It has been a couple of weeks since I last blogged and I regret that. It is mainly because I have been busy rescheduling my wedding, juggling two big research projects, revising for my surgical board exams, a full time job, one or two other small projects and trying to relax in the time between all of this chaos. Last week I had a week of annual leave where I wanted to relax but I also felt guilty during my break periods for not working on one of the number of projects I have going on. I am recognising the telltale signs of burnout, stemming from burning the proverbial candle at both ends. Previously, I wrote an article about burnout and stress which seemed to resonate with many of the readers of One Doc’s Story. The article was especially popular with my peers, often individuals within the first five years of work and often in their first job. This prompted me to question whether other individuals my age were experiencing the same feelings of stress and disillusionment with their job as I was experiencing.
We spend a third of our days at work. If this third of our time evokes despair and dissatisfaction it is clear that are will be implications on our health, mood and the satisfaction that we find in the two-thirds of our time not taken up by work. Could we improve our health and wellbeing by understanding burnout related to our careers and the underlying drivers of burnout and stress? That is what I am hoping to offer in this article.
What is burnout?
Burnout is emotional exhaustion created by mismanaged workplace stress. Burnout is not triggered by a one-off event but is the result of the gradual erosion of mental wellbeing caused by stress. Think of your mind as a long-spanning coastline, and stress as the sea. Over time the sea, if unmanaged and aggressive enough, will erode the coastline until your mental and physical wellbeing lies on a cliff edge much like the house below.
Burnout can occur in professions which take on the struggles of others – think healthcare, police work, social care, and firefighters to name just a few. In caring for others, we can forget to care for ourselves. Burnout can also occur in high-octane, demanding careers with long hours where time for rest is not prioritised. Some jobs fall into one of these categories, and some both. Which one(s) does your job fall into?
So do young people hate their jobs?
According to a 2016 poll of 1 million millennials, 71% of this group don’t feel engaged with their work and 60% are looking for new job opportunities. It seems that young people are peering over the fence for greener grass. But why?
Well the study found that some of this burnout may be down to the desire for instant gratification amongst young people. The study shows that young people perceive their career advancements to be too slow. Maybe with the hard work, time and dedication that young people are putting into their careers we feel that we are not being noted or rewarded. In this regard, being a junior doctor can be frustrating as career progression is not based on merit but instead time. It is about putting in the years; each year in the job is recognised by a new career title and a small pay bump. As a doctor about to enter his second year of work, I can testify the excitement of moving up a grade. Despite some taking on extra research, projects, management or leadership roles, all junior doctors of the same grade or with the same number of years under their belt are paid the same. Parity at the expense of recognition.
Unfortunately, the majority of millennials are hopeful for career advancements achieved over shorter time periods than is perhaps feasible. I am guilty of this also. I have been frustrated that after six years of medical school and nearly a year of work I am still the lowest ranking member of the medical team and have been spoken down to by members of the team. Perhaps my excitement about moving up a grade is due to the psychological change in status — no longer the whipping boy of the hospital. It is no wonder, then, that almost a third of the UK’s doctors are found to be suffering from burnout, stress and compassion fatigue.
Another hypothesis is that as aspirational young people we tend to seek careers associated with status. Wearing our professions like badges of honour, we can seek a career that impresses others. As such, we often judge our peers by their job. This information suggests whether an individual went to university, the caliber of the institution they attended, the topic studied and the achievement of the degree studied. Top jobs go to top students from top universities. In the same way that we often make these judgements about others, we are concerned that people are making similar judgements about us and what our job says about us to society. In the social media world where we are so used to comparing ourselves to other, it is reasonable to suggest that we might chase a career that looks good to others on paper with diminished regard for what is best for our work-life-family balance, mental health or general enjoyment.
So what can we do to change the mindset?
- Take breaks. Burnout is more common among those who are always on. Some individuals are fortunate to be able to take extended career breaks or sabbaticals and return to their jobs fresh after an extended period of rest. However as early-career workers, this is not a feasible option for us. Instead, take those weeks of annual leave off to rest. I am guilty of not doing this. Just last week I could not decide if I was relaxing or working and ended up doing a poor job at both. Do as I say, not as I do.
- Recognise burnout. Burnout looks different for everyone, but the common signs are loss of enthusiasm for work and a resulting disruption to the quality of work. Physical symptoms can dominate for some, including tiredness, poor sleep quality and even persistent tension headaches. Check in with yourself often — are you still at the top of your game? Do you still have the drive that you once had?
- Set boundaries. Be firm with yourself about when you work and don’t work. Only 20% of bosses expect workers to reply to emails out of working hours. This contrasts with 80% of workers who feel expected to answer emails out of hours.
- Build routines. Routines in the morning and before bed increase productivity. Try meditation, journalling, reading, praying or stretching. Do something that doesn’t involve your phone or a computer and that helps you get away from thoughts about work.
- Talk. Discuss your stress, burnout and difficulties you are having. Talk with friends, family, teammates and even your boss. Your boss might care or they might not, but regardless, it is important that they know so they understand if and when you need time off to recover.
Work represents a significant portion of your time. Do what you love, accept nothing less. Burnout is common, especially among young people. Recognition is the first step to understanding and managing it. Feeling tired, worn out and non-committal about going to work? Ask yourself why and consider what you can do about it.
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