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January 24, 2024

Is It Stress or Is It Burnout?

Post By:
Tracy Schuldiner
In-House Contributor
Chief Advancement Officer
211 Broward
Guest Contributor:

Feeling uninspired at work? Have you noticed that the things that used to excite you about  work no longer do?  Were you the type that wanted to finish everything on your desk before you left for the night, but now find yourself saying, “what’s the point, it will still be here tomorrow”? Do you find yourself daydreaming during important tasks in the middle of the day?  If you answered yes to these questions, then you need to keep reading!  

What we’re talking about here is Burnout…and these days, the struggle is real- and clinical

According to McKinsey & Company, 50% of women in leadership roles are experiencing burnout and 42% of all women working full time report they have been “often or almost always” burned out. Of course, these percentages vary based on industries, job roles, and specific demographics, but the statistics are staggering. 

How Did We Get Here?

You may be surprised to know that burnout rates were actually increasing pre COVID, but then, like many other challenges, the pandemic exacerbated the situation. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, burnout is actually in the ICD-10 (similar to the U.S. DSM) as of 2019. “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • 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.

Burnout refers specifically to what happens in the workplace and does not necessarily describe experiences in other areas of life. Burnout rates have significantly increased since COVID, as we are still trying to identify what the “new normal” looks like. 

It’s also important to realize that burnout is a physiological phenomenon that occurs in your brain. According to the Yale School of Medicine, research shows that brains exposed to prolonged stress experience a thinning of the gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, which typically helps us to act appropriately. The prefrontal cortex gives us insight about ourselves and others, and allows complex decision-making including thoughtful, abstract reasoning rather than concrete or habitual responses.

By weakening that area, experts say burnout can impact our ability to pay attention and retain memories, making it harder to learn new things and increasing the risk for mistakes. Further, burnout can enlarge the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for our “fight-or-flight” response. 

According to Yale researcher Dr. Amy Arnsten, “It’s a double whammy. At the same time the prefrontal cortex is getting weaker and more primitive, the brain circuits that generate emotion like fear are getting stronger.” Basically, “You start seeing the world as harmful even when it’s not.”

With so many people experiencing burnout, and science clearly identifying the why behind what we are feeling physically, I decided to get a personal take on what burnout feels like, from Tracy Schuldiner, a colleague I respect fellow Daily Drip Thought Leader and a woman in self-proclaimed burn out recovery. 

Tracy is not alone. The inspiration for this piece came from knowing so many more women who are struggling with burnout.

In the interest of the greater good, Tracy sat down with me for a very REAL and very brave conversation about her experience with burnout. Our hope is that readers will know what to look for and what can be done about it. Here’s what she had to say.

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Julie: When did you know you were experiencing burnout? 

Tracy: I resisted it for a long time. I kept saying, “But I love my job, I’ve always loved my job.” We both are passionate about the work that we do, which is probably what gets us into this situation in the first place. But loving what we do, especially when we are helping others that really need help, doesn’t mean that we should be sacrificing ourselves and our happiness. 

Julie: What were some of the early warning signs that you were noticing (or not) that made you realize you may be experiencing burnout?

Tracy: It didn’t happen overnight. Burnout is typically something that occurs gradually, like “a slow burn”.   Pay attention to the early warning signs…I heard the whispers but ignored them. I would talk to my staff about taking care of themselves and they would tell me “It’s the pot calling the kettle black”. 

It wasn’t necessarily that I was ignoring it. For some, this is a new experience because we have been working so hard for so long, and have always been able to shoulder it. We don’t want to admit that COVID took its toll on all of us.

Unfortunately, I dismissed many of the early warning signs because I LOVE my job!  I am a perfectionist, and my ethical and moral compass motivated me to not only complete tasks, but to exceed expectations. But I began to drop the ball.

At first, it happened periodically during and after working on high-level projects such as producing events, which I passionately love. For me, it became more severe once the pandemic arrived, and then when the world reopened. For well over two years, much like many of my colleagues, I was activating numerous projects and events within a very short period.  This approach now just seems to be the new pace of life.  

I would feel as if I was having an “out of body experience,” much like being in the twilight zone- extreme fatigue, headaches, challenges with multi-tasking, high levels of stress. And as it became extreme and prolonged, I began to feel depressed and a certain level of detachment.  All of this was very confusing for me as I love what I do, and I am a high achiever.  

Julie: What can you do when you begin to notice the signs? What is helpful and what is not helpful?   

Tracy: My biggest mistake was to continue pushing through tasks and life while not giving myself the space for self-compassion and self-care. I really wasn’t taking this seriously.

It’s really more about preventing it from getting to that point. The whole self-care thing is real and even though I was practicing daily self-care, it wasn’t enough to keep up with the pace. So many women that I have spoken with talk about both the physical as well as mental toll our changed lifestyle created.  Working from home and knowing that there was enough work to keep us busy 24/7 made it difficult to “justify” sitting on the couch and watching Netflix without the computer on my lap. 

Julie: In your opinion, what do you want people to know about burnout? 

Tracy: Burnout is REAL!  And not everyone will understand or support you! Our society has celebrated workaholics and high achievers.  I proudly wore that badge for nearly two decades and was proud of my accomplishments, but today I struggle with the costs. 

If you think about it, many Gen Zs talk about how they don’t want to live for work, they want to work so they can live.  That is a very different mentality from the Gen Xs that were raised by Boomers, those that had to work hard to survive. Now, there are many different thought processes about this, but it seems like the Gen Zs will not struggle with burnout the way many these days are struggling- only time will tell on that one. Every generation has its challenges but I don’t think burnout will be theirs, maybe because of the intensity of burnout they are witnessing in us.

Julie: What can we do to support those struggling with burnout? 

Tracy: In a perfect culture, tools and support would be provided to avoid the advancement of burnout.  Some people will need to create their own burnout recovery action plan without workplace support.  I became my own crusader and created and implemented healthy boundaries (easier said than done). I take time for self-care (beyond getting a massage or taking a break from email), and I try to connect with others that are experiencing burnout or have come out the other side of burnout.  I used online resources like podcasts, Facebook groups, and reading blogs like this.  That is where I found my people, tools, and hope.  Of course, working in the mental health space, therapy was really helpful as well in helping me unhook from the pace so that I could find my joy again.  

Julie: You are being so brave to share your story- what compelled you to talk about your experience with burnout? 

Tracy: Because I work in the mental health space, it was really important for me to decrease stigma and prevent others from experiencing the burn! Burnout is mental and physical and not for the faint of heart. With careful attention, burnout can be prevented. I want other people to know that they should pay attention to their level of stress and to their bodies. 

If you feel like you may be struggling with burnout, here are five tips to get you through:

1. Pay attention to the consistency of the early signs and set boundaries in advance of feeling overwhelmed.

2. Be intentional about timing.

3. Be unapologetic about taking care of yourself.

4. Do the work: This could be therapy, reading books, listening to podcasts, going to a support group, boost your social activity, meditate, journal, practice gratitude. 

5. Here are some great additional resources that have helped me:

  • Caitlyn Donovan’s Fried podcast and Facebook group
  • Adam Grant podcast
  • A book called Boundary by Terri Cole and the Terri Cole podcast

6. Recognize that burnout impacts your brain and when you’re tempted to “push through”, ask yourself “Is this good for my brain?” AND “Is this good for my soul?”. (Daniel Amen)

Coauthor: Dr. Julie Radlauer-Doerfler, LMHC