The real reason you feel so burnt out right now (and 4 ways to overcome it)

Written by Meg Walters

Do you feel like you can’t keep your eyes open at your desk and your brain is too foggy to function? It could be a case of burnout. But while we usually blame stress and overworking for burnout, it turns out there’s another little-known reason why we’re all feeling so drained at work.

We are all working too hard – and overworking takes its toll. If you’ve found yourself feeling mentally drained, physically exhausted and generally wiped out, you may be experiencing burnout.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) listed burnout as an occupational phenomenon in 2019, describing “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy” as the main signs of the syndrome.

Between 2020 and 2021, 822,000 people reported work-related stress, depression or anxiety. Another survey found that just over half of workers experienced burnout in 2021, with 67% claiming that burnout got worse throughout the pandemic. In other words, burnout is everywhere – and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

The WHO cites “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” as the main cause of burnout. But according to Kristen Lee Ed.D., LICSW, who wrote about burnout in Psychology Today, there is another potential cause of burnout that we don’t often talk about: understimulation. 

Is your burnout a result of understimulation? 

But wait, you might be thinking, isn’t burnout caused by overstimulation? Burnout is generally associated with people who overdo it: too much brainstorming, too much creativity and too much mental energy placed on work. However, according to Lee, it goes both ways.

“While being overwhelmed isn’t optimal, neither is being underwhelmed,” she writes. “Think being in a job that stunts creativity or doesn’t allow you to fully utilize your talent — one where demands are high, but with low rewards… Think sedentary life and mundane tasks on autorepeat.”

If you spend the majority of your time working hard without feeling intellectually or creatively fulfilled, she explains, this will sap your energy and leave you feeling drained and – you guessed it – burnt-out.

Here’s what Lee suggests to ward off burnout caused by the dangerous mix of understimulation and overworking.

Align with your passions 

“When we’re living out of step with what we care about the most, we are likely to feel depleted and disengaged,” writes Lee. In other words, it’s hard to feel energised for the day ahead when you’re not excited about what you’re doing.

If your job doesn’t allow you to explore your passions, find another outlet in life that makes you feel passionate. It could be a new workout regime, planning a dinner party or taking an evening class. By structuring your life with things that make you passionate, you’ll soon feel re-energised.

Find variety in your work and life 

Doing the same thing day in and day out will quickly lead to boredom. Mix this type of mundanity with work-related stress and burnout is sure to follow.

“Our brains respond well to vast, dynamic experiences. While structure and routines can serve us well, ensuring we have a tapestry of opportunities that spur on awe and wonder can help mitigate the doldrums of the same old same old,” Lee explains. “Diverse experiences can be a helpful antidote when we’re in the clutches of understimulation.”

Plan a weekend trip, try a new restaurant or even take a new route to work. By spicing up your daily routine with new sights, sounds and experiences, you’ll help to re-stimulate your mind.

Be your own best advocate 

If your job simply isn’t providing the stimulation you need to feel energised about your work, don’t be afraid to say so. By putting yourself forward for more stimulating tasks, you may even find yourself with an exciting new opportunity. As Lee puts it: “Not only can this help keep burnout at bay, but can make for better work and home environments.”

Get creative with others

Being surrounded by people who don’t inspire or intrigue you can be just as understimulating as a dull job. “Work to forge connections with those who uplift and inspire you,” suggests Lee.

Try to forge stimulating connections by joining a creative class or finding a creative community online. As Lee notes: “Engaging with people who energize us can be one of the best forms of support and stimulation available.”

Learn more about dealing with burnout effectively.

Images: Getty

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