My first encounter with burnout was about 5 years ago when I received a call from a young woman asking if she could bring her partner in for therapy. I found out later that, had his partner not brought him in, Alex (name changed for anonymity) wouldn’t have managed to drag himself out of the house and to the clinic. As he sat with me, Alex recalled starting his career straight out of university, a time when he felt excited, hopeful and keen to move quickly up the career ladder. He worked 10-12 hours a day, intent on proving himself to his superiors at work. The more he achieved, the more demands were placed on him until he found himself so stressed and overwhelmed that he began declining invitations to meet friends, too irritable to spend time with his partner and family, and having difficulty sleeping for more than 4 or 5 hours per night. The job he once enjoyed became a chore. He didn’t care anymore about his clients or the work the company were doing and found no purpose in his efforts or his work. The turning point came when a colleague found Alex slumped over his laptop in tears and forced him to speak to Human Resources to ask for support. He was signed off work for 2 months and began the painful process of recovery.
Burnout is a state of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion whereby you feel so overwhelmed by the constant demands placed on you that you become increasingly resentful, cynical and hopeless. Whether at work, home, school or university, we’re often faced with increasing demands and pressures which leave to us feeling distressed, low, anxious and overwhelmed. This is your typical stress reaction. Stress, however, is different to burnout in that whilst with stress there’s an end in sight, burnout is much more sinister, creeping up on you until you’re left feeling depleted, disengaged and helpless. Since I’m aware that the distinction between stress and burnout is quite blurry, I’ll go through the physical, mental and emotional signs that you may experience if suffering from burnout:
Emotional/Behavioural signs of burnout
- Feel trapped, defeated and helpless
- Feel disengaged or detached from the company you work for
- No longer interested in meeting friends or spending time with loved ones
- Doubt yourself and your abilities
- Loss of hope or motivation
- Feel cynical and negative
- Feel depleted and empty, like you have nothing left to give
- Feel alone and isolated
- Loss of passion or drive
- Unable to complete basic tasks
- Lacking in emotion
- Feel angry most of the time
- Withdrawal from responsibilities
- Using food, alcohol or drugs to cope
Physical signs of burnout
- Chronic headaches and muscle pain
- Frequent illness due to a weak immune system
- Feeling tired or drained all the time
- Change in sleeping habits and appetite
- Energy and productivity are very low
Whilst burnout tends to stem from work, personal stressors can exacerbate the situation. These may include financial problems, caring for young children or a sick loved one, for instance. Lifestyle and personality traits also contribute, rendering some people more susceptible to developing burnout. The lifestyle factors which relate most closely to the risk of burning out are: devoting too much time to work, spending little time relaxing and socialising, not sleeping enough, having too many responsibilities and lacking supportive, meaningful relationships. At the same time, certain personality traits make us more prone to burnout. If you tend to be negative or pessimistic, have a need to be in control, are a high achiever or a perfectionist, you need to be particularly careful since these are the traits most closely linked to risk of burnout. If you recognise any of the signs mentioned above or are aware that you live a stressful and chaotic lifestyle, I suggest carefully monitoring your stress levels and starting to take care of yourself now. Here are a few tips on how you can do this:
- You may not be able to avoid certain people, but if you can limit contact with people who are constantly negative, do so. The last thing you want, when you’re already feeling stressed and tired, are people who bring you further down.
- Have regular breaks. Make sure these involve actually getting up from your desk and going to a separate eating area or outside of the office entirely. If you want to earn some extra brownie points in the self-care department, meet a friend or a colleague for a chat and a coffee. Not only will you be switching off from work but you’ll be building social connections.
- As far as I’m aware, no employee has ever received a Nobel prize for the highest number of hours worked in any one week. By all means, put in a few extra hours when needed but don’t make a habit of it. Not only are longer days known to be unproductive but you’ll be damaging your health in more ways than one.
- Set work boundaries. You may want to limit work calls or checking work emails after you’ve left the office to allow yourself adequate time to rest and switch off after a full day of work.
- Make time for family and friends. Go shopping with your girlfriends, play with your kids or nieces/nephews, walk your dog, go out with your partner for a coffee, meet your friends for a meal or a glass of wine…whatever it is that you enjoy. Not only will you strengthen your relationships but you’ll be able to unwind and create some balance in your life.
- Get in touch with your creative side. I can imagine a few of you staring blankly at this page right now, saying “What? Creative? Me?”. Yes, you. Whether you think you have talent or not, it’s time to do things just for fun. Do some painting, try calligraphy, write a poem about your weird ex, whip up some scones in the kitchen, or take up knitting scarves for all your friends. Apart from hopefully discovering a hidden talent, there’s no better way to unwind and take your mind off your worries than engaging in something light-hearted, fun and completely different from your usual activities.
- Eat healthy food and do some exercise, whether it’s a brisk walk, a run or a group activity such as Yoga, spinning or Zumba class.
- If you’re feeling worried, stressed or lonely, reach out to a friend, family member or trusted colleague.
- Meditate. There are many free Apps available with meditations ranging from minutes to hours in length. Meditation is proven method of reducing stress and anxiety.
- Seek professional help, such as a psychotherapist or counselor, if you feel you need that extra support to get well.