There’s simply too much to do and not enough time, attention and resources to do it. Most people recognise this maxim to be partially true for some of the time. Yet there is something about the (post?) COVID Summer of 2022-2023 that leaves many of us with the experience of feeling exhausted from having too much to care about and too many challenges ahead.
This article approaches stress and burn-out from a different angle: if we focus on what we really care about, we can prioritise our time and attention and realise the impact of caring too much about too many things for too long. It is an alternative for stressed parents, workers and community leaders who suffer extreme fatigue and unhealthy stress!
The gallup poll State of the Global Workplace report 2022, states that workplace stress has escalated 13 years in a row with 44% of employees reporting and experiencing ‘a lot’ of daily stress, some of which ends in burn-out, or worse. But recently, the World Health Organisation redefined burn-out as chronic unresolved occupational stress as an occupational phenomenon rather than as a medical condition in the International Classification of Diseases.
Signs and symptoms
It can be difficult to tell the difference between everyday stress and a medical issue. As an ontological career coach, I disqualify myself from commenting on health issues and focus here on everyday stress. Bottom line: if you think you may need medical help (sleeping, eating, energy etc), seek a professional opinion sooner rather than later.
ABC’s Radio National aired a podcast recently that painted a vivid picture of the stress and strain of care-givers suffering extreme fatigue and burn-out. The women interviewed were driven, passionate, resourceful and brilliant. Contributors spoke authentically of experiencing
- hopelessness like a hamster on a wheel
- persistent dread
- feelings of being physically and spiritually depleted; and most often
- extreme exhaustion and not coping.
I identified with each story. While listening, I remembered my journey as a young woman who worried too much about the world, my job, inequality, and a raft of other concerns. I empathised with these women. We share a consistent theme: after caring too much about everything, we had started caring too little. I will return to my experience later.
We say ‘care’ frequently, but what does it mean? Askan Tashvir wrote this about care in his book Human Being, 2022, p. 101:
“Care impacts how you relate to what matters to you and influences you in such a way that you ensure the matters and people you care about are supported, protected or dealt with in the best manner possible. Care leads you to address whatever is necessary to nurture the person or matter and dedicate the appropriate level of time, resources and attention to them”.
In reality - we do have limited time, resources and energy. That’s why it is critical to pay attention to who and what we care about and focus on. To identify if you may be prone to caring too much, check if you find yourself with any of these patterns.
❑ Having too many daily priorities or scatter-gun reactions to ‘urgent’ requests
❑ Postponing decisions, not delivering on commitments
❑ Working longer hours and/or irregular hours
❑ Obsessing about ‘what do I do next?’
❑ Being distracted by too much WHILE being focused on too little
❑ Hoarding tasks, not delegating tasks and/or not completing tasks.
Burn-out: a vicious cycle
When people care indiscriminately about too much, spread themselves ‘too thin’ or overcommit themselves and their time, they are more likely to experience unhealthy stress. This can lead to extreme fatigue or eventually burn-out. Ironically, addressing stress by simply doing more creates even less time for care and so increases distress. Addressing it by doing nothing also increases distress. Welcome to the vicious cycle of burn-out. Stress increases exhaustion which increases distress.
There are a variety of platforms and personalities who write and speak persuasively about burn-out as an occupational hazard. There is a proliferation of articles on “How to effectively push back at work when you’re burnt out” and “How to recover from burnout and love your life again.” Most columnists give advice, some provide tips. One claimed: “eventually you bend so much you break, and that’s when burnout happens”. It’s not completely true. People don’t break, they experience break-down.
Extreme burn-out may induce break-down and is symptomatic of having too much to care about in life. An “excess” of care, worry and concern for one-self can lead to the experience of indifference to what is happening around us and disconnection from family, friends, our communities and, occasionally, from reality itself. Obsessive thinking, constant anxiety and emotional distress may signal the absence of care.
Attending to care
If we prioritise what we really care about, it may stop us caring too much about too many things and start us on the path of making decisions and taking actions on a few. With prioritisation comes focus, clarity, health, wholeness and effectiveness. Over time, instead of looking back, feeling ashamed and thinking about ‘what went wrong’, those of us who have experienced this may learn to be grateful. Reflecting on break-down and burn-out can help answer the question: how does burn-out serve us? It can teach us to break-down issues into bite-size bits, prioritise our time and life and focus on care-in-the-world.
In my case, I recovered from burn-out. I learned to ‘take time out’ and to pay attention, to be curious about and to care for myself and others. I bought myself a monogrammed towel so that I could practice daily. I also developed a ‘finger-nail-care’ indicator - something that reminded me to look after myself. Care became visceral. I learned to pause and to ask myself and others ‘what do you care about - really’? Then I could simply choose where to direct my time and attention. In recognising that I had real limitations, I found myself with the freedom to focus my care and discovered new ways to expand it.
Breaking the burn-out cycle
To interrupt burn-out, first take time out to notice. Are you operating in a world where impressing the boss, being busy and doing too much takes precedence in life. Look back at the check-list of behaviours, above. Do they signal that it is time to stop? If you are stressed and exhausted, stop immediately. Assess what you really care about and how you might respond with care. Then get real: Is the cost of failing to prioritise how you spend your time and attention really worth the price of losing what’s important to you, what you spend time nurturing, protecting and looking after.
If/when you are ready to give up burning-out and doing more to fix our ‘broken’ behaviours and ‘bad’ habits, I have questions for you. I suggest taking time-out to focus on one question per day.
- What and who do you care about - really?
- How much time and attention will you commit to what and who you care about?
- How can you recognise the signs and symptoms of distress?
- What are you indifferent to; where have you misplaced your care?
- Why do you expect yourself or others to care about x?
After a week you may notice that something has shifted. You might have developed a very real relationship with care and perhaps even refined your habits. Here you might notice that not all stress is unhealthy. Novelty, excitement and surprise can induce a healthy relationship to stress, aka eustress.
I suggest that you protect who and what you care about by dedicating your time and attention wisely. And if you think that burn-out has a lot to teach you or if you’re willing and committed to discover what it takes to transform your extreme fatigue, please reach out to me and start over - refreshed.