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5 Myths About Burnout

No, taking a vacation won’t cure your burnout.

5 Myths About Burnout
[Photo: Flickr user Boudewijn Berends]

It’s Sunday night, and you’re dreading the thought of going to work in the morning. You used to be able to juggle all the demands of the job, but now something’s wrong–or just missing. You don’t feel as plugged in to the projects you’re working on as you once did, but you know it’s not the right time to change jobs. Is this burnout? Or are you just stressed out? Is it something else altogether?

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Burnout is a work-related process of chronic stress and disengagement, and if you’ve ever been through it, you know the toll it can take on your work and life. The worst year of my career was the year I burned out practicing law, and it took me over a year to self-diagnose the illness that ended up changing my life.

I eventually pulled myself out of the burnout spiral and made it my mission to study the illness that almost took me down. As I lecture and train busy professionals in the skills that help build stress resilience and prevent burnout, some of the same myths keep getting recycled. Here are five of them that need to be busted.

Myth 1: Burnout Means You’re Weak

This is something many people believe when they’re burned out. In my own experience, it seemed as though the other lawyers in my practice could manage their stress just fine, and I was the exception. When you’re exhausted and experiencing too many negative emotions, it’s easy to get cynical and castigate yourself unfairly. You question everything from your competence to your sanity.

As it turns out, there is a better way to deal with stress, and it has nothing to do with yoga or exercising more. There are two much more effective strategies for combating this kind of stress, and the first is knowing your impact. People who perceive their jobs as stressful and demanding do, in fact, report more burnout. However, job stress is only linked to higher burnout rates when people feel like they aren’t making a difference.

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The tactic is to find ways to help others. UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor discovered that when we’re stressed, our brains release chemicals that push us to seek out others to bond with. Taylor called this response “tend and befriend.” And in fact, studies show that even as people start to burn out, their willingness to help others remains high. For many, burnout actually increases giving tendencies by triggering the “tend and befriend” response.

Myth 2: Defeating Burnout Requires Making Big Changes

When many people burn out, their biggest fear is that they’ll have to leave their jobs. But plenty still like what they do–they just need to make some adjustments in order to keep doing it, by setting boundaries around their time and energy and building their stress resilience. Others can’t afford to leave for various reasons. One of the most effective strategies you can use to prevent burnout is something called “job crafting.” It involves reshaping your job to fit you better (it’s like Spanx for work!). Use your values, strengths, and passions to think of new ways to expand or alter the tasks you perform, how you relate to your colleagues, and how you think about your job as a whole.

Myth 3: You Have To Keep Burnout A Secret

If you’re burned out, it’s likely that other people are already noticing. The exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency that are symptomatic of burnout rear their ugly heads in many ways. You might be absent or sick more frequently, snap at your colleagues, or spend more time in your office instead of interacting with others. Whatever it is, it probably isn’t going unnoticed.

Start by having a conversation with your immediate supervisor, assuming you trust him or her. Don’t just wing it. You should prepare for this conversation–after all, it’s an important one. If you can’t talk to your boss, talk to a friend, a coach, your significant other, or a health care professional. There are people who can and want to help you, but you need to reach out.

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Myth 4: All You Really Need Is A Vacation

I hear this myth most frequently from clients who’ve decided to discuss their burnout with their boss. The boss responds with something like this: “I hear you–I’m stressed too. Just take Friday off and it’ll all be good.”

Leaders don’t often understand the difference between day-to-day stress and burnout, and suggesting a quick fix minimizes the problem and the request for help. More to the point, research shows that vacations don’t “cure” burnout. While burnout levels do decrease during a vacation, they often return to pre-vacation levels within a week or two of returning to work.

Myth 5: Being Burned Out Means You’re Depressed

Burnout and depression do appear to be related in some way, and researchers are trying to figure out exactly how, and how much. The prevailing belief is that about 20% of burnout cases can be explained by depression, and vice versa. That means that 80% of the time, other factors are at play.

Burnout is something of a “gateway illness” because it often opens the door to other issues. I got frequent panic attacks when I burned out, but I was never depressed. Other people experience more physical symptoms. In one study, high levels of burnout in women increased different inflammation biomarkers while depressive symptoms did not. But among the men in the study, the opposite was true.

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Burnout is a complex illness that takes time to unravel, but the process is worth it. With the right tools, you can get back to having real, sustainable success at work and in life. Getting the facts straight is just the first step.

Paula Davis-Laack is a speaker, lawyer, and expert on work-related stress, burnout, and resilience. Follow her on Twitter at @pauladavislaack.

Related: Can You Combat Burnout?