Burnout: Where is the Tipping Point?

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Stress and burnout have been in the news lately, largely due to their near epidemic proportions.  This BBC feature details the story of a neonatal nurse who later chose to leave the profession due to burnout.  Many others tolerate chronically stressful jobs until something gives (usually their health).

If you saw the Showtime series, Nurse Jackie, you might have thought it was the story of a woman suffering from addiction.  I would argue that it was the story of a woman suffering from burnout who turned to substances to help her cope.  Sadly, that is a not an uncommon theme.  While certain professions seem to be more vulnerable to burnout (nursing and law, for example), I speak to individuals in a variety of professions who deal with chronic stress on the cusp of burnout.  

The question in the BBC article is “how do you know when you are at your tipping point?”  The unfortunate answer is:  you don’t always.  Part of the problem is that our culture tends to prioritize work over pretty much anything else.  And since workaholism is seen as noble, we are taught to override our body’s signals that we are taking it too far.  When you stop listening to your body’s cues for rest, it takes something more dramatic to wake you up, and that is when burnout hits, that is, when it’s too late.

While we need a societal overhaul to prevent burnout altogether, there are ways to deal with the chronic stress prevalent in many modern jobs that can keep us from ending up in HR or the ER.  One is simply the awareness that stress is a response to either an actual or a perceived threat.  For most of us the actual threats are few and far between - being chased by a wild animal or a car careening towards us, for example.  It’s the perceived threats that fill up our minds and drain our resources.  It might be a good idea to take an inventory of what in this moment are the actual threats that you need to be stressed about.  Then let the other matters flow out.  You can trust they will be back when they need your attention, and you’ll be better able to handle the real stressors if your mind isn’t clouded by what may or may not happen.  It’s a place to start.