Nearly four in 10 employees worldwide have reported burnout in 2023, costing businesses nearly R20 trillion. (Flickr/ https://www.microbizmag.co.uk)
It’s the middle of the year, and by now I expected to have completed at least half the tasks on my to-do list for 2023. There are just six months left for me to figure out the rest — but I’m tired.
It took me a while to give a name to the perpetual exhaustion and fatigue I have been feeling recently — to understand why I’m losing focus easily or forgetting something the second I read it, why I choose to sleep in and why I doom scroll on social media instead of interacting with people . The word is “burnout” and it’s more common than you might think.
Burnout is generally described as a constant feeling of exhaustion, low energy and a lack of motivation amid neverending deadlines and social responsibilities. It’s commonly associated with work stress but things like relationships, finances, school, exams and the impending dread of “adulting” can also contribute to you feeling emotionally, physically and mentally drained.
Let’s not forget the economic and political climate in South Africa — from the high cost of living to load-shedding, job insecurity and general uncertainty, we’re bound to feel a little extra stressed, right?
You’re not alone
Tracy Feinstein, the call centre manager at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), said that while mid-year burnout is certainly a thing, burnout can happen at any time of the year. She said there had been an increase in calls to Sadag over the past few years.
“Covid-19 is really over three years ago. We were sort of averaging between 600 to 800 calls a day, but after the first three months of lockdown, we immediately went up to about 1 500 calls a day and now we’re at about 2 500 calls,” she said, adding that load-shedding had contributed significantly to the level of mental exhaustion in South Africa.
A 2023 survey conducted by Sadag on the impact of load-shedding on mental health found that out of 1 836 participants, 42% reported feelings of depression, 60% suffered from panic or anxiety and 10% had contemplated suicide, among other stress-related conditions.
Everyone experiences burnout differently. For some, it looks like constant headaches, restlessness, frequent colds and flu, stomach issues and weight gain or loss. For others, it could be inappropriate emotional reactions, such as outbursts of anger, impatience and withdrawal from social groups or just a general disinterest in everything. It could be a combination of these and sometimes one word encompasses it — tired.
Mpho Hlakudi, who is starting out in his journalism career, said mid-year burnout is a reality for him.
“I’m totally burned out, I feel like whatever I do isn’t enough and I’m constantly pushing myself but, no matter how hard I try to work hard, it’s just not enough. I’ve got no energy. I actually struggle to get myself out of bed because that motivating energy is just gone,” he said.
“I have no energy left in me to do even the most basic of stuff and I’ve been trying to put it off and push myself but my body is not cooperating. It’s hard,” he added.
Feinstein explained that when such feelings arise, it’s good to “freeze frame” and consider your state of well-being.
Take a breather
I have noticed a pattern in my own mental health over the past few years, and the June-July period has always felt a little heavier than the rest of the year, so when the fatigue and lack of focus became apparent, I knew what I needed to do to offset it before it got worse.
Sometimes, one long sleep is not the solution to burnout, neither are countless cups of coffee or energy-boosting supplements. Instead it took discipline and tiny steps every day to regain my energy. I’ve learnt that taking small breaks in between big tasks softens intense concentration; short breathing exercises help centre my energy and, my personal favourite, finding things that make me laugh — whether it’s a show, an online skit or a person — alleviates stress.
Everyone deals with burnout differently.
Nondumiso Dlamini, a second-year master’s student in public health in the social behavioural sciences field and a project manager in Cape Town, managed to pull herself out of a severe burnout episode by speaking to the people she trusts the most.
“I try to make sure that I have good days and how I cope is just speaking to other people, venting to other people in my life, and trying to surround myself with people who can understand what I’m going through.
“I rarely converse with people who could, you know, invalidate my feelings or make me feel stupid, or whatever, for what I’m going through, even if it’s a small thing. I like to talk to people who will understand, and who will actually take the stresses of my life, seriously, but will also be able to give me some great advice but not always try to solve a problem or belittle a problem. Talking does help and having support is really helpful.”
Dlamini moved to Cape Town from Zimbabwe for work and studies, and while juggling the many responsibilities of living alone in a city far from home, she hadn’t seen her family in over a year. This led to her feeling frustrated and homesick, compounded by the stress of being a young adult during a recession.
“You have to have enough money just to live — and even more if you want to do something nice for yourself. That is part of the reason that a lot of us are, like, stressed, because it’s so difficult to make ends meet,” she said.
Abongile Nkamisa, a second-year law master’s student, had been unemployed for a long time before landing a job as a social-impact researcher in Cape Town recently. She shared about the pressure of working extra hard in a difficult economy.
“I strain myself. I over-exert myself because of having experienced unemployment. So, I felt a need to dedicate more time into proving myself in my work as I am a new employee, and I haven’t really focused on my health — personal, physical and emotional health — these have taken strain within my family setting, within my friendship groups and just socially,” she said.
‘I’m here for you’
Showing up for ourselves during high-stress periods may seem like more work, but small steps can make a big difference, and working at your own pace is important. But when the emotions get too heavy to bear, don’t forget that there is help. Lean on the strength and support of trusted friends, family members and colleagues, and if that doesn’t lighten the load, seek professional help.
Feinstein warned that some symptoms of burnout can be early signs of depression, so be aware of your feelings and know that seeking help is not a weakness, it’s a form of self-care. Also, if you can, be there for others.
“It’s not a shame to ask for guidance and the more people ask for support, the more we can try and help in that moment so that they feel less fatigued, less mentally drained and that they can feel that element of hope.
“When you know that you can take a bit of rest, recharge and get your energy back to redeliver for the next six months of this year, then we’ve got hope.”
We will be okay!
Sadag 24-hour toll-free helpline: 0800 456 789
Cipla Mental Health WhatsApp chat line: 076 88 22 775 (8am to 5pm)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0800 567 567
Adcock Ingram Depression and Anxiety Helpline: 0800 7 8 9
24-Hour Substance Abuse Helpline: 0800 12 13 14
Aarti Bhana is a content writer at frayintermedia. She is the Canon Collins Trust 2023 Mail & Guardian Scholar and a journalism master’s student at Wits.