Feeling Burnt Out? I’m Not Surprised, and You Shouldn’t Be Either

lack-of-focus-300x249A few years ago, I had a large influx of clients. Within a month and a half, I welcomed seven new clients. Of the seven, six confided that they were on leave from work for burnout! One was on sick leave for burnout for the third time and, believing there must be some underlying cause, did his own research and discovered he’d been suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) all along.

I was intrigued by this seeming coincidence. I began reviewing my files to determine the number of clients, past and current, who had mentioned suffering from burnout at some point in their lives. I was shocked to discover that over half, 54%, of my clients had been on sick leave for burnout, depression or stress-related health problems at least once in their professional lives. Some had had several periods of stress-related sick leave.

I began digging deep into the literature and found one study that had been conducted on a group of people who were on long-term disability for burnout or stress-related health issues. What they found astounded me. Within that pool of 62 people, they found 24% suffered from ADHD and up to 56% met the criteria for ADHD but testing results were inconclusive because of other confounding issues.

When you consider that the incidence of adult ADHD in the general population is 4 to 8%, this indicates that there’s an increased risk for adults with ADHD; they are three to six times more likely to suffer from burnout or stress-related health problems.

Seeking to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms of burnout, I began to research in earnest. While there is no diagnosis of “burnout”, we understand it to be extreme exhaustion brought on by prolonged periods of stress. As I learned more, I realized ADHD-related burnout was quite different from neurotypical or “textbook” cases of burnout.

ADHD-Related Burnout vs. “Textbook” Burnout

The underlying cause or reason that people burn out differs between the two groups. Neurotypicals (people without ADHD) who burn out often do so because they are trying to prove themselves. They (or others, such as their parents) face high expectations and are trying to “over-perform” as a way of getting noticed. People with ADHD burn out because of the stress brought on by a fear of losing their jobs.  They work harder and put in longer hours trying to catch up because they don’t feel productive. They try to make up for their poor productivity and to hide the shame they feel about their inability to meet their workload.

Neglecting your own needs can exacerbate burnout. These two groups (neurotypicals vs. adults with ADHD) neglect their needs for different reasons; whereas ADHDers skimp on sleep, abandon exercise routines and work through their lunch hour and late into the night in an effort to keep up with what they see as the “normal” demands of their job, neurotypicals do the same but because they choose to use that time to fit in more projects that will give them more visibility.

Another difference between the two groups is that while in both “textbook” and ADHD-related burnout, employees suffer from cognitive impairment such as lack of focus, poor short-term memory and challenges with managing their emotions, for neurotypicals, the impairment is due to their prolonged stress and will abate after a period of rest. For adults with ADHD, the cognitive impairment is typically symptomatic of their ADHD (made worse by the stress to be sure) and is at the source of the burnout. Those symptoms remain even after long periods of rest, so a second or even a third bout of burnout is inevitable unless changes are made beyond simple rest, because the source of the burnout has not been addressed.

Recognizing the Source of Burnout is a Prerequisite to the Right Treatment

It’s true that in all burnout cases, rest is needed to reduce the effects of prolonged stress. However, for ADHDers, the treatment must also include an “attack” on the underlying source of the burnout, by managing the ADHD symptoms. The objective is to reduce the level of impairment resulting from the ADHD, and so allow the ADHDer to improve his or her work performance. One of the most dramatic ways to optimize focus improve productivity is for the ADHD-burnout sufferer to learn ADHD-friendly energy and time management strategies as well as organizational strategies. Helping the ADHD employee build awareness of the signs of overwhelming stress and helping them prepare a plan of action to enable them to respond to it effectively is essential to prevent future burnouts.

Finally, beyond simple rest, burnout victims benefit enormously from “recovery activities” such as improving health hygiene (sleep, exercise and nutrition), connecting with family and friends and engaging in creative activities. These help reduce the effects of stress and cut the level of stress to a manageable level.

