Have you ever had that feeling when the thought of going to work makes you physically ill? What was once your dream job becomes something you dread on a daily basis. You tell yourself that it’s just a phase, but it’s been days of feeling like this and you can’t seem to generate that spark you once had.
Of course, there can be many different reasons for your “blah” outlook. Perhaps you’ve just finished a big project and you’re feeling a little run down and in need of some R&R. Maybe you’re getting bored of your day-to-day responsibilities and need to take on some challenging projects to stretch your brain. Maybe you’re mentally and physically burned out, and you need more than just a vacation to get yourself back on track.
But how do you know when to ask for help, or just book a weekend away? After all, as Lindsay Goldwert pointed out in a previous Fast Company story, for most of us, stress is just part of our jobs. But experiencing it from time to time is different from having it dominate your life. Here’s how to determine when your lack of motivation might be a sign of a bigger problem you need to address.
Burnout takes many different forms
There are several common symptoms of burnout–tiredness, lack of productivity, irritability, and in extreme situations, the occurrence of panic attacks. But it manifests in different ways for different people, and there are many underlying issues that lead to it. For Due Quach, the founder and CEO of Calm Clarity, an organization that provides training on growth, leadership and resilience, her interaction with burnout occurred when everything in her professional life was going well, but she lost the motivation that drove her to “succeed” in the first place.
“The way I look at it is, the reason why we do our work is based on extrinsic motivation and extrinsic reward, and [those are] not aligned with what gives us an intrinsic reward and motivation,” Quach explains. She experienced her burnout while working in the financial industry. Having grown up as a refugee in a crime-ridden, low-income area, she worked in investment banking in order to achieve financial independence. “Once I attained those things, I lost that motivation to continue that slog. My body was telling me [that] I no longer found it rewarding.”
Other possible causes of work burnout might be unfair compensation, unreasonable workload, or too much overtime or after-hours work, according to a 2017 survey by Kronos and Future Workplace. Other reasons include toxic culture or having to work with a difficult boss and colleagues. Whatever the reasons might be, it’s helpful to identify where your feelings might be coming from. That’s the first step in determining the severity of the situation.
Identify where your brain is operating most of the time
Quach categorizes our brains into three different modes of operation: Brain 1.0, Brain 2.0, and Brain 3.0. As she wrote in her book, Calm Clarity: How to Use Science to Rewire Your Brain for Greater Wisdom, Fulfillment, and Joy, Brain 1.0 is what we commonly know as the “fight or flight” mode–when we are afraid and anxious, and have trouble taking information clearly or make sound decisions. “Brain 2.0 is the reward system that’s activated by any reward,” Quach tells Fast Company. Examples might include coffee, substances, achievements, or being a VIP. In her book, she wrote, “When I’m in Brain 2.0, I can get so obsessed with getting the things I want, I impulsively strong-arm people to do things my way. This often leads me to act in ways that make others resent me. In this state, it’s also much harder to resist immediate gratification.” Brain 3.0, is the a state of mind where our activities and bigger purpose in life are aligned. “In Brain 3.0, I experience a deep and lasting sense of contentment, appreciation, and awe for being alive,” Quach wrote.
For those who suspect that they might be experiencing burnout, Quach suggests that they should think of their days like a pie, and identify what percentage of the pie they spend in Brain 1.0, Brain 2.0, and Brain 3.0 in any given day. “Hopefully you’re spending most of your time in Brain 3.0.” As you get closer to burnout, the part that gives you resilience shrinks more and gets closer to zero, she explains. This might be why the job that used to bring you so much energy now saps all the joy out of you. “When I was burning out, I was buying expensive things to try and keep Brain 3.0 activated so I can be more motivated to go to work. At the end of one week I had 10 glasses of wine. When you start to see these things shift, you’re relying more on self-medication,” Quach says. That’s a sign that you’re living in an unhealthy state.
Check your physical symptoms and health history
Say you realized that you spend most of your time in Brain 1.0, and you feel that it’s time to get some professional help. How do you know who to reach out to? Quach recommends that to determine what kind of help is best–you should pay close attention to your physical symptoms as well as your health history. If your family has a history of depression, for example, and you suspect that your burnout might be a case of neurotransmitter imbalance, it might be worth seeing a psychiatrist. If you’re having trouble sleeping and your lack of sleep is exacerbating your burnout, it’s probably best to make an appointment with a medical doctor who specializes in sleep. If you don’t see any physical symptoms and it’s just about a lack of drive, perhaps a life coach might be a good person to contact. After all, you might just need someone to help you see “what is and isn’t a good career option for you, and see if reshaping your career makes sense,” Quach says.
Ask yourself what really matters
Physical symptoms aside, burnout is really about not spending your time in a way that aligns with your priorities and values. “There are groups of people who are so used to following the ‘right’ path,” Quach tells Fast Company. You can find many of these people in industries like law, finance, and medicine, Quach says. As a result, you tend to see a lot of burnout in those industries. On the other hand, those who are explorers and have taken more time to build their careers might have more agency over their professional life and have the view that they have a choice in how they shape their job. “When you’re in Brain 3.0, you can initiate the things that you care about. That prevents burnout,” Quach explains.
For those who still struggle to find their purpose, Quach suggests that they try writing a letter to their future aspirational self. “That usually creates a huge change in intrinsic motivation,” she said. Then it’s a matter of tweaking what’s in their environment. “People start to realize that burnout can be avoided because you make choices that express your higher self.”