Over the last year or so, mental health has become a rapidly popular topic among mainstream media and day-to-day conversation alike. Many have said the “silver lining” of the pandemic has been bringing into focus the importance of prioritizing our mental health. But the topic came back into focus once again after the recent 2020 summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, when U.S. gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of almost all of her planned events to not only protect her body from physical harm but also to protect her mental wellbeing.
In the days to follow, she revealed to the media the insurmountable amount of pressure she was under to perform, not only from external sources but herself as well.
It can be easy to hold athletes, much less Olympians, to a higher level, but these Olympics showed that even the “Greatest of All Time” and Olympians can struggle with their mental health just like the rest of us.
That’s why we spoke with Ashley Gilmore, a licensed clinical social worker and director of behavioral health clinical services at Texas Health Dallas, to understand more about the rise in burnout and performance anxiety, what it can look, feel or sound like, and how to prioritize and honor your mental well-being.
“Burnout is a profound exhaustion with your work or work environment,” says Gilmore. “It’s more than having a bad day or a bad week. Burnout accumulates and gets worse over time, so each month you feel more drained. You lose motivation to do your job, even if it’s a profession you love to do, and you lose your sense of accomplishment and purpose.”
Burnout can happen to anyone and among any profession — not just traditionally high-pressure, high-stress professions. Speaking of stress, burnout can commonly get mixed up as prolonged bouts of stress, but Gilmore says while burnout is a foundation of stress, not all stress is burnout.
“Burnout is long-term stress. It’s the kind of stress that doesn’t go away even when a problem resolves, a big project is complete, that tight deadline passes or that daunting presentation is over,” she explains. “Because burnout accumulates, each stressor builds on the other. This type of long-term stress takes its toll on the body and mind.”
People with burnout often develop depression, anxiety, and even physical pain and discomfort. Burnout can feel like not just wanting to quit your job, but even considering leaving the profession altogether.
“Burnout feels like no matter what you do for self-care or speaking up for your needs at work, it won’t get better,” Gilmore adds. “Burnout feels like you’ve passed the point of no return and it can’t get better.”
If all of that is sounding a bit familiar, Gilmore says most people are struggling right now due to the demands that the pandemic has placed on us in all aspects of our lives. If you’re working from home, you may have lost work-life separation and you may feel “on the clock” all the time now. You also may have fewer days off or increased hours because of staffing shortages. If you work mostly alone, you may feel more isolated because you’ve lost your social support. If you work with people, you may be affected by their increased stress as well.
“There’s more work to do and fewer resources to do it. More stress and less access to things that restore the mind and body. More personal grief and loss and less time to process how it’s affecting you,” Gilmore says. “If you’re feeling like most people are at some level of ‘Not Okay,’ you’re right. But people are just incredibly resilient, so most are trying to keep going even with exhaustion, grief, anxiety, and depression.”
How Burnout Unfolds
Burnout unfolds in stages, starting with enthusiasm, stagnation, frustration, apathy and then burnout.
For example, Gilmore says you may have started your job with some level of enthusiasm, whether that was looking forward to something new and meaningful, finally doing what you’ve always wanted to do, or even just looking forward to being compensated fairly. But that enthusiasm can fade once you learn the drawbacks, expectations or limitations of the job. You may feel stagnant, like you’ll be stuck in this dead-end position forever.
Frustration then sets in as you realize more negatives than positives. You may feel frustrated with yourself, the job, the work environment, the management, and the situation. You can even feel anger if problems are not getting solves, gaps remain or resources aren’t available to smooth things over. It may seem like the light at the end of the tunnel is getting smaller and darker.
“That’s when apathy sets in and you may say, ‘I just don’t care anymore,’” Gilmore explains. “You don’t get excited about your work. You don’t feel accomplished when you solve a problem or finish a project. You lose empathy with your peers and customers or clients. You lose the sense of meaning and purpose that you once gained from your profession. You stop wanting to contribute.”
