Are you just limping to the finish line of 2021? Quest for Life Foundation has put together these tips on avoiding burnout.
After a tumultuous year – or longer – many people can’t wait for the year to end. And with Omicron surging in our community, 2022 might feel quite daunting.
With the ongoing global crisis, the stress of lockdowns or restrictions and isolation from loved ones, the conditions have been perfect for many people to experience burnout for the first time in their lives.
Burnout is a state of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion caused by excessive stress over a long period. Although typically associated with people working in high-pressure jobs including police, doctors, firefighters, nurses, paramedics and other front-line workers, burnout can affect anyone. Parents juggling the challenges of home-schooling children while meeting work commitments and perhaps worrying about elderly family members is a perfect recipe for burnout.
It’s useful to know the warning signs of burnout so we can mitigate its impact before it takes hold. If you experience burnout, it’s important to manage it skilfully to minimise its long-term effect, as it can take a considerable toll on your mental and physical wellbeing. However the best strategy is avoiding burnout altogether by dedicating time every day to your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
Not all stress is bad stress. We need to stress the body to move and function. We can push through under duress for a short while when we have a significant challenge. We call these the ‘Ds’ in life: a disease, deadline, difficulty, death, diagnosis, drama, divorce, dilemma, debt, despair, depression, drought or downpour. If we push for too long, we risk burning out.
Some people love change and embrace it with enthusiasm. There is a sense of excitement and possibility for those who love the adventure that change can bring. However, constant change over which we have no control, and which persists over a long period of time, as it has since early 2020, can sap the enthusiasm of even the most adventurous soul!
Quest Founder’s Lived Experience of Burnout
Quest for Life Founder and CEO Petrea King experienced burnout early in her career. At the time, she facilitated support and meditation groups or counselled people who were living with cancer, HIV, AIDS, and other life-threatening illnesses, after having just unexpectedly survived leukaemia herself.
“I saw people 6 days a week starting at 7.30am and often didn’t emerge from my clinic until 7 at night,” Ms King said.
“Then there’d be a multitude of phone calls to return. I wouldn’t have been to the bathroom or had a glass of water all day. On the 7th day, I went into homes, hospices and hospitals to see people who were too sick to come to me. After several months of this intense routine, Pamela, one of my much-loved patients who attended one of my ten weekly support and meditation groups, gave me a set of keys to her holiday apartment in Queensland saying, ‘for goodness sake, take a holiday’. Pamela recognised the exhaustion in me long before I recognised it in myself.
“Before this holiday, I was booked up 6 weeks ahead, but people kept calling and some said, ‘I’ve only got 4 weeks to live’, so I would squeeze them in to my already overfull schedule. On the long drive home from Queensland, I had to ask myself some difficult questions. ‘Why do I need to be needed? What was it in me that contributed to this workload?’
“I realised that I had a long-held pattern of putting other people’s needs ahead of my own. In this situation, I had made ‘dying people’ more important than looking after myself and I recognised that this came from ‘survivor guilt’. My doctors – and I – expected I would die – and I didn’t. Now I made the needs of dying people more important than meeting my own needs.”
There were other realisations too which Petrea addressed, such as driving her daughter Kate to school in the mornings, instead of seeing the first patient after she’d left for the day. After dropping Kate off, Petrea walked the length of Balmoral Beach, meditated and had a fresh vegetable juice. She was still back in her office for her first patient at 8.30am.
Petrea also arranged supervision with a wonderful psychiatrist whom she saw every week for 9 years. This helped her get clear on her own issues, so they didn’t become entangled with her patients’ issues.
For instance, at that time Petrea hosted a weekly support group at the Albion Street AIDS Clinic. Early in the epidemic of AIDS when whole friendship groups were dying – along with some of their doctors too – a frequent topic of conversation involved participants discussing euthanasia and suicide.
