How to deal with burnout
The currency of ‘busyness’ is having its moment. This frenetic, all-consuming state has somehow come to signal status, with many people wearing it like a badge of honour. And no wonder. We live in a society that glorifies overwhelm and stress. If we’re time-poor, it means we’re in high demand. If we have a packed diary, it means we’re thriving. If we’re bone-tired, it means we’re #winningatlife.
But the idea that ‘stress means success’ is no more than a modern myth. This unhealthy obsession with stretching beyond our means is costing our health. And more and more of us are now facing the ultimate twenty-first-century malaise: burnout. Doctors get it. Parents get it. Teachers get it. Increasing numbers of millennials get it.
We need to change this narrative. Because – as much as society tries to convince us otherwise – no one can run on empty forever.
What is burnout?
The psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first coined ‘burnout’ in 1975. He recognised three components of the condition: emotional exhaustion – the fatigue that comes from carrying too much for too long; a decreased sense of accomplishment – the unconquerable sense of futility that nothing you do makes any difference; and depersonalisation – the depletion of empathy, caring and compassion. Ironically, Freudenberger himself eventually experienced burnout.
Three types of burnout
And yet, work-related stress and professional pressures aren’t the only cause of the problem. Thanks to our modern lives humming with stress, burnout can also rear its ugly head from
Individual burnout: Excessive perfectionism and negative self-talk may cause burnout. If you place unrealistic standards on yourself or believe nothing you do is good enough, you may start burning out.
Interpersonal burnout: Challenges at work or home – especially concerning relationships – may result in burnout. For instance, a working mother who does the lion’s share of the housework and childcare (also known as ‘the second shift’) may be at the point of parental burnout.
Organisation burnout: Extreme demands, poor organisation and impossible deadlines in the professional sphere may lead to executive burnout.
Burnout is the rock-bottom consequence of our ultra-busy lives – a ‘state of vital exhaustion’.(3) Its symptoms can slowly creep up, with its steady drip, drip, drip spilling over into every corner of our existence.
In its recent International Classification of Diseases (ICD11), the World Health Organisation (WHO defined burnout as a ‘syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’.(1)
There’s no shortage of sobering data on work-related stress and burnout. What is clear is that cases of this phenomenon are more ubiquitous than we think. And many organisations are on the brink of an employee burnout crisis.
According to the Labour Force Survey, 12.8 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, anxiety and depression in 2018-2019.(4)
A British Medical Association survey found that almost half (44%) of doctors were suffering from burnout or other mental health conditions relating to or made worse by their work in 2020.(5)
In 2020, there was a 24% spike in online searches for terms such as ‘signs of burnout’, compared to 2019.(6)
In a recent Gallup study of 7,500 US full-time employees, researchers found that 23% of employees experienced burnout at work ‘very often’ or ‘always’, while an additional 44% felt burnt out ‘sometimes’.(7) Shockingly, this meant approximately two-thirds of full-time workers experienced burnout on the job.
How to avoid burnout?
Never before has the adage ‘prevention is better than cure’ been more pertinent. Living in a way to stave off burnout is one of the best weapons for health in our modern age. That said, if you have reached burnout, rest assured, you can recover with the correct approach and necessary lifestyle changes.
Are you on the road to burnout?
Burnout isn’t caused by a single event; it’s like ‘death by a thousand cuts’ – a response to cumulative, excessive, unremitting stress. You may find yourself working a bit later, answering emails at the weekends, feeling more isolated from your partner, or being less inclined to play with your children. And before you know it, you’re emotionally, mentally and physically zapped.
Stress vs. burnout
The terms ‘stress’ and ‘burnout’ are often used interchangeably. And while they exist on the same continuum, there are some notable differences. Stress occurs when we’re pushed outside our comfort zone – be it positive (an intense HIIT workout) or negative (meeting a work deadline). Burnout, on the other hand, manifests from chronic, unresolved, all-consuming stress that leaves us feeling emotionally exhausted, detached, and cynical.
Stress is the person who runs around the office panic-stricken, strung-out and frazzled; burnout is the person who’s slumped behind their desk and stares vacantly into their screen.
Signs of burnout:
If you’re struggling with burnout or inching towards burning out, you might experience some of the following symptoms.(8)
Detachment from work-related activities: The mere thought of your job fills you with anxiety. You notice yourself becoming more frustrated and irritated by your workplace. You may also grow cynical of the people you work with and your working conditions.
Reduced performance: You experience brain fog and struggle to concentrate. Your mind often zones out into a daze. You lack the energy needed for basic tasks. You struggle to concentrate.
Emotional exhaustion: You feel detached from the things and people you love. You feel drained, exhausted and unable to cope. You begin to feel overwhelmed in brightly lit supermarkets and busy places.
Physical symptoms: You experience sleep disruptions, headaches and digestive issues. You generally feel unwell and get sick often.
