Burnout; we’ve all been there.
In fact, we’re still there. Studies show that 46% of UK workers feel more prone to extreme levels of stress than they did a year ago (I).
If your commitments are leaving you feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and every day is a bad day, you may be suffering from burnout.
Since the pandemic, our work/ life balance has become muddled, especially since many of us are now working from home. It's easy to spread ourselves too thin in order to keep up a routine. Our personal lives are now intertwined with work, mealtimes often become a product of convenience and our free time slips away without doing anything with intent.
It’s like our lives have become an automated game of Diner Dash, one that keeps speeding up every day until we get thrown off balance, and the routine we worked so hard to restore falls apart in seconds.
In order to avoid burnout, it’s really important we’re transparent with ourselves. Pretending that we are ok and ignoring stressors in our life is what will lead to our burnout.
WHO said what?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defined burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon,’ and since 2019 it’s actually been recognised in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (II). The WHO defines burnout as:
“A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."
They give three main symptoms of burnout.
- Feeling a lack of energy or exhaustion
- Feeling mentally distant from your own feelings and job, leading to a cynical/negative mindset
- Reduced professional efficiency (III).
Whilst many of us may be familiar with the physical symptoms of burnout, emerging research shows that burnout can also alter our brain structure.
A study published in the Cerebral Cortex journal found people suffering with occupational stress had much bigger amygdala's than their stress-free peers, as well as significant thinning in their mesial frontal cortex (V).
These findings may explain why people who suffer from burnout experience issues with memory, attention, and decision making (VI).
Richard Gunderman, a physician who serves as a professor of radiology and philosophy at Indiana University, describes burnout as:
“The accumulation of hundreds or thousands of tiny disappointments, each one hardly noticeable on its own (VII).
What can we do
When experiencing burnout, it can feel innate for us to suffer in silence and continue on, hoping that if we don't acknowledge the issue, it’ll go away by itself. But, like the mould on the bathroom ceiling, it never does.
Not confronting how you feel can be detrimental to your health, as symptoms from burnout can develop further into anxiety, depression, and can begin impacting your relationships and lifestyle. It can be difficult to know how to act, especially when things feel out of your control. If you feel that you need extra support and are finding it challenging to function, reach out to a medical professional.
Remember you are not alone
Don’t push people away (unless they’re standing in front of an oncoming train). In times of hardship, friends and family can be your lifeline and help you feel less stressed. You are not a burden to others, rather, your friends and family care about you and want to know how you’re doing. A burden shared really is a burden halved.
Set boundaries with work
If you find yourself taking on more of a workload than you can handle, it’s important to set boundaries with your workplace and say no. Saying no can be a fearful thing; we want our workplace to feel we are competent enough to do as much work as necessary, however we’re not machines. It’s ok to not be able to do everything, and no-one will think any less of you for being less than perfect. No is an underappreciated word – and it sounds great too. Try saying it aloud. NO.
Develop connections with colleagues
Finding a meaningful common ground with colleagues can make it a much nicer atmosphere to work and can reduce work stress immediately. Whilst home working has made this more difficult, try finding some common ground next time you’re on call with someone.
Don’t stay glued to your screen all day. Instead, make sure you get up frequently and take small breaks throughout the day. Stretch your legs, get some water, and make sure you get some fresh air.
Get enough sleep
Getting enough sleep is paramount to our functioning during the day. Sleep is closely connected to regulating our mood, which means if we don’t sleep, our mood will automatically suffer. If you’re dealing with other stressors alongside this, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Find meaning in your work
Work routine can become mundane very quickly. Take your objectives day by day and try to find some meaning in your work. Even if the meaning is simply getting paid.
Take time off
It’s important to take time off and use your holidays if you have them. Time away from work is important and whilst work is a big part of our daily routines, it’s not everything, so your life shouldn’t revolve around it.
Enjoy time away from technology
It’s important to take a step away from your desk and enjoy activities outdoors. Exercise and being in nature have been found to reduce anxiety and cortisol, the stress hormone. In this country we’re fortunate that jogging in the woods will not result in a confrontation with a bear, which has been known to produce moderate levels of stress.
Reduce processed and high stimulant foods
Cutting out processed foods, refined sugars and stimulants such as caffeine and energy drinks can make a huge difference to your energy and mood.
Smoking can be a trigger when you’re stressed, however this will not alleviate your stress, but in fact heighten it due to it being a stimulant. As chronic smokers will attest to: one puff is never enough.
Burnout is not something that happens overnight - it’s a gradual process. If you’re experiencing burnout, it may be a sign that it’s time to re-evaluate your hopes and dreams. This could mean restructuring how you work, taking time out more for things you enjoy and more importantly, stepping away from your workload to enjoy the other faucets of life. Rest and reflection and paramount to recovery.
On the association of psychological science website, one user shared his own thoughts:
“Expect this type of illness to be more and more prevalent across the Western world as human beings are increasingly forced to compete with machines, robots and algorithms. There needs to be a dramatic rethink about the way societies run and people’s expectations of a healthy work/life balance.”