I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what burnout is. I frequently come across people, and, unfortunately, quite a few coaches too, who confuse stress with burnout and try to deal with it in the same way that they deal with stress. And unfortunately that will either make burnout worse, or it will just be pretty ineffective. So it’s helpful to understand what makes burnout different from stress.
When we are under strain, when we’re pushing for the extra mile, or even just trying to handle all of the many things that we have to handle during an ordinary day, we are drawing from the reservoir of stress hormones (produced by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys). The adrenal glands produce the stress hormones that our bodies and minds need to use in order to navigate our day.
So if we’re trying to push ourselves for too long or too hard, then we are drawing even more on that reservoir. If we draw faster than the adrenal glands can produce, we start to drain the reservoir. The key difference between stress and burnout is this: with stress, we’ve still got something left in that reservoir, with burnout we don’t.
If we’re in a state of stress, we’ve stretched the elastic of our body’s and our mind’s reserves, but we’ve still got something in the tank that we can draw from in order to keep functioning. That elastic can then recuperate very quickly, perhaps needing a few days to a week to fill the reservoir back up again.
But when we are in the zone of burnout, the reservoir is in an advanced state of depletion. There is no more to draw on. So if we keep pushing on (as is all too common to do), particularly if you’re a high performer who is all about getting stuff done, then all we are doing is pushing ourselves deeper into burnout.
My definition of burnout is ‘the state when the adrenal reservoir is physically depleted, with insufficient reserves to draw on to see us through a typical day’. This includes the all-important ‘executive functions’ that are essential to navigating a typical day: taking in information, remembering details, processing them, coming to a conclusion about them, making decisions, putting steps into action. All of these need fuel that comes from the adrenal reservoir. So if there’s not enough left, our car stalls to a halt on the motorway.
I come across a lot of high performers who think it’s just stress or anxiety which will go away if they ignore it. That they are weak if they do not ignore it. Or they might be feeling low or fatigued, but don’t recognise it as burnout because the concept doesn’t fit with their sense of self. High performers in particular try to keep pushing on through, which is actually the opposite of what they need to do.
If this is you, please hop on a Strategy Call to hear how my Resilient Success coaching programme or Burnout Masterclass self study programme can show you want to do to rapidly make burnout a thing of the past.