In the UK last year, around 15.4 million working days were lost due to work-related stress or anxiety, and 23% of full-time employees reported feeling burned out at work all the time, according to the HSE. These are the signs to look out for
Burnout is a response to repeated, intensive activities that give sufferers no time to rest, recover or have fun in their lives. It creeps up without their realising, until the steady increase in their environment’s “stress temperature” leaves them like a lobster in the pot, “cooking in stress”, yet unaware of what’s actually happening.
In its more advanced stages, sufferers might struggle to think clearly, function normally, or even get out of bed, as the life they lead no longer feeds the soul but leaves them drained and empty. Usually associated with work, burnout can be a response to any activity where people dedicate intensive time, effort and emotion to a situation, activity or project. Students, parents, carers, employees, entrepreneurs and retirees can all be affected.
Signs you are approaching burnout include:
- physical or emotional exhaustion
- difficulty sleeping—and when sleep finally comes it tends not to be restorative
- having dreams or nightmares, often about work
- avoidance of reflection through external distractions such as watching tv or gaming
- addictive behaviours including smoking, drinking, overeating, abusing drugs, sex or pornography.
- physical illness, such as nausea, headaches, heart or breathing problems.
Alongside these symptoms are feelings of loneliness, isolation and inadequacy, either as an employee, friend or family member. Those on the way to burnout may throw sudden fits of rage, be argumentative, deeply cynical about themselves and others, and experience a sense of joylessness in which personal relationships and professional accomplishments no longer have any of the life-affirming delight they should have.
Chronic stress thins the brain’s frontal cortex, having a long-term effect on creativity and memory, and stress responses. In extreme cases, it has been known to cause strokes in young professionals.
What to do
There is a continuum from ordinary stress levels, right the way through overwork to burnout. Whilst stress in itself may not be burnout, if you are experiencing some or all of the symptoms above on a regular basis then it may be time to get advice from a professional.
Bear in mind, too, that this isn’t all on you. Studies have shown that conflict at work, poor managerial support, unclear job expectations and high workload combined with a sense of perfectionism can be drivers of burnout. You may need to learn new skills, but you may also need to change jobs.
Your therapist may ask you to prioritise your problems. Very often burnout sufferers feel a sense of helplessness due to overwhelm. Prioritising which problems need to be addressed first will give a sense of perspective and reduce overwhelm. Ask yourself: what is the most important thing I need to do? When do I need to do it? What happens if I don’t? Can I get more time? Is help available?
2. Cut yourself some slack
Burnout is complex and needs to be addressed on many levels. Psychologically, you will need to broaden your expectations and find new things to do. Many people who suffer from burnout goad themselves on because they are perfectionists who demand too much of themselves. Thus, one element of therapy is to challenge how you conceptualise success and failure, so you stop making impossible demands of yourself.
Meditation is a powerful tool to detach from the relentless spin of stressful thoughts that can lead to burnout. Classic mindfulness meditation teaches you to clear you mind of stress-related thoughts, so you are focussed solely on your present lived experience. A study in 2011 by Sara Lazar showed that an eight-week course reduces the stress-related areas of the brain and enables people to control their emotions more effectively.
As well as emphasising mindfulness, reconnect with your body more fully with exercise. The practice of yoga can build strength and stamina and requires full concentration to control breathing. Thus, you can combine exercise with active mindfulness during walking meditations, or yoga, which has powerful effects on stress and your sense of well-being.
5. Make time for yourself
For many people burnout is a sign they need to stop doing what they are doing now, rest, and try something completely new. Reconnecting with loved ones, with things you love to do and taking the time to enjoy yourself are vital steps on the way to avoiding burning. In that way, new opportunities and experiences arise to enrich your life and your relationship with the world.
6. Smell the roses
One of the best pieces of advice for the burnout sufferer is “don’t be afraid to take the time enjoy yourself”. That might include stopping completely what you are doing now. The relief you will feel from stepping away from a life that is making you ill will have long-term positives.
If that’s what’s needed, be ready to make that change.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Do I make unrealistically high demands of myself?
- What would happen if I walked away from what I’m doing now?
- Do I have the support of the people around me at work and outside of work?
- How can I reduce the conflict and / or stress I have in my life?
- What am I doing to make my life better?
- Is what I’m doing working?
- If not, what else can I try?
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