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How to handle work-related burnout

Work-related stress is on the rise in our tough economy, and left unaddressed can affect your physical and mental well-being.

10 July 2023 | By Glynis Horning

Burnout is not a medical diagnosis, and currently the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders doesn’t acknowledge the term. But in 2019 the World Health Organization recognised burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” caused by chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It lists three main characteristics: feelings of exhaustion, increased mental distance from your job (or cynicism about it), and reduced professional efficacy.

Psychiatrist Dr Frans Korb, a board member of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), describes burnout as “the point at which important, meaningful and challenging work becomes unpleasant and unfulfilling”. It can look like acute depression, as you become “less present” – although physically at work, you don’t function properly, leading to less productivity despite putting in more effort. You tend to become more socially withdrawn, have more physical complaints like headaches and difficulty sleeping, and may escape into food, alcohol or substances. Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and sadness set in, and left unmanaged, you can have thoughts of suicide.

Burnout is often the result of feeling overwhelmed by your work responsibilities, of not being able to influence decisions that affect your work (assignments, load), of not having clear expectations of what’s expected of you, and of monotonous work tasks, inadequate resources, lack of social support, dysfunctional workplace dynamics (being bullied or undermined), and feeling disillusioned at failing to produce expected results. 

How to beat burnout

Treating burnout means addressing these issues, the earlier the better:

Understand the cost: Chronic stress can end in exhaustion and collapse, warns Gauteng psychologist Dr Colinda Linde. And while stress on its own seldom leads to cardiovascular disease, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa notes that the unhealthy behaviours we often turn to are major risk factors for this. 

Work at managing your stressors: Identify what’s fuelling your burnout and weigh your options. Discuss concerns with your manager or HR to find ways to adjust expectations or to make a change. Otherwise, take a long, hard look at your career and consider an alternative position or job. If you can’t quit in the current job-scarce climate, start training in skills that can help you move on later.

Establish boundaries: If you always put in extra hours, set yourself a limit such as one hour extra a day. Log out of your work platforms, and only use your phone for work emergencies. “You need technological downtime, or the stress your work triggers will never be controlled,” says Robyn Sandy, a Durban industrial psychologist and managing partner at Interchange International South Africa. “Clients report that one message or email can ruin an evening or even a weekend. Your brain starts working on the problem and never stops.”

Detach from work psychologically: Listen to soothing music or podcasts on the way home, perhaps shower and change clothes, and substitute absorbing but relaxing activities for work, whether cooking, talking to friends, doing a puzzle or watching a sitcom.

Get moving: Exercise releases muscle tension and feel-good endorphins. If your thoughts turn to work, set them aside and focus on the moment – your surroundings, your body sensations, your breathing, in a form of meditation.

Eat to destress: Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, oatmeal) promote serotonin production and may help lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Oily fish such as sardines or salmon twice weekly, or a handful of walnuts or flax seeds a day, provide omega-3 fatty acids to help prevent surges in stress hormones, says Gauteng dietitian Debby Watkins. Leafy greens (spinach, kale) are sources of magnesium, which can help ease the effects of stress. And eggs have the amino acid tryptophan, which helps create serotonin, and choline, which may help protect against stress.

Get help: If you try these methods but still feel overwhelmed, get help from a qualified professional through your health provider, or contact Sadag: 0800 567 567, SMS 32312, www.sadag.org.

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