How to spot the signs of burnout
And what to do about it.
In 2019, the World Health Organisation recognised burnout as ‘an occupational phenomenon’.
And that was before lockdown.
Now, we’re facing a whole new pandemic – one which is ravaging our mental health as we attempt to balance growing pressures with greater feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and exhaustion.
We’re burning the candle at both ends. And it needs to stop.
WHAT IS BURNOUT?
Mental Health UK defines burnout as ‘a state of physical and emotional exhaustion’.
Burnout can occur when you experience long-term stress in your job, or when you have worked in a physically or emotionally draining role for a long time.
In 2020, as many as one in five UK workers felt unable to manage pressure and stress levels at work, while 46% feel ‘more prone to extreme levels of stress’ compared to the previous year.
Significantly, women and young people reported feeling more prone to extreme stress and pressure at work.
WHY SHOULD WE WORRY ABOUT BURNOUT?
Mainly because it’s not something that will just go away.
Burnout can worsen if you ignore the underlying issues causing it and could lead to further mental and physical health problems.
You could also lose the ability and energy to effectively meet the demands of your job, which could not only damage your career but also put additional pressures on other areas of your personal life.
But as prevalent and potentially costly as burnout is, it is often misunderstood and stigmatised.
Which is why it’s more important than ever to recognise the signs of burnout, prevent yourself from becoming prone to burnout and knowing what to do if you’re already experiencing it.
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF BURNOUT?
The most common symptoms of burnout are:
- Feeling tired or drained most of the time
- Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated
- Feeling detached or alone
- Having a cynical, negative outlook on life
- Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
- Unenthusiastic about work
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Lack of attention to detail
- Drop in creativity
- Cancelling social plans
- Chronic headaches
- Upset stomach
Because burnout occurs over a long period of time, the signs aren’t always that easy to spot. Five phases of burnout have been identified, which are handy to know if we’re to avoid falling into the burnout trap:
- The honeymoon phase
Often in the early days of starting a new job or task. You’ll likely have lots of energy and a positive attitude to your work, leading to having high productivity levels.
- The onset of stress
As the honeymoon phase wears off, the stress starts to kick in. This may be due to increased responsibilities or that you’ve lost that initial focus on the task at hand. This won’t involve constant stress, but fatigue may start to set in.
- The chronic stress phase
At some point, this stress will become persistent. As this starts to happen, it’s likely your performance at work will start to suffer, causing more feelings of stress. You may start to withdraw socially and have a short fuse with colleagues and loved ones.
- The burnout phase
In other words, your limit. You’re no longer functioning as you normally would; you may experience extreme self-doubt or numbness. You start to obsess over your problems at work so much that it takes over your home life and even your health. Physical symptoms will become evident.
- Habitual burnout
If you don’t find a way to manage the fourth phase, it can become part of your everyday life and, ultimately, lead to anxiety and/or depression.
These five phases show why it’s so important to try and be as in tune with any mental or physical changes you may feel as possible, so you can catch the signs of burnout early.
HOW DO YOU AVOID BURNOUT?
While burnout is exacerbated by the pressures of our jobs, we could actually have fallen into some unhealthy lifestyle habits that are making things worse.
Phill Stot, Group Recruitment Director of Marketing & Digital at Forward Role, suggests these preventative tips to avoid falling into the burnout trap:
- Avoid out-of-hours emails – Your brain needs downtime. Communicate with your colleagues and your family that you don’t want to check messages past a specific time so they can help keep you accountable – and healthier as a result.
- Seek support – See if your company is offering any helplines or counselling services and make use of them. Even if you don’t feel at breaking point, it can be helpful to speak with a professional about how you’re feeling and get advice on how to regain some control over your mental health.
- Communicate openly with your manager or mentor – Find someone in your business who you can be honest with. Request one-on-one time with these people to talk through work-specific challenges that may be affecting your mental health.
- Make the most of flexible working – For those who are juggling work and caring for family members, flexible working hours are a big help. If you think more time working from home could help you, speak with your employer about adjusting your work patterns.
- Get plenty of exercise – Yoga, meditation, hiit workouts, running… Any type of exercise you can do regularly will help reduce stress and release endorphins, helping you feel happier and more energised. If you’re finding work particularly stressful, it’s a good idea to carve out some time in your break for exercise. This can help clear your head and reset.
