to get out of our own way.
The solution is to start with the end in mind; to create a plan starting with the result and working backwards. The energy we create by having a clear plan of where we want to end up is what fuels us rather than depletes us. It’s how we take focused, effective action.
Once we are focused on what we plan on creating, it creates momentum. That momentum is what fuels us in a healthy way releasing small amounts of dopamine similar to the extra fuel runners get during a run. This natural high helps to enhance our attention rather than wasting time analyzing irrelevant information.
In order to make a plan by starting with the end in mind, we need to get our brain on board with the plan. We have to have a compelling reason that can override the objections that our brain will naturally present.
Getting the tax return done by 5:30 pm so you can see your kid’s basketball game is a compelling reason to plan out your day, stay focused on the tax return, eliminate other distractions and manage your time in a productive way. The energy you produce when you take action from a feeling of determined, focused or motivated is how burnout is avoided.
It’s not about how hard you worked to get that tax return finished it’s about what you produced which was fueled by your compelling reason and your energy-producing feelings of determined, focused and motivated.
How many times have you been motivated to get something done due to a compelling reason that you liked (as opposed to fear) and been amazed and energized by what you were able to get done? Now compare that to the feeling of burnout when you’ve had no plan of action, no positive compelling reason and stayed stuck in the feeling of overwhelm.
Another helpful way to extinguish burnout before it blazes is to celebrate the small victories. Those small victories can lead to big accomplishments.
When I am working on a big project at work, I tell myself that I can only work on one piece of paper at a time. My mind then focuses on that one item, without getting overwhelmed by the 500 other items waiting in line. I choose positive thoughts to think about each small accomplishment which then fuels each step I take to complete the task. It’s how I finished the most complicated return in our office in less time than in the past with positive energy to spare.
Whether you catch it early or you realize you’re burning up, you are already on the way to extinguishing burnout by just acknowledging it. Even if you can’t use your own health as a compelling reason to start addressing burnout before it becomes dangerous, then use your children as motivation. They deserve to have their mom healthy and happy for a long, long time, not have her recovering from the third degree burns of burnout.
- There are signs and symptoms that we can pay attention to before burnout becomes an issue
- As working moms we may normalize a lot of these signs and symptoms
- When we try to outrun negative emotions like fear by trying to work harder, that’s when burnout begins its slow blaze
- Overwhelm is often an early warning sign of future burnout if left unchecked
- Let your compelling reason to address burnout be your children; they need a healthy and happy mom
If you’d like some help extinguishing burnout before it becomes a bigger issue, please feel free to schedule a free mini session or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can get to work together.