Then burnout takes over. You may find yourself dreading coming into work, calling in ‘sick’ more and more, canceling meetings or avoiding your peers. When you’re at work, you want to be anywhere else but there, but once you leave work, you can’t seem to disconnect. Your time with friends and family may also suffer because you are mentally preoccupied or exhausted.
The good news, Gilmore adds, is that none of these stages are final or inevitable.
“Start by identifying, acknowledging and being honest with yourself about what stage you’re in. If you are already into the apathy stage, then a little self-care won’t bring you the big rewards it once did,” she explains. “The more you are struggling, the bigger your recovery response will need to be. However, since we are a year and a half into a pandemic and most of us are burned out or getting close, it’s time for big action. This may look like talking to a doctor and/or therapist if you suspect you have developed depression or anxiety.”
The Consequences of Ignoring Burnout
As Gilmore mentioned, many people may be feeling burned out right now. But not so many people may be willing to acknowledge it. You may even feel like you have no other option but to keep functioning at this level because of compensation, a tough job market, an even tougher economy, or societal expectations.
“Often, burnout carries a lot of shame or guilt, so you may not be very open about falling behind at work or canceling appointments because you can’t bear another meeting,” Gilmore says. “I know many professionals who will admit to previous burnout, but very few who will admit to current burnout.”
But turning a blind eye to burnout can come with a litany of mental, physical, spiritual, and social consequences. When we turn our focus back to Simone Biles, the reason why she pulled out her events becomes more understandable.
“Luckily, most of us are not in a profession that having a break in our focus could literally cause our injury, paralysis, or death. Simone Biles does have that risk in her profession, so her mental health is essential,” says Gilmore. “We saw her speak up for her safety and prioritize her health, even when she knew there would be a wild range in reaction and very little precedent for doing it. Even when she was struggling, she showed resiliency and a commitment to her long-term health over short term pressure to perform.”
Acknowledgment Instead of Admonishment
If you suspect that you are burned out, start out by acknowledging what you are experiencing and how you are seeing it change you over the past few months. Gilmore suggests writing it down versus making a mental list.
“Try to figure out which areas you can influence, and which ones are out of your hands,” Gilmore explains. “Can you get more sleep at night and take a walk during work breaks? Make a commitment to doing that. Can you take a lunch break with a peer a few times a week instead of working through lunch? Make a commitment and do that.”
Worried about a friend, coworker or family member? Look for signs of withdrawal, which may look like your peer, team member, or loved one avoiding work or avoiding home life. A person who seems checked-out when they used to be engaged, or miserable when they used to enjoy their work, is likely to be experiencing some level of burnout.
While some fixes are easier than others, Gilmore acknowledges that some fixes can be extremely hard or limited, especially when it is related to the work environment. Safety concerns, short staffing, am inability to take time off, and an overwhelming workload may take conversations with management and HR. But if you find they are unwilling or unable to change these areas, that may be your sign to move on to greener pastures.
“The takeaway is that there is absolutely no job, no profession, no performance, and no competition that is more important than your safety,” Gilmore explains. “If your job, peers, loved ones, or profession demand access to your mind and body no matter the cost to you, that is harmful beyond measure. If your work demands that you risk yourself without providing protection and means of safety, it’s a big red flag to move on. And that applies to any job and any work environment.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Help
If you are severely burned out, talking to a professional may be warranted. Just scheduling a well-check with your primary care doctor can make a huge difference, and they can connect you with mental health resources if it’s something you’d like to explore.
“Becoming aware of your overall health will make a difference in your ability to navigate through burnout and recovery,” Gilmore adds. “Just talking about it can make a huge difference, whether it’s to a professional or a loved one or a trusted peer.”
Remember, even Olympians need to take some time for themselves.
If you are starting to feel burnout, high levels of stress or see dysfunction in your day-to-day, Texas Health Behavioral Health resources are offered at 18 locations throughout North Texas. For additional information or to find resources, call (682) 626-8719.