Workplace wellbeing expert and CEO of Officeology, Adam Butler, also throws a few practise-based curveballs into the mix to nip burnout in the bud.
‘Practice mono-tasking,’ he tells us. ‘Many of us try to multi-task every day, but the problem with this is that you can never put 100% into any one task if you’re constantly juggling too many plates. Multi-tasking can be overwhelming and, over time, can wear you down.
‘Mono-tasking is where you focus solely on one task at a time. Prioritisation is key to this – making a (realistic) list of the tasks that are most important and numbering them in order of urgency can help create a clear roadmap of your daily workload.
‘Secondly, the ‘Bare Minimum Mondays’ trend on TikTok really helps workers cope with the ‘Sunday scaries’ and avoid burnout. Prioritising only the absolute essential tasks on a Monday, rather than focusing on everything else you have to do in the week, helps reduce feelings of being overwhelmed and makes your Monday to-do list way more manageable.’
HOW TO RECOVER FROM BURNOUT
In an ideal world, we’d spot the signs of burnout pre-emptively and take steps to avoid going down that road.
But life is hectic and we’re all guilty of putting self-care to the side when more (seemingly) pressing matters take centre-stage.
But while burnout won’t go away on its own, it is a fixable problem when you know how to manage it.
When you’re not sure where to start, ask for help. Recognise burnout comes from an overburdened or obsessive workload, so try to carve out some headspace in each working day – even if it’s something as simple as taking regular breaks or having lunch away from your desk.
Constant notifications are a proven source of anxiety, so be sure to put your phone away and enjoy a digital detox from time to time, (picking up a book is a great substitute).
Fitness, wellness and nutrition expert Penny Weston shares six tips to help those of us struggling with burnout:
‘Keeping a gratitude journal is an effective way of balancing anxiety. Don’t feel under pressure to record big things, but be specific about the smaller things – ‘I’m grateful for that cup of tea this morning’. Aim to write down five things a day and, if you’re struggling, be proactive and create little moments of pleasure for yourself’
‘When we exercise, our body releases chemicals such as endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, which all boost our sense of wellbeing and suppress anxiety. Keeping exercise fun and consistent is key. Sunshine naturally boosts our feel-good hormones and fresh air helps us sleep better, so exercising outdoors is particularly helpful to manage burnout.’
‘Eat a balanced diet and eat regularly. Drops in blood sugar when you’ve left too long between meals can make you feel jittery, tired and on edge at the best of times. A diet rich in green, leafy vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds will help you achieve the daily levels of B vitamins, zinc and magnesium that have been shown to help control fatigue, low mood and anxiety.’
‘When meditating, we’re trying to control our thoughts to focus our attention on the present moment. Take notes of all the sensations your body is aware of, tune into your emotions and thoughts and try to observe them like a bystander, without judgement. If you aren’t sure meditation is for you, try simple breathing exercises.’
‘It can be difficult to sleep when feeling burnt out, but trying to implement a good sleeping routine can really help. Relaxing with a warm bath and a meditation practice, avoiding screens and stimulants in the hours before bedtime and ensuring your bedroom is quiet, dark and around 18°C are all great ways to start.’
Talk to someone
‘Talking to someone about your feelings can feel like a weight’s been lifted from your shoulders. Remember that no worry is too small and that all your feelings are valid. If you don’t have anyone to share your worries with right now, there are loads of helplines online where you can talk to someone over the phone.’
Workplace expert James M from Bestbuy Office Chairs adds that checking in with yourself is key to tackling the underlying causes of burnout.
‘Checking in with yourself at the end of every working day and asking yourself ‘how do I feel?’ helps us to recognise if how we’re working is sustainable,’ he tells us. ‘If you’ve overworked yourself, recognising it and making decisions to take it easier in your downtime could help avoid feeling as though the world is getting on top of you.
‘Don’t be afraid to say “no”. If you’re burnt out and feel like you don’t have time to yourself to feel better, it’s vital you remember that you can say no to taking on more responsibilities or attending social events.
‘Finally, taking time for yourself is probably the most important thing to do when you’re experiencing burnout. Make sure that you rest and have quiet time – alone – where you can fully decompress. Turn your phone off or on silent and relax.’