How to prevent burnout from burning us completely

Physical and mental exhaustion due to excess pressure has been increasing in recent years, but with it also the search for solutions: listening to one’s own body, setting limits or expressing the emotions that come to us can help manage it better

Problems in business, upset woman. Violation of mental health and depression. Workplace out of office. Distant freelance job.
Sharing experiences with people who are experiencing physical exhaustion helps to put things into perspective.Oleg Breslavtsev (Getty Images)

In the heart of the Italian Alps, right in a small turreted house next to Lake Ledro, a group of men and women laugh around a table while eating bread rolls, cake, polenta, cheese and, to wash it down, sparkling wine, sparkling water and soft drinks. There are hugs, warm laughter, and the kind of joy one gets from family or friends with whom relationships have been forged over time. It is striking that most of them laugh like teenagers on a Saturday night, even though they have white hair and this has been an arduous day, one of many. The bonds, the natural setting and the exercise are a type of protection against an evil that is threatening to become a pandemic. And most of those here know it well. All of them come from Germany and—some more, some less—all have suffered or still suffer from exhaustion due to burnout, which means not having the strength or motivation to move forward. In fact, in Germany 61% of workers fear suffering from it, according to a report by the health insurance company Pronova, and a third of employees complain of physical and mental exhaustion, according to a McKinsey study.

For example, Jean (not his real name), who sports a white beard and a red polo shirt, stirs a pepper stew in the kitchen and thinks of one of his children when he hears about burnout. His first-born son is the head of a multinational, and in January and February he was in a clinic to learn new habits after having suffered physical and mental exhaustion. The reason? Work overload, perhaps having had to fire many people without wanting to, while knowing that some would have serious problems as a result. “What can I do as a father? How can I help my son?” the man asks himself as he shakes his head and looks down.

Shortly later, standing in the kitchen, Peter, who is the president of a local climbing club, the Deutscher Alpenverein Sektion Karlsruhe, and a retired executive who has researched burnout in depth in recent years, reflects on the depth of this problem. “Millions of euros are invested in Germany in clinics, pills, therapy and treatments, but very little in preventing it. We know what it is and how to define it, but we don’t know how to cure it. We know that there are many conditions, such as the fact that since the pandemic teleworking has skyrocketed. We do know that,” he says while observing the most senior members—women and men—of the climbing club he presides, who laugh around some bread rolls seasoned with tomato and parsley. “It is very important for managers to avoid causing stress. One in 10 adults lives alone, they work a lot and at the end of the day they are alone; some have at most only one contact with another person in the entire week. What to do?”, he reflects, takes a breath and answers himself. “Burnout is an X-ray of society. I think each person has to do what they can to fight the battle, and avoid it. I do what I can in my own small circle,” he says.

Sandra G., 47, is a social worker and a victim of burnout. She has a partner who adores her and takes care of her garden whenever he can. She presides over a gardeners’ club, plays the cello, sings and is always there for her many friends. Before experiencing the collapse, she had an intensive schedule that left her sleep-deprived and she could never stop thinking about those in her care—refugees and girls suffering from anorexia. One day she lost hope, realized that she had no strength left and had a slight issue with a colleague. Then she broke down. After several months had elapsed due to a long waiting list, Sandra was admitted by medical prescription to one of the many – hundreds – of free clinics dedicated exclusively to burnout in Germany. “At the center we did individual and group therapy, mindfulness, exercise... Being with people who have gone through the same thing as me has been the most important thing,” she explains.

Businessman with closed eyes leaning against a concrete wall
Many people go on automatic pilot, but the ideal thing is to try to figure out where the problem is coming from.Westend61 (Getty Images/Westend61)

“The first thing is to understand where everything is coming from,” says Sandra. “Imagine a child who has to take care of his siblings, the father is not there, and no one ever praises what he does. The child does not feel anything, he endures everything, but he does not feel. More is always demanded of him. When he is an adult he carries more and more responsibility,” she explains, visibly excited. “I have learned that I have to pay attention to the muscles that warn me of stress, and do exercise. Burnout can last for years, but now I know that when it happens you don’t have to quit work and drop everything. Also that people like me tend to endure without setting limits until something breaks the camel’s back and then it spills,” she adds.

For María, who lives in Spain, the last straw was the arrival of a toxic colleague at work who she did not know how to deal with. She had been feeling disillusioned and powerless for some time. She learned that she was on the verge of mental and physical collapse from the tests that were run, and her doctor told her that she must learn to relax: it would get worse if she continued like this, but her burden of responsibilities still kept growing. For years she has focused on work because she loves what she does, but she is also responsible for the full-day care of her very elderly mother. Since the Covid pandemics she has worked from home, and for years has barely gone out for fear of contagion. Now she has all the symptoms of burnout, but it is clear that she has not been able to change her toxic habits. Perhaps it is because the importance of the problem has not yet penetrated public opinion, although occupational burnout is, according to the World Health Organization, a disease.

The boiled frog

In Spain, occupational burnout in one form or another affected 43% of the population in 2022, according to the Labor Market Guide. However, it is not felt with the same severity in all cases. “There are many levels of burnout. There is also a descriptive image to explain it,” says Esther Pérez, founder of the psychology practice in Zaragoza that bears her name. “Imagine a frog that falls into a pot of warm water. The frog feels good there. You turn up the heat little by little, and the frog is still fine. But it can no longer flee when the water boils and it dies. People with burnout can be like that frog. The pressure is more than they can bear, but they believe that the problem is theirs without realizing that the pressure is unbearable,” adds the specialist, who assures that the cases she treats have increased after the pandemic. “Many people who suffer from it also have family responsibilities,” adds the psychologist, who asks people to keep in mind that burnout is real and can be an opportunity to change your life if you act in time.

Gustavo Diez, founder and director of Nirakara, an institute specialized in mental health research and training, has been making proposals for years to improve quality of life, and to avoid burnout and its causes. “The brain seeks to keep us alive and does so by promoting balance. For example, an exhausted elite athlete will have post-competition depression and lack of motivation because the brain generates behaviors and emotions to avoid tasks that put us at risk. (…) There are different cases. There are people who need therapy because their childhood was difficult, the reason for others is excess professional pressure,” adds Diez, who, since founding Nirakara, has conducted researched on the brain together with university laboratories. “To avoid burnout, it is essential to know ourselves, evaluate what we want and be aware of our values. Knowing that this is our lifetime, and that life ends,” he explains.

Portrait of a dreadlock braid woman sitting by the open window at the white wall
To avoid burnout, it is essential to know ourselves, evaluate what we want and our values.Fiordaliso (Getty Images)

For Emiliano Brunet, a biologist researching brain evolution at the International Center for Human Evolution of Burgos (CENIEH) and collaborator at the Center for Research in Neurological Diseases, the most important thing is to develop awareness and get out of automatic pilot mode; that is the protection against collapse and the way to avoid problems. “The brain is a muscle that is trained, and attention is a practice that is learned. Most people live automatically and that can lead to collapse,” says Brunet, for whom the key to preventing ailments such as burnout is to train the brain in the same way as a muscle. “To educate attention, the first thing is to return to the body. Paying attention to breathing and the senses is a way to engage attention,” he explains. That led him to practice mindfulness: “It’s about gymnastics for the brain; This leads you to get out of the automatic life, to observe and make decisions that avoid problems. Fifteen minutes of daily meditation changes your life,” he asserts. For Brunet, the definitive thing is to act: “Be attentive and know what can happen to you if you continue on the same path; and know what you want. What we have to do is make decisions and act, although that is the most difficult thing of all.”

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