How to recover from burnout
Although burnout may sound like a permanent condition, it’s completely reversible with enough time, patience and self-care. Implementing lifestyle changes is the best way to heal and help regain your mental and physical strength.
Do a self-assessment of your working lifeTo manage and eventually overcome burnout, you must identify the root cause of your feelings. Pay close attention to any stressors in your life – the processes, people and personality traits – that may be pushing you over the edge. Without addressing these factors, you’ll always run the risk of burning out. For many people, this first means doing an inventory of their working life. Work is an obvious culprit in the development of burnout. And that’s why burnout is often synonymous with ‘executive burnout’.
Five leading causes of professional burnoutAccording to a recent report conducted by Gallup, employee burnout is most likely to result from the following factors:(9)
Unreasonable time pressure
Lack of role clarity
Lack of support and communication from a manager
Unfair treatment from a co-worker or manager
Remember, burnout is seldom your fault. This condition doesn’t transpire from your inability to manage stress or handle your workload. On the contrary, burnout is often the result
of toxic, exploitative and highly stressful workplaces.
Of course, if you can take a leave of absence or holiday, absolutely do. Taking some time off will undoubtedly support your recovery. You may wish to consult your HR manager and GP at this point.
Determine the immediate changes you can make
In a perfect world, you would clear your schedule, take some time off and dedicate the foreseeable future to uninterrupted rest and recovery if you were teetering on the edge of burnout. Unfortunately, most people aren’t afforded this privilege, especially with bills to pay, a mortgage and children to raise. If this is the case, reflect on your existing commitments – both professional and personal – and consider rescheduling or cancelling whatever you can. And if you’re overwhelmed at work, ask your line manager to reassign some of your projects.
Reconsider your optionsBurnout is often a catalyst for positive change in your life – a critical juncture that can turn adversity into opportunity. Your experience may prompt you to seriously think about your future and reconsider your job, employer, or industry. This may sound daunting at first but remember: you need to act in the best interest of your health. Whatever your decision, try to make peace of mind your priority at the moment – and fit everything else around that.
Take back agencyBurnout can make you feel vulnerable, powerless and incapacitated. But while you may not have had control over the stressors that lead to burnout, you do have the tools to take back control in the workplace and support your recovery.
Try to make these areas of your professional life non-negotiable:
Leave work at work: After leaving the office, focus your energy on recharging and relaxing – not answering work emails or client calls.
Prioritise: While some things have to get done, others can wait until you’re in a better headspace. Decide which projects are less urgent and side-line them.
Delegate: Don’t try to be a ‘Super Employee’ – you can’t do everything by yourself. If you have been charged with more tasks than you can manage, delegate them to someone you trust for the time being.
Communicate your needs: Be firm and unwavering about what you require at the moment. Explain that you need extra support to manage your workload and safeguard your emotional health.
Set boundariesImplementing healthy boundaries at work is an essential part of burnout prevention and recovery. Taking on too many duties and engagements – especially if it’s beyond your job’s remit – can lead to overwhelm and anxiety. Before committing to something, ask yourself: do I really have the energy and time? Try to relinquish any people-pleasing tendencies; it’s not selfish or rude to decline requests or invitations. Learning to say “no” honours your health and actively prevents burnout.
Work to live, not live to workWe aren’t on this earth to be productive or tick things off a to-do list. We are here to fulfil our unique potential: to experience love and learning and growth. You may need to reframe your thinking about work. Ultimately, a job is just a job – it doesn’t define you. No one ever said on their deathbed, ‘I wish I spent more time in the office’. Life is for living! Try to find meaning and purpose beyond work: volunteer, take up hobbies, play sport, spend time with loved ones – do more of what makes you happy.
Ask yourself: what are the most important things in my life? Are you organising your life around this?
Don’t be a ‘human giver’Many of us are trapped by ‘Human Giver Syndrome’ – the unspoken, buried assumption that we should give everything – every moment of our lives, every drop of energy, every morsel of affection – to others.(10) Generally speaking, women tend to experience this affliction much more than men (although some men, of course, fit this paradigm). And ‘people who help people’ – both professionally and within a family setup – are more likely to experience burnout.
The ‘second unpaid shift’Alongside holding down a job, many working mothers – and some working fathers – also do a ‘second unpaid shift’, raising a family, caring for elderly parents and running a household.(11) Being this type of ‘human giver’ creates the perfect storm for burnout.
Move away from being a people-pleaserWe often say “yes” for the wrong reasons; we want to be liked; we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. But people-pleasing burns us out. Tune into your body and understand how an enthusiastic “yes” and an unwavering “no” feel. If there’s any resistance or heaviness, then it’s probably a “no”. Don’t be afraid to put your needs first. Because if there’s no fuel in the tank, how can you support anyone else?
