Here are some of the main signs to look out for & how you can help prevent it
Do you find yourself feeling drained most of the time, overwhelmed or helpless, have difficulty sleeping and often procrastinate when it comes to your to-do list? If so, you could be experiencing some of the common signs of burnout.
What is burnout?
The World Health Organisation has defined burnout as a syndrome linked to chronic work-related stress. It’s a state of physical and emotional exhaustion.
"It’s characterised by three things: exhaustion, cynicism and feelings of reduced professional ability," explains Dr Jessamy Hibberd, chartered clinical psychologist and author of The Imposter Cure.
"Burnout happens when you’ve been pushing yourself too hard for too long. It can feel impossible to keep up and yet you keep trying, ignoring how your body and mind feel and carrying on despite the warning signals they’re sending you."
Rather than a medical diagnosis, it’s a term that’s widely used and understood as an occupational phenomenon, but everyday stress more generally and family life, such as money worries to sleep difficulties and relationship problems, can all have an effect.
Signs of burnout to watch out for
Here are some symptoms of burnout you might be experiencing:
Having a negative or cynical outlook & a loss of motivation
"Burnout can leave you feeling negative about your life and with a sense of heaviness and no capacity to engage in everyday life," explains Dr Hibberd. "Because you’re overloaded, burnout can make you more forgetful and make it harder to concentrate."
You may experience a loss of interest in things you used to enjoy doing before. "Warning signs might be dreading going out, not wanting to see people or do anything more than what’s necessary. When you feel like this, it leaves room for regret and self-criticism, which grind your mood lower."
You may feel overwhelmed and things outside what you have to do may become more of an effort. "Burnout leaves you with depleted energy levels to be able to do anything and with feelings of tiredness that just won’t go away," Dr Hibberd continues. You may procrastinate and tasks may take longer to get done. "Everything may feel like too much and unmanageable," says Dr Hibberd. "Even the simplest of things like opening the post or watering your flowers are a step too far. It leaves you feeling exhausted, empty and unable to cope with the demands of life."
Feeling physically & emotionally exhausted
While you might think of burnout as more of a mental health issue, it can manifest itself physically, such as headaches, stomach aches and sleeping difficulties. "You may also notice that you’re more easily upset and tearful," says Dr Jessamy. "Often tipping into anger and irritability – or the opposite: emotionally numbed or mentally distant."
If you’re concerned about any of your symptoms, including headaches and stomach aches, a visit to your GP should always be the first port of call.
An increase in bad habits
"When you’re under stress and struggling to keep up with your life, all of your energy is used up getting through the day-to-day," Dr Hibberd points out. "This leaves you much more likely to reach for the things that may make you feel worse, whether it’s alcohol, sugar, caffeine, staying up too late, or dropping the things that normally make you feel better like exercising or seeing friends."
How has the pandemic fuelled burnout?
A study by Monster found that 69% of employees working from home were experiencing burnout. There are a number of reasons that could be behind this. "The ongoing uncertainty and adjustment to life during a global pandemic, breakdown of boundaries between home and work life and having to juggle additional responsibilities, such as caring for children, have left many people exhausted," says Dr Hibberd.
"As our working environments have changed, there is now far less of a divide between work and home, and technology can leave us permanently 'on'. "
"When we’re 'on,' we run on adrenaline and are in 'fight or flight' or the 'stressed' zone. This has an impact on both our body and mind and this lack of boundaries and inability to switch off is a key contributor to burnout."
How long does burnout last?
It’s hard to put a timeline on burnout. "How long it takes depends how severely you’ve been affected, but it can take a couple of months to a year and can be even longer for some people," says Dr Hibberd.
How to prevent burnout (& deal with it if you have it)
"It’s important to bring yourself down from the ‘stressed’ zone – you can do this by activating the parasympathetic nervous system," explains Dr Hibberd. "Ways to do this include deep breathing, relaxation, yoga, meditation, taking a walk in nature and exercise."
However, the key is to manage capacity. "If you’re doing too much then you’re likely to get burned out," says Dr Hibberd.
"It’s important to understand that we have a limited capacity and to check in with our body and mind when demands on us are higher. And if we’re under a lot of stress or have a lot on our plate, we need to manage these demands before everything bubbles over."
We can do this by managing the demands placed on us, looking after our basic needs and increasing our coping ability.
"If you feel like you’re reaching or are over capacity, write down everything you have to do and put a time on how long everything takes," advises Dr Hibberd. "Can you really fit all of this into your week? Most people find that what they’re trying to do is impossible." Split up big tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks to help them feel less overwhelming.
The first step is to try reducing stress and the demands you’re under, she says. Consider the external demands placed on you by other people.
• What can you let go of?
• Can you delegate or delay anything on the list?
• Can you say ‘no’ to taking on anything more?
• Can you speak to someone who can help you work out what to do? Your boss if it’s work pressure or a friend if your personal life is having an impact.
• If you can’t let go of anything, try prioritising and doing what’s most important first so you can take something off your list.
Next, think about the internal demands that you’re placing on yourself. These are the pressures you’re placing on yourself. For example, are you trying to do things perfectly?
"Perhaps you can relax your standards on some things or let some things go until you’re less busy – do you really need to have a tidy house or be on top of your washing or can some things wait?" Dr Hibberd asks.
It’s important to increase your coping ability. "When we’re over capacity we often end up firefighting and dealing with things as we go. Instead, take some time to look after yourself and get organised," says Dr Hibberd. Planning ahead and burning off nervous energy by being more active can help. "This is not wasted time; it’s necessary and will help you cope and put you in a better place to face everything that needs doing."
Self-care often takes a back seat when you’re at capacity, but it’s at these times you need it the most. "Make sure you’re doing the basics – getting enough sleep, eating enough and being hydrated," she advises. "Do the things that you know leave you feeling less stressed: exercise, listening to music, going for a walk – whatever works for you. And make sure you’re relying on good friends or family, so you have additional support."
Last but no less important: reassess. "If you’re someone who often takes on too much, it’s important to reassess how to move forward and to try and take on less," advises Dr Hibberd. "Being busy is not a badge of honour and it’s guaranteed to push you over capacity."
Where can you seek help if you feel overwhelmed by burnout?
"Speak to your GP if you’re feeling like you can’t cope," advises Dr Hibberd. In England, you can also refer yourself for psychological therapy through the NHS IAPT service without seeing your GP. There’s also the Boots Online Doctor Depression and Anxiety Treatment service, where you can have a consultation with a medical professional and receive tailored treatment to help you feel like yourself again*.
"Talking to family and friends can also be helpful," adds Dr Hibbard. Some people may need a period of time off work. "Speak to your boss or HR dept or, if you’re your own boss, think about how you can ensure you have a better work/life balance. That could be taking regular breaks or establishing boundaries at work to protect your life outside."