Eileen Wee found herself short-staffed and ended up having to cover for a few employees across multiple projects for about eight months.
The founder and managing director of a public relations and events agency in Singapore, she would work tirelessly right up until bedtime, and repeat that routine the next day.
She realized her non-stop schedule was affecting her health when she began experiencing heart palpitations and shortness of breath.
She also had trouble sleeping. Later that year, Wee went for a routine medical check-up and was told she needed to take better care of herself.
“I had gone into overdrive and the check-up was a wake-up call for me to slow down and be more mindful of my health,” she shares. “I have a high stress threshold and I love what I do, so when I was pushing myself all those months I really didn’t think it was a problem.”
Wee is a good example of someone who has experienced burnout, and she is not alone. The syndrome is so prevalent that in May this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially recognized it as an occupational phenomenon – “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.
The WHO says it leads to exhaustion; negativity or cynicism towards one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.
According to Dr Adrian Low Eng-ken, a Hong Kong-based psychologist who has done substantial research on workplace stress, burnout is a kind of energy disorder, the result of having to deal with causes of stress at work and not giving oneself the chance to rest or recharge.
Low’s research identified eight categories of workplace stress: physical stress, task-related stress, role stress, social stress, schedule-related stress, career-related stress, trauma-related stress, and environmental stress.
So, if you wear many hats at your company (your role causes you stress), struggle with meeting deadlines (schedule-related stress) and do not think that your job is an ideal one (career-related stress), then you are at risk of burning out.
If not addressed, Low says that burnout may lead to depression, which is a serious mental health condition.
Joanne Wong Chung-yan, a holistic kinesiologist and mind-body-medicine practitioner at Zhi Holistic Kinesiology in Sydney, Australia, has worked with clients who are extremely stressed at work.
The most common symptoms she sees include anxiety, creative blocks, menstrual and gynaecological disorders, headaches and migraines, high blood pressure, eczema and skin dryness, chronic neck and shoulder pain, digestive issues, and lower back pain.
Eczema or chronic neck and shoulder pain are not normally associated with work stress. Wong’s job, though, is to consider each client’s “body, mind and soul” when helping to resolve their chief complaint.
When she applies the Chinese “five elements” theory – wood, fire, earth, metal, and water are believed to be the fundamental elements of everything in the universe between which interactions occur – to their conditions, she often finds psychological stress is at their root.
“For example, in traditional Chinese medicine, conditions of the skin and areas of the lateral aspects of the neck and shoulders are governed by the metal element (lung and large intestinal meridians),” says Wong, who was born in Hong Kong but has lived in Australia for most of her life.
“The core emotional states observed when this element is in disharmony are a lack of self-worth, a lack of respect and honour, excessive focus on material possessions, and a constant need for validation,” Wong says.
“The solution is to start seeing value within that deeper part of yourself that does not identify with the modern-day trappings of success.”
Of course, not everyone who experiences work-related stress also experiences burnout.
This is because we all have different ways of coping with stress. For instance, some people are able to convert “distress” into “eustress”, or positive stress.
“These people tend to have better time management, have good relationships with all their colleagues, and find their work meaningful and purposeful,” Low says.
Much has been said about creating a better work-life balance to help manage stress, but Low says that simply distributing time equally between these domains is not enough. “It’s more about having a sense of belonging at work, finding meaning and purpose in what you do, and working towards a noble vision.”
Low, who takes a holistic view of health, says that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to minimising your risk of burnout.
On top of taking care of yourself mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually, he believes that you should assess the eight types of stress that may be having an impact on you in the workplace.
To assess this, he suggests you ask yourself questions such as, “Am I taking on more tasks than I can handle?”, “Are my personal values aligned with my company values?” and “Does my company emphasise the use of technology more than it does relationships?”.
To get her health back on track, Wee took a nine-month sabbatical – her first extended break in her 10 years of managing the business.
During this time, she got the rest that she needed. Her team took over her operational duties while she adopted a flexi-work arrangement that saw her do only consulting work.
Now that she is back at work – and feeling better than ever – Wee is more mindful of how she treats herself. Every morning, she takes walks with her husband to give her energy for the day ahead.
She also meditates, reads books that develop her spiritually, and is learning how to play the guitar.
She recently moved to a new office, which she says benefits everyone who works there.
Not only does it have a gym and a pool, it also features relaxing bay-window areas for anyone looking for a quiet, peaceful spot.
“We also have a community wall, on which everyone is welcome to post ideas on how to make the company a great place to work,” Wee adds. “Plus, we offer flexi-work hours and encourage our staff to leave work early on Friday evenings. During peak periods, we have regular check-ins to make sure that everyone feels supported in their respective roles.”
It is one thing to take your job seriously and another to have your job define your life, Wee has learned.
“Working hard is certainly important to doing well in life, but prolonged stress won’t do your health any favours. Finding meaning in what you do, being passionate about your job, enjoying regular breaks, and having things to do outside of the office are just as essential if you want to enjoy the journey.”
EASY WAYS TO MINIMISE BURNOUT RISK: WONG’S FIVE TOP TIPS
1. Start the morning with a short meditation or visualisation session. Connect deeply with the emotional states you want to experience that day. For example, do you want to feel productive and have a sense of achievement? Find meaning and joy in your tasks? Form harmonious connections with your colleagues?
2. Your lunch break is for lunch, so do not schedule or accept meetings during this time, and eat away from your desk.
3. Had a stressful interaction? Walk around the block. Allow your body to feel all the emotions you are experiencing rather than suppress them.
4. Do you need to resolve a conflict with someone? Do not enter the discussion assuming that they “have it in” for you. Always show empathy, avoid getting defensive, listen to what they have to say and give them the benefit of the doubt.
5. Take deep, conscious breaths regularly. This practice settles your nervous system.