The Physical and Mental Exhaustion of Burnout

When you’re in a pressure cooker, sometimes the best advice is just to get out.

You wake up in the morning and the first thing you think is, “I can’t. I can’t come up with another idea. I can’t have another difficult conversation. I can’t do any more with less. I just can’t.” But you drag yourself to work, spend a long time trying to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing and then can’t seem to find the energy to get started. A staff member approaches you with a question, and you snap at him needlessly. You get yourself yet another cup of coffee and another doughnut, while noticing your clothes seem a little snug. You ask yourself whether it’s all worth it.

If this is the case, you, my friend, may be burned out.

The Mayo Clinic describes burnout as a “special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” I want to also include “mental exhaustion” in that definition. People I’ve talked with about burnout express that they seem to lack a fundamental ability to think. They’ll stare at their screen, even when they are trying to put a simple priority list together. They can’t seem to find the words to get started.

With everything the world has experienced in the last few years, it would not be at all surprising to learn that increased numbers of people are experiencing burnout. In many instances, people suffering from burnout are likely interacting with others who are also burned out, making for a perfect storm of poor relationship interactions. The question is, what do we do about this? And how do we get over it?

You’re really the only person who can take the pressure off yourself.

Common advice is to reassess, prioritize, scale back, exercise and seek out our support network. I’m going to suggest another option to begin: In my experience dealing with employees, especially those in service roles, those who are most easily able to get beyond burnout start with time off.

And now it’s almost as if I can hear a chorus of people saying, “But, but, but … .” Listen to me on this: If you don’t start with time off, it will only be that much more difficult to recover. How can anyone possibly start reassessing or accomplishing any other recommended steps without a clear heart and mind?

The Dalai Lama, who is known for being wise, said, “… if you feel ‘burnout’ setting in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself. The point is to have a long-term perspective.” So, take some time and do nothing. Binge-watch television, take long walks or go for a leisurely bike ride. Do something totally different, but don’t put pressure on yourself to do it. Give yourself permission to be a couch potato. You’re really the only person who can take the pressure off yourself. You aren’t doing the association any good if you’re burned out. Take the time. Then come back and do what needs to be done.

While you’re taking that time, laugh. If you’re going to be a couch potato, then watch comedians and comedy shows on a streaming service. Go see a live comedian. Do something fun or try something from your bucket list. Laughing increases our physical health by boosting our immunity, diminishing stress hormones and giving us an overall sense of well-being.

Another behavior that’s shown to provide increased mental health benefits is varying our routine and trying something new. This is where the bucket list could come in handy. Walk a different path, vary your exercise routine or try a new recipe.

These suggestions are not necessarily a cure-all, but they will get you started on recovering. When you return to full speed, take into consideration how you got to this point. Use that insight to make adjustments going forward to keep yourself from getting burned out again.



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