On World Mental Health Day on October 10, we hosted a #RealTalk on dealing with burnout and anxiety on Malini’s Girl Tribe. Within the current work from home environment, the line between a work-life balance can be blurry, and it can be hard to identify what you’re experiencing and how you can help yourself.

So, we invited an incredible panel of experts: Shubhika Singh, Consultant Psychologist and Founder of New Leaf and InnerKraft.com, Dr. Ambrish Dharmadhikari, Head Psychiatrist at Mpower – The Foundation and Dr. Marcus Ranney, General Manager of Thrive Global (India) to get their opinion on how to tackle anxiety and burnout. Keep reading for some key points from the webinar!

1. What is anxiety?

Dr. Ambrish shared a perspective on what anxiety can mean in different contexts:

Anxiety is a word we often use for so many things, so we need to understand there are two aspects of it. One is anxiety as an emotion, which everyone of us goes through. Even before the starting of this event, I was really anxious about how it’s going to be, and still somewhere I feel that it should go well and the internet should work fine.

But when you see it’s anxiety to an extent that causes dysfunction in your day-to-day routine—it is not letting you work or be productive, it’s affecting your professional area, personal domain or spiritual domain. And at the same time you’re always on the edge, you’re not able to be yourself. If these things are present for more than a few months, then we usually diagnose an anxiety disorder. The distinction of having anxiety for a few moments, to a few hours, to having a constant phenomena with you for a few months is the difference between anxiety as an emotion and anxiety disorder, which we consider a mental health problem.

2. What triggers anxiety?

Dr. Ambrish added:

This is a very vast point, there can be innumerate triggers for anxiety. What we need to understand is what causes anxiety. By definition, anxiety is the fear of something untoward happening. So the fear can be anything, but the major part of that fear is that something is going to happen which is going to hurt me. or which is going to endanger me. Now this hurt or endangerment can be physical, can be psychological, can be to your own self-esteem or whatever image you’re holding. So any such thing happening, or any future event which may hurt you in any relationship in any way, or you think it will cause an impairment in your functioning evokes anxiety. Anything happening in the environment which threatens you will definitely provoke anxiety.

3. What is burnout?

Dr. Marcus explained what burnout is and how it affects people around the world:

Burnout is a very interesting word because it started within colloquial narrative and then migrated its way into the medical textbooks. It was actually only two years ago that the World Health Organization classified burnout as a disease in the ICD classification of medical conditions. It’s got three major symptoms. The first one is exhaustion, which is really a reduction acutely in your energy levels. The second is apathy, which is a sort of distancing from things that you like to do, or from things that you enjoy doing. The last one is this drop in productivity and efficiency, and the ability to perform. It is something that is increasingly ubiquitous, particularly in the corporate world.

There is a fantastic book called ‘Death For A Paycheck,’ which was looking at the economic impact of this in the US market pre-Covid. They actually were able to figure out the number of deaths caused directly by work-day stress and it was 120,000. So this is something which is causing a lot of stress on a personal level, but also in the professional sphere.

4. How to deal with the guilt associated with burnout?

Dr. Marcus mentioned that post-Covid times are a great opportunity to redefine success:

When it comes to this conversation around productivity and performance, my philosophy around it is actually a little different. See, we define who we are, and we define our success in life, be it by accumulation of wealth and power. The definition of that, which has been decided by society, has really defined it as what we have. So this person is successful because they drive a nice car, or they live in a nice house, or they have a great job title, etc. What they have dictates what they do and then therefore if I do those activities then I’m happy and successful.

I think Covid-19 has been a very interesting moment for introspection for so many of us around the world. It’s time for us to flip that paradigm around. Let us begin by defining who we are as people. What is it that I am? Because when we look at the really successful people that have dented the universe in this world—Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, etc.—these are people who have created large change from a position of who they are as people. Who they are dictated what they did and that then lead to the results that they have. So I think that we if we use this time to flip the paradigm around, we no longer get distracted by little tiny things and we can actually focus on the big things in our life.

5. What are the early signs of burnout and how can we prevent its repeated occurrence?

Shubhika described the symptoms of burnout:

Burnout really leaves people feeling exhausted, empty, and unable to cope with the demands of life. And like any other physical illness, when you have any sort of mental health challenges and it’s left unaddressed, burnout as well can make it very difficult for a person to function in their daily life.

Some of the early signs to watch out for are: do you feel like disconnected from your work-related activities? Are you feeling emotionally disconnected? Are you feeling cynical about your work conditions and the people around you? You may even have chronic signs of stress, which are physical symptoms like having headaches, stomach issues or sleep disturbances. Burnout has a huge toll on how we feel mentally and emotionally, it usually leaves people feeling very tired. They’re not able to get their work done, they’re not able to concentrate well, they feel drained, and they also tend to forget a lot, so everything seems too much to handle. And so naturally your performance reduces, and that creates a negative cycle. So anybody facing the signs needs to address them—the stress levels and burnout—actively.

And by that I mean, dedicate a certain time of the day to do something to address that stress—turn on a stress management program, identify activities that make you feel better, dedicate time for that. It’s not going to go away on its own. It’s not going to go away by thinking that if my workload reduces, I’ll be fine. We need to learn how to manage it, and what also really helps is understanding what is triggering it in the first place. Is that actually workload or is that time management? What is it that makes me feel incapable of managing my work and time? And talking to a professional can be really helpful.

6. When should you access professional help?

Shubhika advised:

When we’re struggling with a mental health challenge, we think that we can just handle it. What happens is you end up spending a lot of time relying on your friends, on yourself, on Google to handle it, and often inadvertently, it makes the problem worse. So, the more severe and the worse you start feeling, the longer it will also take in counselling and therapy. So if you notice the symptoms, maybe you don’t want to address a professional immediately. But do it within a month or so, because it will take fewer sessions to sort it out when it’s milder than more severe.

7. Should tell your boss or manager about your mental health conditions?

Dr. Ambrish talked about how hard professional conversations about mental health can be:

There is no right or perfect way to communicate. Organisations want you to be productive and resilient, but you cannot be those things without sound mental health. And if you’re struggling with that, there is no shame about it. But the stigma does exist, and it goes both ways. It can be in the manager or the employee. Employees don’t want to show that they’re ‘weak,’ managers don’t want to accept it. That is why we need conversations with everyone on board, so that the topic is normalised and people have the courage to talk about it. Nowadays, organisations offer counselling services for their employees, but that still doesn’t bring the conversation around mental health in the mainstream. That needs to be incentivised in one way or another.

Have you dealt with burnout and/or anxiety? How did you manage it? Start a conversation by talking about your experience in the comments below!

Don’t forget to join Malini’s Girl Tribe on Facebook for more conversations about mental health.