Practise unconditional self-acceptanceIf you’ve reached the point of burnout, don’t berate yourself for being a so-called ‘failure’. It’s thoroughly understandable that you need to break. So maybe you can’t meet four work deadlines, do the school run and care for your elderly father. Who can, really? Show yourself the same love, support and compassion that you would a best friend.
Take time for yourselfDedicate at least fifteen minutes each day to pause everything and do something wholly for you. Be selfish. Make it a non-negotiable part of your day. Communicate this need to your family, partner, and anyone else who relies on you. Choose an activity that makes you happy: listen to a podcast, buy a speciality coffee from your favourite café, potter in the garden, read, play the guitar – whatever it is, do it for yourself and don’t feel guilty about it. Discover more self-care activities on page 12
Complete the stress cycleStress itself isn’t bad for us. The fight-or-flight stress response cycle is a part of our evolutionary heritage, designed to help us survive in the face of a perceived threat. But being stuck in the stress response cycle is bad for us. If we don’t deal with stress, it can remain in the body. And over time, unresolved, chronic stress can drain our emotional resources. One effective way to avoid burnout is to complete the stress cycle and return the body to a state of balance.(12)
Natural remedies for burnoutMost of us encounter at least one stressor each day. With that in mind, aim to do a couple of these quick releases every single day to complete the stress cycle and prevent any unresolved tension from building up.
MoveMovement is the first line of defence against stress. Walking, running, dancing, cycling – whatever your go-to, any form of physical activity can help burn off stress and release feel-good hormones called endorphins. A super speedy stress buster: stand up from your desk and tense every muscle in your body until they’re shaking, then flop down and let your body release.
BreatheDiaphragmatic breathing (‘belly breathing’) is a highly evidenced-based technique for completing the stress response cycle. Deep belly breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which
is responsible for ‘rest and digest’.
Seek out positive social interactionThe natural, evolutionary inclination to connect with people tells your body that you’re safe. If you’re with people that make you feel ‘at home’, your body will feel comfortable enough to complete
the stress response cycle. Even a positive interaction with your barista will remind your body that the world is a safe, sane place.
LaughLaughter will take you all the way through the stress cycle. As the neuroscientist, Sophie Scott, says, ‘laughter is an ancient evolutionary system that mammals have evolved to make and maintain social bonds, regulate emotions and make ourselves feel better’.(13) Of course, we’re talking about genuine, roaring, uncontrollable laughter – not the fake kind used for social lubricant.
Hug someoneA warm hug in a safe and trusting context can do as much to help your body feel like it has escaped threat as jogging a couple of miles (and it’s less sweaty!). Research suggests a 20-second hug can change your hormones, lower your blood pressure and heart rate, and improve mood – all of which are reflected in the post-hug increase in the social bonding hormone, oxytocin.(14)
Have a big cryCrying is a physical expression of stress and emotion. When you allow it to take over your body, you quickly move through the stress response cycle. Anyone who’s ever cried before (and that means all of us) knows how relieved you can feel afterwards.
Prescribe self-careReaching burnout signals that self-care needs to take front and centre in your life. Self-care doesn’t just mean lighting a candle or putting on your favourite pair of jim-jams; it means taking the time to look after yourself mentally, emotionally, physically and socially every day. Self-care is how to take your power back – and it’s anything but selfish.
Schedule downtime, relaxation and self-care. Put a block of time in your calendar each day and make sure you honour it.
St John’s WortA perennial plant with yellow, star-shaped flowers, St John’s Wort is a traditional herbal remedy used for the relief of mild anxiety and slightly low mood.
L-theanineMost people are familiar with that nice-cuppa-tea feeling. It just so happens the amino acid,
L-theanine, may be responsible for making the nation’s favourite brew oh-so-soothing.
MagnesiumThanks to it contributing to normal psychological function, magnesium is colloquially known as ‘nature’s tranquiliser’, which may prove especially helpful at this time.
5-HTP5 hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP, is the natural compound the body manufactures from the amino acid, tryptophan. The brain then converts 5-HTP into serotonin, our ‘feel-good’ hormone. For this reason, 5-HTP may be a useful addition.
A hot bath is a tried-and-tested self-care saviour. Epsom salts are rich in natural minerals, which relax muscles when added to warm bathwater.
Don’t ignore warning signs
Your body is incredibly intelligent; it knows how to communicate when something is wrong – tune into that. And don’t bury your emotions to save face or please others; your wellbeing must come first. Taking action now can help to prevent those feelings from spiraling.
Think about what type of help you need at the moment. Do you need practical help – with the children, shopping, or your workload – or emotional help – do you need someone to listen to you? Perhaps you need both. Whatever support you need, reach out. Speak to a friend, HR manager, mental health crisis line, GP, or therapist.
Unfortunately, burnout is exceptionally prevalent in the UK. Whatever you’re going through right now, know that someone else has been there too. You aren’t alone. And with the proper support, you will get through it.