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Burnout, explained.


Burnout syndrome

Burnout syndrome: “Exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation, usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration…”

The first time I heard the term “burnout” was a few years ago, when a new yoga student turned up at a group class, claiming to be suffering from it. Isabelle was a beautiful, fit woman in her forties who had been working for many years as a bank manager in an  upmarket area of town. At the time she could not explain her symptoms (exhaustion, muscle pain, memory loss, inability to focus, anxiety, sleep disturbances…), and all she could talk about was how she hated her work conditions and, more in particular, her boss,  who made her life miserable every day. Back in my corporate days I had heard many people complain about their jobs and their bosses, it happened all the time, right?…so I have to admit I didn’t think it could be that bad…until we started the class.

Isabelle couldn’t even lift her arms above her head without pain, and the most simple movements made her short of breath and absolutely exhausted. She was totally…well, burned out.  I ended up adapting the class to her obvious needs and improvised a restorative session, which everyone appreciated anyway.  Isabelle didn’t come back again, as she simply couldn’t make it to the front door.

For those of you who are not familiar with the term, “burnout” happens as a result of a sustained state of physical and emotional stress. This sustained stress -whether at home, at work, or both- gives the individual the feeling that he or she has “no way out” and  that “there’s no solution”. Eventually, the body and the mind simply find their way out of the problem, by breaking down. Something like a short-circuit when the volts are too high.

How do I know if I have burnout syndrome? 

The symptoms are:  physical and emotional exhaustion, inability to focus and to think clearly, muscle pain and stiffness of the body, blurry vision, nausea, lack of appetite or an extreme increase in appetite, sleep disturbances, intense demotivation and inability to get up in the morning. 

Some people also experience an intense pain or pressure across the diaphragm -the chest area– and the middle back, due to the “holding” of the breath and the tightness of the respiratory muscles of the body (what in therapeutic terms we call the “frozen” effect). Another symptom is constant cold hands and feet and the inability of the body to warm up.

It is important that your doctor or company doctor diagnoses you with burnout, as these symptoms can also be the result of other serious health issues such as depression, a degenerative disease, heart problems  or even cancer, which require special medical attention.

In general, a burnout sufferer has been coping for months, or maybe years, with a sustained, intense stressful situation, generally related to work, although personal circumstances are often involved.





If you suspect you have burnout…

Contact your doctor and explain your situation. Be open and honest about both your personal and work circumstances, as this will help him or her make an accurate diagnosis. Once your doctor has confirmed that you are suffering from burnout,  you will need to approach your employer .

Different countries have different legislation regarding the procedure to follow. In the Netherlands, the company doctor -generally from the medical insurance- will do the relevant tests and check your doctor’s report. Once it is confirmed, an agreement will be made on the period of time that you will be off work, with all costs being covered by the company. 

Can it be resolved?

The employee has to show intention of recovering and getting better by following the relevant treatments under the doctor’s recommendation. Anti-depressants, sleeping pills and professional coaching are among the treatments recommended, however more and more companies -and employees-are more inclined to use alternative therapies such  as Yoga, Meditation and Relaxation as more effective -and less intrusive- ways to deal with work-related stress (backed up by the positive results in recent medical studies).

Lifestyle changes, personal counselling, nutrition, acupuncture and regular massages can also help rebuild the burnout sufferer.

There is certainly an end to burnout syndrome, but both employee and employer need to be patient and realize that a full recovery involves a long and sometimes painful process. It often happens that the burnout sufferer feels better, and he or she is immediately re-integarted into work, only to find out that they cannot manage it, and this might even make things worse again. In general, it can take from a few months to 2 years to recover completely.


So I avoid getting burnt-out by avoiding stress… 

…Actually, you do not.

An important US study shows that actually, stress is not damaging your health unless you believe that IT IS damaging your health.

Your attitude toward stress is what matters. Stress junkies who thrive in stressful situations seem to be immune to any problems,  while those who think “this job is going to kill me” or ” I can’t cope with this any longer” end up in a bad place, physically and emotionally (For an inspiring TED talk on this subject, see Kelly Mcgonigal


The solution

The solution to the problem is prevention. Stress happens and it cannot be avoided, it is part of life! We need to learn to change our perception of stress, learn how to manage and sail through it, physically and emotionally. 

 The Dutch government is dealing with this issue  -which costs millions of euros per year- by recommending companies to introduce health and wellness activities for their  employees such as boot camps, running clubs, yoga & meditation classes and health workshops. Also, there are many legal recommendations regarding physical environment, human relations and fairness treatment, which are absolutely necessary for the company’s health.

The only way to solve the problem of burnout is to see ahead and create the right environment for everyone to thrive, rather than wait for the first casualties to happen, as by then, it will be too late.  In Germany alone, the cost of one employee with burnout is an average of 254.40 euros per day, that is nearly 93.000 euros per year. 

The costs, however, are not only financial. Emotions are contagious and just one unhappy employee who gets sick as a result of work circumstances can help create an environment of discontent and mistrust, plus the resentment from other employees who have to work harder to cover up the loss. Paying high bills to the insurance companies to cover up for the off-sick employees is therefore not the solution.

The only sensible option is for companies to invest on their employees’s health, and to set aside a separate budget for their physical and mental well-being. The long-term result is a strong, energised and effective workforce, who will give their best and yet not burn themselves out, stay calm under stressful circumstances and handle what may come in an unpredictable world.

Employers then become facilitators of success, both at a corporate and personal level, and everyone wins.


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