In my work with many wonderful clients over the past few years one issue comes up a lot, and that is a confusion between burnout and overwhelm. If you are familiar with my work you will know that I teach that stress is good, and that it is not stress itself, but rather our reaction to stress that causes us to burnout. Don’t get me wrong. Burnout is a reality. It was defined in 2019 by WHO as workplace stress syndrome that has not been effectively managed, and it has specific symptoms namely :
- 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.
I and many others work from the premise that burnout as defined by the WHO is a systemic issue, and its redress will be a holistic review of what it is to be a human in the 21st century, and the role and place of work within this. Not a small project. Nevertheless an individual who is experiencing burnout can address their situation, move away from that, and begin to blossom again.
The first step in overcoming burnout is deep rest, with support or co-regulation from another as you begin to stabilise, re-evaluate and to take gentle action to support your return to wellbeing and resilience. In burnout you are not able yet to return to effectiveness and productivity, and understanding this is the key to knowing if you are in fact spinning your wheels in overwhelm which, though related to burnout is quite a different thing requiring a different response. So if you think this might be you, buckle up and read on.
WHAT IS OVERWHELM?
While your experience of overwhelm will be individual to you we can say that in general overwhelm is an emotional state in which you are struggling to cope with or deal with your current situation. This state is often characterised by feelings of:
- being buried
These feelings are usually accompanied by issues of volume i.e. that there is simply too much going on to cope with. You may also feel that there just are not enough hours in the day. ‘I ‘m so busy’, ‘I’m spinning my wheels’, ‘I have so much to do’……
Overwhelm looks like this:
confusion about what to do, low productivity, procrastination, an unclear plan. “I don’t know what to do, I’m just so busy.” Your mind is so busy trying to figure out how to get it all done, where to start, but in fact you are actually doing very little, not being effective, not making progress on your to do list. The key thing to understand here is that in overwhelm being busy has nothing to do with your to-do list. It has to do with you spinning in your head, with how many thoughts you have going on in your brain, When you make a list of what you’ve actually produced, or what work you have accomplished in a day and it’s very little, it’s because you’ve been overwhelming.
The Good News About Overwhelm
Recognising overwhelm is fantastic. It is not the same as burnout. It is spinning your wheels, getting little or nothing done, maybe beating yourself up a bit about this, and worrying about burnout. Take some specific action and you will not burnout. Rather you will get back into your groove, gather momentum and move out of overwhelm. The key difference in responding to overwhelm rather than burnout is that is that while in burnout deep rest is a natural first response if you are in overwhelm resting is not the answer. Rather your pathway out of overwhelm is actually to plan and to do more.
The solution to this is to actually plan and do more.
Getting out of Overwhelm
Spring Clean you brain
This is where you take an honest look at your ‘busyness’….maybe worrying all day and even perhaps outside of work, about how busy you are while at the same time getting very little done, procrastinating, feeling stuck, not being effective in what you do.
Spring Clean your space
If you are in overwhelm it is likely that your physical space reflects this with anything for untidiness to chaos. Dedicate a few hours to tidy up, pare back, simplify, beautify your physical space. This is intentional work – preparing your brain for a re-ordering away from being stuck on old brain, ‘firefighting’ stress response and inviting you calmer pre frontal cortex to step up.
Plan your day
When you plan properly with your prefrontal cortex, you don’t end up
emergency-ing with your primitive brain. If you are not planning and you’re
constantly reacting, you’re going to be high on cortisol and you’re going to
be constantly putting out fires. You’re going to be constantly declaring an
emergency in your brain. This will wear you out. This will keep you in overwhelm until you eventually do burn out. So devise a simple plan – your priority for the day, maybe 3 tasks you commit to, build in some rest periods, and a clear beginning and end of your workday. If your work is with people include in your plan some ‘unavailable’ time when you can make progress on paperwork.
Journal at day’s end
Your journaling is about:
- acknowledging what you have achieved
- reviewing the effectiveness of your planning, prioritising, time blocking
- practising letting go of perfectionism
- expressing gratitude
You can do these four journaling steps in as little as five minutes on as little as one page. So build in this time. Make it part of your planning for every day.
If you are stuck in overwhelm these small actions will get you unstuck and move you back to your calmer, happier, more effective self.
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