How to spot burnout before you crash

The key to any change is to identify you need one in the first place

When you have been slacking off, it is easier to blame everyone around you than take a hard look at why you are unwilling or unable to get the job done.The new year has come and gone, and if you are like most of us, you did not have much time to stop and ponder the subtle mysteries of your life’s evolution. Self-exploration is neither fun nor otherwise immediately rewarding for most of us.

It is, however, tremendously useful over the long term and crucial if personal growth and positive change is something you value (and who among us doesn’t?).

Trouble is, most of us are so busy trying to keep up with our work we end up feeling like we are just barely treading water. So much so that stopping to enjoy the fruits of our labor can seem like an unearned luxury. I mean, it is hard to savor anything when it seems you are always falling behind on almost every single task list—professional or domestic.

I know the feeling well. To wit, it is a gorgeous winter day here in Miami; a rare, crispy day with the highs in the 60s and an impossibly blue sky overhead. Meanwhile, I have just declined a walk with my partner and the pups to craft a timely post on the evils of overdoing it.

Ironies aside, it is a perfect reminder of the professional perils many of us have accepted as the cost of doing business in the often-all-consuming veterinary profession. Indeed, it is when we start engaging in certain patterns of behaviors a bit too often that we have to honestly question whether burnout is on the horizon.

As someone who has crashed and burned before, I have learned identifying burnout early on is key to preventing a repeat performance. To that end, here are some common questions you should ask yourself if you have been feeling squirrelly as of late:

Do you feel uncomfortable when not busy?

For some of us, this is the first sign we are losing our grip on reality. We obsess over getting things done—all in the name of our Type A personalities. I am here to tell you, yes, this is an illness. It is a socially acceptable one, to be sure, but is a literal “dis-ease” nonetheless.

Obsessing like this is not healthy, and it is wise to understand not getting everything done is OK, too. Make your lists, sure, but learn to prioritize and do not procrastinate on the most important items.

Does a sense of ease and comfort elude you unless you’re tuning out entirely?

Do you need a glass of wine (or two) every night to unwind? Require the company of some truly mindless TV to take your brain for a joy ride? Enjoy the call of some high-quality weed to punctuate your workdays? Does most every night out turn into a high-octane funfest? Does doom-scrolling through you favorite social media apps tend to consume you?

Some of the above is OK, but when it is clear you are using these as an excuse to disengage as much as possible from the real world, it is time to question whether these behaviors are having real-life consequences (i.e. an egregious degree of procrastination, damage to your relationships, a negative impact on your health, etc.).

Are you engaging in extreme or risky behavior?

Are you secretly dating someone at work? Snagging unpaid-for items at your local store? Swiping right on those apps a little too often? Over-shopping on eBay? Overcommitting to Fantasy Football or online poker? Need I go on?

It may seem minor to you, but that is often the hallmark of problem behavior. The rewards are such that we have a tendency to minimize the risks we are taking. Before you know it, all manner of debt come due.

Are you spending less time with IRL relationships than online connections?

This is an increasingly common problem I have identified as a red flag for early burnout. If you find yourself preferring to hang out with your favorite Twitch, YouTube, TikTok, or OnlyFans personality than with your significant others, you might need to interrogate yourself before blaming your relationships (or lack thereof).

Do you find yourself losing your composure at work?

Did you recently fire a client on a whim when she questioned your approach to her cat’s treatment? Made a new tech cry because she came too close to your sterile field? Burst into tears when you dropped an ovarian pedicle and couldn’t keep it together long enough to finish the surgery on your own?

Losing your temper when you are stuck in traffic is stressful enough. Losing your composure at work on a regular basis (once a week?) is a sure sign all is not right with your world, and it requires some close examination of your work life and burnout status.

Are you either feeling overwhelmed and/or slacking off at work?

Does a sense of malaise seem to overtake you as you pull into the parking lot in the morning? Are you greeted by a wave of overwhelm as you walk into your first exam room of the day? Does accomplishing what you are expected of every day seem like a Herculean task-list best suited to three of you instead of just one?

If you are overwhelmed in an environment where others seem to thrive (especially in one where you once thrived), you have to ask yourself: Do I need a break? Is my personal life affecting my job? Do I need to change something about this workplace? This situation requires a great deal of openness and honesty from yourself and with your colleagues, boss, family, and friends.

It is easy to blame your boss or co-workers for X, Y, or Z transgression (or failing). When you have been slacking off or overwhelmed, it is easier to blame everyone around you than take a hard look at why you are unwilling or unable to get the job done.

Is this the profession for you? Are you simply a mismatch with your current work environment?

If you have tried working elsewhere and had the same experience, maybe it really is a you problem.

Being honest with yourself is what works best here. After all, you deserve to find the best work situation for your own individual set of needs.

Do you prefer to stay inside to catch up with work on your only real day off?

Do you put off vacations until you are practically hanging by your fingernails trying to keep it all together? Workaholism is another one of those socially acceptable addictions most of us raised in Puritan-influenced Western cultures consider more virtuous than vicious, but that’s what makes it an especially pernicious precursor to burnout.

What’s the solution?

Jump off the hamster wheel. Break old habits. Get some therapy. Find a support group. Take more time off. Be grateful for what you have. All of which are way easier said than done, but they’re absolutely doable…eventually…gradually.

Just remember, the key to any change is to identify you need one in the first place. Spot it early and you are way less likely to crash and burn.

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami and is available at Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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