Modern dads today are at extreme risk of burnout thanks to busy schedules, parenting duties and global pandemics. We’ve been forced to burn the candle at both ends, and not always by choice. Many of us have been adapting to working from home (usually at the kitchen table, let’s be honest here), attempting to homeschool our kids, not to mention supporting our partners and trying to keep a spark in the relationship. This has translated into months of working 14-hour days, crashing into bed, hopefully sleeping through the night, and then starting all over the following day. If this sounds like how you’ve lived lately, keep reading. Knowledge is power, so understanding burnout (truly understanding) is the first step to treating and preventing it in the future.
What does burnout look like?
Burnout is a medical syndrome that occurs when you’ve been running in stress mode for too long. It does not happen overnight, which is why people often don’t recognize they’re burning out until it feels like it’s too late. Learning to recognize the stages of burnout is a great way to identify, treat and then prevent it from occurring in the future in both yourself and your partner.
When I’m working with Dads in my office (and managing my own burnout prevention), there are four stages I look for. Ideally, becoming aware of these stages allows you to catch yourself while you’re in stage one or two. This will enable you to manage where the stress is coming from. But, if left unchecked, stages three and four require a lot more energy to recover from. And that’s what we want to prevent.
I like to call Stage One Burnout the “Honeymoon Phase.” When we’re under increased stress, our bodies adapt to it by releasing a hormone in our bodies known as adrenaline. Think of adrenaline as stress on steroids. Literally. Adrenaline is GREAT in small amounts. Physiologically, adrenaline increases our heart rate, our blood pressure and decreases our appetite. Mentally it allows us to focus, juggle more balls, and run away from a bear while still getting all the things done. In essence, adrenaline makes us “Super Dad.” Feeling this way is excellent, at first, because we’re able to keep up with the demands of life without dropping anything. However, adrenaline is supposed to be a short-term response, as our bodies are not designed to be under this amount of stress over very long periods of time.
When we enter stage two, that adrenaline starts to wear us down. We’re supposed to be able to run away from a bear and then rest. But if Stage One Burnout continues, we’re not getting the second (and necessary) half of that equation. Hello, Stage Two Burnout. Although we can still juggle things and get them done, we start to notice it doesn’t feel as good. That level of output doesn’t bring the satisfaction it once did. We begin to lose interest in things we love. A significant sign that we’ve entered Stage Two Burnout is at night. You might notice you stay up a bit later because you’re craving that “alone time” – may be just yourself or with your partner. It’s not always conscious either, but we forfeit some sleep to gain some adult time.
Stage Three Burnout is where Dad’s really start to notice that something is not quite right. There is very little joy in our work, and we’re finding that we have a very short fuse at home with our partner and our kids. We tend to overreact to minor stressors and then feel bad about it only seconds later. But it still feels like the damage is done. We balk at the idea of going outside and playing a game of soccer with the kids when all we want to do is sit on the couch and numb ourselves with a drink or a screen or the TV. You might notice that “Dad Bod” is appearing, and, in all honesty, there’s no sex drive because you just really want to go to sleep.
Stage Four Burnout is the bottom of the barrel. Along with weight gain, hyperirritability and a complete lack of motivation, there are also more dangerous things at play, like anxiety and depression. Those big labels only serve to reinforce what else is happening. At this point, we’re craving salt and sugar, there’s NO sex drive, we don’t wake up rested, we crash out in the afternoon but then we get a second wind just as we climb into bed, and it’s almost impossible to get a good night’s sleep.
Once Stage Four Burnout is hit, you need to have your whole medical team on board. This is not something you should be handling by yourself, as it’s challenging to identify the difference between Burnout and Depression. Stress leave from work may be indicated, as long as you have a plan to recover and return in place. The first step to recovery at Stage 4 is to reduce the adrenaline response and teach your body how to run on its normal circadian rhythm.
None of us want to feel Burnt Out. We want to enjoy life, our partners and our families. We don’t want to feel resentment toward our children, and mostly, we all want to be present with our family. The Modern Dad is not the Dad we grew up watching on tv. We all know that. The Dad who drops his briefcase by the door and sits down at a perfectly set table before retiring to the living room with a cigar and a show is no longer.
The Modern Dad plays an active role in our kids' lives, building relationships with our children, not just providing for them. We’re engaged in the household needs and care about our partners. We’re proving that women and men can “have it all”, but that we can “have it all” together. We care about our partners and want to see them succeed too. Although the past two years have definitely been challenging, let’s move forward armed with the knowledge of burnout and start learning about what we can do about it.