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How to healthily navigate through a career burnout

Experiencing career burnout can be incredibly challenging. It’s a feeling of being emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted due to prolonged stress.

Dr Gurveen Ranger, Clinical Psychologist, Lead for Corporate Wellbeing and Adult Mental Health at Sage Clinics, on recognising the signs of career burnout.

What do the first 30 minutes of your day look like, your morning routine?

The first 30 minutes of my day involves hitting the snooze button a
couple of times, so I get up gradually. I try to start the day mindfully – so I avoid looking at my phone until I have left the house and focus on getting ready. Half the week I start work a little later, so I start my day with some form of exercise at home, and I find I have a bit more energy for the rest of the day.

Talk us through you career.

I decided I wanted to be a psychologist when I was about 16 years old, doing my college A Level in Psychology. Prior to this I knew nothing about it and thought I was going to be a journalist! Learning about the psychological theories got me hooked on the subject, and I found it fascinating learning about how the brain and our minds can work. This, coupled with a desire to help people meant it was the perfect career for me to pursue and find meaning in. After my undergraduate degree in Psychology, I worked in various NHS establishments in the UK, gaining experience in the mental health field so I could eventually pursue the doctoral clinical psychology training. I have always loved to be challenged, and so after several years working post doctorate in a service for people with severe and enduring mental health difficulties, I decided the next challenge was to move here to the UAE and be part of establishing a new clinic – in a region where narratives around mental health are progressing but still in their relative infancy. I have enjoyed the work we are doing to raise awareness about mental health and have ended up specialising in corporate wellbeing, recognising the significant need for this in the UAE.

What are the key symptoms of a career burnout?

Career burnout means emotional, physical and mental exhaustion from prolonged stress or dissatisfaction in your career. The key signs include physical exhaustion, where you may notice you feel exhausted, no matter how much sleep you get, and emotional exhaustion, which leaves you feeling overwhelmed, cynical, and detached from your work and colleagues. You may notice a feeling of dread when you wake in the morning which lingers throughout the day. Thirdly, mental exhaustion where you may notice a decline in cognitive abilities, including memory and concentration, increased absenteeism that leads to burnout along with an increase in sick days and a decrease in productivity and lastly decreased motivation, where burnout can lead to a lack of enthusiasm and interest in work, which can impact your performance. You may notice getting less of a sense of achievement in your work, or feel like you are not good enough regardless of your actual accomplishments and therefore feel less inclined to put the work in.

How is the mind and body interconnected – can stress lead to adverse affects in the body?

Absolutely, there is a lot of research on the impact of stress on the body. When we are stressed, we are often in fight or flight mode – our threat response, and the brain releases more stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to help the body deal with the stressor. Whilst helpful in a dangerous situation, when it is activated frequently by chronic stressors we start to see an impact on the body. Such impact includes headaches, muscle tension and soreness, digestive issues, and overall weakened immune function to name a few. There is also an impact on our sleep, concentration, and our emotions – for example heightened anxiety, and our emotions are experienced physically in our bodies. A little more indirectly when we are stressed, we tend to engage in less self-care, so our diet may change, we may exercise less, and this will have an impact on our bodies too. So, when I work with clients on stress management, we look at it from both psychological and physiological perspectives.

What’s the best technique to regulate during a stressful situation?

During a specific stressful situation grounding can be really helpful in the moment. This might be focusing on your five senses (the 54321 exercise is good – name in your mind five things you can see around you, four things you can touch – really feel them, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste). This helps us “drop and anchor” and get present in a moment when our thoughts and emotions may be overwhelming and racing. Deep breathing is also a good in-themoment strategy, as our breathing is often dysregulated during the threat response. Breathing in to a count of four and out to a count of six is a good way to do this, and ensure your abdomen is moving more than your chest – so you know you are taking a good, full breath. You can place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest as you breathe to help determine this. More broadly, meditative exercises can be helpful to practice regularly to manage stress. Mindfulness meditation and relaxation meditation are a couple of ways of doing this and you can typically find good audios or scripts online.

Career Burnout

How important is it to set healthy boundaries at work?