In today’s society, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to eliminate stress that could lead to burnout.  However, we can learn to effectively manage that stress by recognizing the true underlying causes of ADHD-related burnout and treating the problem at the source.

Preventive Medicine for ADHD

stressedSometimes, I feel like an ambulance driver; I seem to meet my clients for the first time in a crisis situation. Over the years, I’ve noticed, and recent scientific studies have confirmed my observations, that burnout occurs almost six times more often in adults with ADHD than in the general population. I can believe that, since many of my clients contact me because they’ve had a burnout in the past, they are on sick leave from a burnout or they feel they are on the verge of burning out. While it’s gratifying to be a “lifesaver,” (marriage saver, job saver or sanity saver, depending on the crisis!) I thought some preventive medicine might make a nice change!

Ever Wonder Why You Hear Sirens All the Time?
Considering how un-ADHD-friendly modern life can be, with the constant interruptions of cell phones, text messages, emails and less-than-monk-like cubicle farm neighbors, I’m not surprised most ADHD adults struggle to stay focused on one thing long enough to make any headway. A lack of proactive thinking in many organizations has people playing “fire fighter,” rushing from emergency to emergency, putting out fires that could have been prevented.

At the end of the day, despite working a full 8 hours (8 hours? Ha!), your To-Do list is longer than when you started and tasks you scheduled but never had a chance to complete because of the constant interruptions are now added to the pile of last-minute crises that will ensure this situation will repeat next week, next month and next year! What can you do but take work home or stay late trying to complete things at the last minute?

If It Happened Before, It’ll Probably Happen Again
If this is your reality, you are probably overwhelmed and dissatisfied with your work. If it continues like this for any length of time, statistically, you’re headed for a burnout! Many people throw up their hands and walk away, quitting, being fired or going on sick leave, but until they put preventive strategies in place, the typically situation repeats itself when they return to work!

Seven Burnout Prevention Strategies
These 7 strategies will improve your work satisfaction, reduce overwhelm and stress, prevent burnout and help you gain control of your life:

  1. Take extreme self-care – exercise every day, get 7 to 8 hours of shut-eye; you’ll need plenty of sleep to stay energized and focused.
  2. Strategically “schedule” your interruptions; protect your high-energy periods to ensure peak performance.
  3. Schedule the right types of tasks at the right time of the day to ensure you optimize your time and stay energized.
  4. Develop the habit of checking and answering emails during off-peak, less productive time.
  5. Create systems to deal with repetitive but complicated activities that tend to cause crises.
  6. Take a 20 to 30-minute rejuvenation break when it will do you the most good, when you are mentally and physically wiped. Soldiering on instead only makes it worse.
  7. Schedule activities or appointments to force you to get out of the office at the end of the work day.

The strategies are simple, but like most simple things, they aren’t always easy to implement. Starting an exercise program is always easier if you have an incentive and you can use some of the same effective techniques to implement your anti-burnout strategies; partner with a buddy, join a class or hire a personal trainer. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach.

The Buddy System
It’s fun to go to the gym with a buddy, so you’re more likely to show up, but you know they’ll let you off easy so you don’t always get the maximum benefit from your investment.

A Group Coaching Program
Group coaching combined with training allows you to get all the benefit of the buddy system, except on a bigger scale, because you work with a small group of people who share similar challenges, develop friendships that last long after the class ends, and who encourage each other, but you also have an expert who guides you every step of the way, and pushes you to do just a little bit extra so you get the maximum benefit from your investment.

Work With a Personal Trainer
And just like at the gym, one-on-one time with a coach is expensive but effective. You schedule appointments at your convenience, work as hard and fast (or slow and easy) as you want, you get exactly the help you need when you need it and the results can be amazing.

Of course, in all cases, the results depend entirely on the investment (time, effort and money) you’re willing to make, but if you’re tired of being tired, sick of living on the precipice looking into the abyss of a total loss of control in your life, make changes now. A little prevention goes a long way.

The Maximum Productivity Makeover is a highly effective group coaching and training program in one. For more information on how it can work for you, click here.