Petrea’s brother Brenden had struggled with his mental health since his early teens. He’d told her before they were in their teens that he knew he had to ‘kill himself’ by the time he was 30. Petrea had taken on this responsibility, believing it was the purpose of her life – to make sure that Brenden didn’t take his life. There had been many times when Petrea or other family members had intervened, just in time to save Brenden from that fate. He did finally succeed in his suicide attempt in the months before Petrea’s diagnosis of leukaemia.
For Petrea, facilitating a support group where participants wanted to discuss their plans or thoughts around suicide triggered an understandable host of reactions. Regular supervision enabled her to recognise her own issues and reactions and not allow them to become entangled with her participants’ issues.
When we understand our own needs and make a conscious effort to address them, we’re in a more aware and resilient state to engage with life’s challenges. Once Petrea implemented the practical strategies for addressing her own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs, she found that she had plenty of time and space to fully engage with other people who were suffering.
There is no certainty that constant change will stop because we’ve reached the end of 2021. There may be more challenges ahead that we haven’t even contemplated. Forrest Gump was told that life is a ‘box of chocolates’, but maybe life is more like a roller coaster ride.
Some people love them – roller coasters – they want to be in the front seat and scream with glee as it tips and turns. Other people may hold on for dear life or refuse to embark upon the journey.
Regardless of how we feel about roller coasters, none of us would get on one without fastening our seatbelt. So, what’s your seatbelt for managing life’s tips and turns? Is it music? Or being in nature? The company of certain people, books, environments or activities?
Perhaps it’s meditation, yoga, prayer or a good night’s sleep? For some people it will be bushwalking, watching the night sky, listening to birdsong, arranging flowers, enjoying a meal with loved ones, the scents of nature. We each need to identify the essential elements that make up our personal ‘seat belt’, then ensure those activities become the foundation of our lives.
Beyond Burnout: An online resource
In 2022, Quest for Life will launch a new series of online courses, including a program devoted specifically to avoiding burnout or limiting its effects once it takes hold.
Delivered by Petrea King and Quest’s Senior Facilitator Margie Braunstein, Beyond Burnout is an online course designed for people interested in developing healthy lifestyle habits while learning effective tools and strategies to move beyond burnout and flourish in life.
“Beyond Burnout provides education in living well in challenging circumstances by making self-care the foundation of our lives,” Ms King said.
The course provides participants with easy to implement and practical tools for building resilience, including simple practices that can make a profound difference to improve quality of life and bring a sense of meaning and purpose.
Participants will receive a workbook containing several modules including “Biology of Burnout” and “Recovering from Burnout”, access to audio files of guided meditations, and other resources.
Ms Braunstein said while stress is not inherently problematic – as long as it is balanced with rest – it was lead to burnout when we push ourselves beyond our physical and emotional limits without allowing time to restore and replenish.
“A car will breakdown if not serviced regularly and so will we. The good news is that burnout can be reversed using simple strategies that restore depleted energy stores,” Ms Braunstein said.
Each module of the upcoming online course offers reflective questions to support your learning and we identify practical strategies to manage and move beyond burnout. It’s possible to recover from burnout and find joy and satisfaction in our life, regardless of its challenges.
Symptoms of burnout
- Lack of energy
- Emotional exhaustion
- Feeling less satisfied with life
- Difficulty with concentration
- Reduced attention span
- Feeling cynical
- Memory issues
- Feeling agitated
- Perfectionist behaviour
- Loss of empathy
- Compromised performance
Tips for moving beyond burnout
- Eating a healthy diet
- Getting plenty of exercise
- Developing good sleeping habits
- Meditating and living mindfully
- Being in bed by a certain hour
- Learning sleep skills
- 2 minutes to focus on your breathing
- Improving your diet
- ‘Me’ time – every day
- Take a day off, holidays, down-time
- Getting into nature
If you need someone to talk to, please call:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
- QLife on 1800 184 527
Avoiding burnout Toolkit
Symptoms of Stress and What helps – Including Worksheet downloads
How Quest can help
Quest for Life can help you through our residential program, Healing Your Life. By learning strategies and techniques to manage your response to life’s events and ways to calm an anxious mind, you can regain control of your life and move towards peace of mind. We wish you well in managing your challenges whatever they may be at this time.