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Key to Beating Burnout: Prioritizing Self-Care

Image of Key to Beating Burnout: Prioritizing Self-Care. U.S. Army soldiers load a simulated patient on to a New Jersey National Guard UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter during a combat lifesaver course run by the Medical Simulation Training Center on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, April 14, 2022. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Matt Hecht)

Many service members work in high stress high intensity environments. The demands of the mission and challenges posed by military life can lead to a risk of burnout for even the strongest among us.

"No one is immune to burnout," said U.S. Air Force Reserve psychologist Lt. Col. Jennifer Gillette.

What is Burnout?

Gillette, who supports the director of psychological health at the Air Force Medical Readiness Agency, says common symptoms of burnout include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension
  • Stomach distress
  • Poor sleep
  • Over-eating
  • Heavy drinking

Lesser-known symptoms involve emotional disconnection, insensitivity, sarcasm, and cynicism, leading to a lack of empathy or feelings of incompetence.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Daniel Gross, flight commander at the 633rd Medical Group at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, in Hampton, Virginia, says burnout is "a syndrome that results in response to running out of energy and emptying the tank." Burnout occurs when an individual has an imbalance between "responsibility and task compared to the opportunity to rest and recharge".

Service members face a higher risk of burnout when individual or unit "op-tempo" intensifies. Nancy Skopp, a clinical psychologist at the Defense Health Agency Psychological Health Center of Excellence, said "When a person begins to notice fatigue, physical and mental exhaustion, poor motivation, and emotional withdrawal, these are signs to seek guidance from a mentor or mental health professional."

Diagnosing burnout involves identifying reduced stress tolerance, increased irritability, decreased job performance, or relationship stress resulting from exhaustion.

Battling Burnout

"We must take care of ourselves if we want to prevent burnout. We can’t expect our cars to keep running if we don’t fill them up with gas and take them in for regular maintenance,” said Gillette. “If we just keep driving without taking care of our cars or ourselves, we will find ourselves broken down on the side of the road calling for help”.

Self-care tips include:

  • Eating well
  • Prioritizing time for relaxation and fun
  • Exercising regularly
  • Developing good sleep habits
  • Establishing strong work-life boundaries
  • Separating work and personal life
  • Nurturing a sense of humor
  • Building strong relationships with co-workers
  • Recognizing distress signs and seeking help

If you or someone you care about experiences burnout, talk to your doctor or a trusted individual for assistance.

According to U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Catherine Callendar, deputy director of psychological health for the U.S. Air Force, “We want to make sure we’re looking for social support. This may sound simple, but the reality is, there’s so much research that tells us when we talk to somebody who is supportive of us, there are positive neurochemical changes that take place in the brain.”

Gillette says one key to prevention is self-awareness. “Practicing mindfulness can help us learn to tune into ourselves more, takes us off autopilot, and become more aware of the present moment.”

Gillette characterizes positive coping strategies as a “psychological first aid kit.” They offer reminders to use positive coping mechanisms, like calling a friend who makes you laugh, going for a run, or listening to motivational speakers.

"And we really do feel better for very tangible reasons. So, seeking social support, and talking to friends, and family can prove very beneficial to us."

All service members, especially health care providers, must take time to support their colleagues and seek support when necessary.

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Last Updated: September 28, 2023
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