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The trauma of the past year has triggered a burnout crisis. Discovery ways to restore balance from an expert.

Over the past few months, you’ve probably heard yourself or a loved one saying something like “I’m so burned out,” “I’m just fried,” or “I’m just so over it.” If ever there was a golden era of burnout, we are in it.

Wendy McCallum is a certified burnout and balance coach based in Nova Scotia. Her clients are mostly high-achieving women. “What I can say is in my experience, where I see burnout present is when someone is getting pressure from two different places. So, they are dealing with professional burnout but they also have caregiver burnout. Caregiver burnout is an aspect we don’t tend to think about as much. We tend to think of burnout in relation to job responsibilities, but it also occurs from caregiving responsibilities.”

Some of the women McCallum works with are struggling with the demands of very young children, while others are caring for older children and also their aging parents. “Women are working triple shifts. It’s been the perfect storm for burnout.” However, “just one factor” can create burnout, too. “I have clients who have lots of support at home, but their job responsibilities are simply overwhelming,” she says.

Physical symptoms of burnout can include fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, high blood pressure, insomnia, irritability, and gastrointestinal distress, among others. Psychological symptoms can include a sense of having no purpose, feeling low or negative about life and work, having a hard time concentrating, and having a loss of creativity.

Parsing the difference between depression and burnout is “something a physician can help a person sort through,” says McCallum, but she points out that burnout is really a condition based on circumstance. “If you are feeling these things and we look at your life and it appears you have no structure in place for self-care and taking care of the basic pillars of wellness—sleep, nutrition, exercise, and stress management/ mental health—then there’s no downside to working on that, whether you have been officially diagnosed with burnout or not.”

Healing from burnout is an ongoing process. It’s not like you can simply pop a supplement, get one good night’s rest, and feel great. “There are lots of different ways that you can immediately start supporting yourself in burnout, but none of them are going to result in an instant change in terms of how you are feeling,” says McCallum. “You really need to restructure your life. But you got there for a reason and that is because you started to prioritize everything else in your life ahead of your own self-care.” To come back from burnout, and more importantly, ensure it doesn’t happen again, you need a structure for permanent balance—a scaffolding to build your healthier life around.

Think back to a time when you felt really good and balanced. Try to identify what was in your life that has disappeared since then. Can you get those things back?

“It’s about creating a cushion, a base for resiliency,” says McCallum. She recommends habit stacking. That’s making a small, manageable change, mastering that step, and then layering on another habit. “When people are in burnout, they can’t handle massive change,” she says. “That would be just another stressor.”

Here’s an example of habit stacking: Let’s say you’re not getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night, so you set a goal of getting to bed a half-hour earlier. Do it in steps: Go to bed 15 minutes earlier for a week, then 15 minutes earlier than that the following week. Or if you’re a chronic meal skipper, just focus on having one really nutritious meal each day. For exercise, it might start with getting outside for 10 minutes. A very simple gratitude practice might be listing three things that gave you joy that day. “You can see that if over the course of a year, you made these 12 to 20 small changes, that accumulates to have a big impact on your wellness,” says McCallum. “A lot of these changes can be transformational.”

McCallum suggests getting clear on what you need less of in your life and what you need more of in your life. One tool she likes to use is red flags that can signal when balance is being lost.

“For example, when I was still practicing law, I kept a notepad by my bed so when I would wake up and couldn’t turn my brain off, I would take notes,” says McCallum. “It was just a regular thing for me. And when I left law, I told myself I will never allow that to happen again.” Now if she wakes up more than three nights in a row worrying about something at work, it’s a red flag, a sign that she needs to make a change.

You need a structure for permanent balance—a scaffolding to build your healthier life around.

Sometimes people don’t make life changes out of a false sense of “I can’t fix this.” But McCallum warns, “You also can’t pour from an empty cup. The more time you spend taking care of other people, or your responsibilities and ignoring taking care of yourself, you will reach a point where you can’t serve anyone. Full burnout is not pretty. It can be very serious in terms of physical symptoms. You may find yourself in a situation where you literally can’t do anything for anyone else.”

“We are not superhuman,” McCallum says. Eventually overwhelm wins—if we let it.

Wondering if you are in burnout? McCallum has a self-assessment tool on her website, wendymccallum.com.