It is essential to set healthy boundaries at work to ensure a healthy work/life balance and prevent burnout. When we don’t have healthy boundaries, we often feel overwhelmed, resentful, and frustrated. Healthy boundaries also help us feel more fulfilled – by only taking on what we have capacity to do, we end up feeling more motivated and satisfied, as we are able to give full attention to what we are doing – so you end up focusing on quality of work rather than purely quantity of output where we feel like we are working hard never achieving anything that feels “good enough.”

What are some of the top selfcare practices that can be incorporated in our busy schedules?

Protect break times – block this time in your diary, even if it is only 30 minutes. We often tell ourselves we don’t have time, but research indicates we are actually more productive when we take breaks. If you can, move away from your desk for your break. Start and leave work on time as much as possible – I know many people who use their morning commute to catch up on emails, which means they are often in ‘threat mode’ before they even get to work. Using this time to be more mindful – focusing on surroundings or listening to something like a podcast or music can help us start the day in a more grounded way. Same for after work – hide away your laptop so it is out of sight and plan something else – relaxing, social, or active! If you absolutely have to check emails in the evenings, set limits on when and how often you do this. Aim for a routine as schedules may be very busy, having a regular sleep/ wake time can be really helpful for our wellbeing, alongside regular balanced meals. It may not be possible to get to a gym multiple times a week when you are so busy but a short walk or a 20-minute home workout are also great – anything to kick start the endorphins. Connect to others – colleagues, friends and family members, social connection can go a long way for stress management. If you are short on time you could combine – so meet a friend but go for a walk or activity together so you are socialising and getting some exercise in at the same time. Lastly, stress management techniques are important – as mentioned before, learning to be more mindful is a key way of managing stress. Alongside this, relaxation strategies as well as engaging in leisure activities as mentioned above are all key parts of stress management. If you are noticing the signs of stress or burnout and would like some help in managing this, I would recommend speaking to a therapist.

Many employees are navigating through the imposter syndrome – how can this affect our mental health?

Impostor syndrome, whilst not a ‘clinical’ diagnosis is so common in all walks of life, and I see it a lot in my corporate clients. No matter how successful they are or how much they have achieved, there is this pervasive self-doubt – questioning their accomplishments, skills and talents and this persistent fear of being “found out” to be a fraud or not good enough. I often see this in new mums too. This pulls us into overworking, comparing themselves to others, and downplaying achievements. Understandably, this can impact our mental health, and often co-exists alongside depression or anxiety for example. This then becomes self-perpetuating, as the more we believe we are not good enough, the more we dismiss positive feedback, avoid things, or self-criticise for making mistakes, and this then further impacts our mood and anxiety levels.

When should one seek for help during their career?

As early as possible. This way, you can access timely intervention which prevents the symptoms escalating into more chronic stress type difficulties and burnout. It also means you can catch certain unhelpful coping mechanisms like avoidance or overworking before they start to exacerbate the cycle of how you are feeling, and before they contribute to feeling disconnected from your career.

This is The Body Issue – what are your nonnegotiable self and body care practices?

Sleep! This is my number one rule. I know whenever I have a bad night’s sleep or have gone to sleep too late the knock-on effect on my concentration, mood, and productivity the next day is huge. I had to teach myself to reduce how much time I spent on my phone in the evenings, which was hard, but I got there eventually. Now I have a specific wind down routine, and screens are put away at least 30 minutes before I go to sleep. A balanced diet is important too. I have had to train myself on this too but having a routine where I prep everything in the evening and enough for a few days at a time has really helped, as the more stressed I am my default is convenience rather than nutrition, as is the case for many. Within this, I have also learned not to restrict anything, as actually that often leaves us feeling more stressed! Balance is key. It’s important to get regular health check-ups. I used to be someone who would dismiss symptoms and tell myself I didn’t have time to go for check-ups especially when I am too busy or stressed. But making time for this is not only essential from a health point of view, but also showing ourselves that we are worthy of self-care. When I work with clients who are coming for heightened anxiety or stress, I always recommend a routine physical health check-up if they haven’t had one for a long time, before we assume something like tiredness is solely related to stress, for example.

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