Previously I mentioned that in making the decision to take a sabbatical I asked myself, “am I really burnt out enough to make taking time off the best choice for me?” and that it wasn’t an easy question to answer.
What precisely constitutes burnout?
You know you’re burned out when things that used to motivate you to get up early and work through lunch, or after quitting time, now feel like burdens. Not just work stuff, burnout starts affecting your life outside work, on things that you thought had nothing to do with work.
A challenging situation or over-stressed situation leading to burnout?
You’re challenged when, even if you don’t know how to get through it, you have in your mind a structure, a way of getting through it. You know you can figure it out, you just have to work it out, and the process of working through it energizes you. You’re over-stressed when you don’t see a way through, or when you see the way through but dread doing the necessary things. Serious burnout shows up as being unable to muster the mental and emotional energy or focus to even figure out a way through, even though you can remember dealing with similar situations in the past.
Different people have different tolerances for stress
Tolerance for stress depends, in part, on a person’s level of resilience: your ability to face reality exactly as it is, your sense that what you do will have some meaningful impact, and your self-confidence in your ability to handle the situation. You might remember a time when you were a kid and something you dealt with seemed like the end of the world, but now you look back and wonder what the big deal was. Your ability to manage stressful situations grew.
Some of the stressful things that had happened to me at my job were novel to me, and looking back now I can objectively see that I wasn’t ready to handle the challenge.
In short, when you’re burnt out, you’re tired even when you get enough sleep, you are reflexively cynical and critical of the work, and you begin to feel like problems you should be able to handle require extraordinary efforts. Those feelings happen now and then when you’re not burnt out, but if it becomes chronic, that’s burnout.
It’s now been a bit over a month since my last work day, and a good two months since I first started considering whether or not I needed to take a sabbatical. With hindsight I am certain I was burnt out. Now that I’ve stepped away, and my thinking is clearer, it’s easy to be sure. That’s the thing about burnout, though – it’s hard to realize it’s happening precisely because of the effects on the mind when it’s happening.