We’ve probably all felt mentally exhausted at the end of a long working day, but what does it actually mean to experience burnout?
When we think of feeling “burned out,” we think of running out of energy or being overwhelmed by our jam-packed schedules. We associate it with a feeling of being mentally and physically tired from overworking. However, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), burnout is actually a syndrome that “results in chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
“Burnout,” explains Dr Luke Powles - an Associate Clinical Director at Bupa Health Clinics - “is when the pressure you are under exceeds your ability to cope, leaving you exhausted and run down.” It’s not actually the stress itself but, rather, an inability to process the stress in a healthy way.
The WHO describes it as having three key elements: feelings of exhaustion, becoming mentally detached from one’s job and a poorer work performance. Simply speaking, burnout occurs when our exhaustion is so profound that we no longer have the energy to care about our work.
Consultant Psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic Dr Elena Touroni recognizes that in the current social climate, it’s hardly surprising that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found work-based stress or anxiety to be responsible for half of all sick days taken in the UK between 2017 and 2018: “As we become increasingly connected as a society, the world is also presenting us with more opportunities - but more opportunities add a lot of pressure and anxiety into the mix. If we’re not mindful of this and we don’t create clear boundaries, we’re naturally going to be at higher risk of burnout.”
Opportunity, these days, often comes in the form of work. People work longer hours and increasingly prioritize their jobs over other areas of life – a problem that has resulted in 29% of British workers (equivalent to 9.4 million people) rated their work-life balance as poor.
How it impacts us
People often pay more attention to signs of physical illness than mental – believing them to be more ‘real’ because they can be seen and felt. Though, as Dr Powles points out, burnout can “lead to mental illness like depression,” its effects can also be felt physically – often aggravating conditions such as asthma and eczema.
Even more serious than that, the US National Institute of Health found that it leads to a higher risk of certain diseases and conditions, such as “cardiovascular diseases, obesity, hyperlipidaemia, type 2 diabetes, large waist circumference (WC), high body mass index (BMI), metabolic syndrome, hypertension, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, high LDL cholesterol, and impaired fasting glucose.”
What are the signs of a burnout?
So how do we detect burnout before it’s too late? It can feel like a bit of a guessing game, Dr Powles explains, because “Burnout can often be mistaken for feeling stressed and tired, as some of the symptoms are the same.”
There are certain red flags to watch out for, though – particularly when experienced together.
A fast paced lifestyle can lead to a kind of accumulative tiredness that’s hard to shake. According to Dr Touroni, “if you’ve been burning the candle at both ends for a long time, you might get used to feeling fatigued. But if you’re feeling tired most days or you find that you don’t have the same energy levels you once did, this should serve as a major red flag.”
Inability to focus
The irony of working long hours (which we hope will help us accomplish more) is that it actually decreases our productivity. “Exhaustion causes cognitive problems so you might find that you’re easily losing focus in meetings or that you’re becoming increasingly forgetful,” explains Dr Touroni. Dr Powles agrees: “Your work productivity will likely decrease. When you are over-working, you might feel like you’re getting a lot done but the reality is that you can’t give your best when you're depleted and over-stretched.”
All this exhaustion leads to changes in mood and, as Dr Touroni points out, “changes in mood often mean increased irritation.” This means your personal relationships are likely to become affected. “For relationships to thrive,” says Dr Powles, “you need to create the time and space to nurture those bonds. If you’re on the road to burnout, you naturally won’t be able to provide those closest to you with the attention and care that they deserve.”
“Sleep should also be taken seriously as it serves as a good indicator of your emotional and mental wellbeing,” says Dr Touroni. Finding it hard to fall asleep, waking up multiple times a night or waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep are all signs of a larger problem.
How to prevent it
If you’re suffering from exhaustion, feeling overly stressed and finding the quality of your personal relationships to be suffering, there are steps you can take to prevent the issues turning into a full-blow burnout.
Laura Bamber and Katy Brown are the founders of The Vibrancy Hub – a wellbeing consultancy that works with companies to improve the working environment and quality of working life for employees.
“Our business clients’ feedback reveals that once an individual has understood the physiological impact of stress on the brain and nervous system, and therefore WHY preventing burnout is so critical, people are much more open to taking proactive, intentional action to manage the stress in their lives and prevent any escalation of mental health challenges,” they explained.
According to the experts we spoke to, there are several simple steps you can take immediately to reduce the risk of burning out:
Learning to say “no” can be difficult, but once done, really sets you free. “It’s important to remember that you’re not invincible and there’ll be times when you can’t do everything you’re asked,” says Dr Powles. “Whether this is booking a holiday or taking a couple of days off to relax, it is important to make sure you are taking time for yourself and unwinding from the stress of day-to-day life.”
As well as taking time off, Dr Touroni also recommends incorporating this balance into your daily life: “balance activities that are necessary with ones that you do simply for pleasure - no matter how busy you are, make time in the day to do things that nourish you and fill you with a sense of wellbeing.”
The bad habit of ‘multitasking’ has led to many people finding it difficult to know what to prioritise. Laura Bamber and Katy Brown recommend addressing this. “We have become so obsessed with getting MORE done in less time, and what we encourage clients to do is to focus on getting the right things done. One of the most important (and often challenging) things a person can do is to identify what is most important to them so that prioritizing becomes easier and more effective and leads to both enhanced performance but also greater fulfilment.”
Exercise the mind and body
Dr Powles recommends exercise and mediation as it forces you to be present in the moment: “Exercise and meditation, if done on a regular basis, can be really helpful when trying to relieve stress.”
Not meditated before? No problem: “Start each day with a 5 mins mindfulness meditation,” suggests Dr Touroni. “A short mindfulness meditation session is a great way to kick-off the day as it gives you an understanding of what kind of emotional state you’re in. This will help you set an intention for the day that’s in line with how you’re feeling.”
Maintain a healthy lifestyle
This one may seem obvious but we can often forget that the amount of sleep, and the exercise we are taking can have a massive impact on our mental health. Dr Powles says that “while it might be difficult to fit this in, it can have a big impact if you’re able to get it right.” Our gut health also has a strong link to our mental health, so make sure you’re taking care of your diet.
And don’t forget to ask for help
If you are experiencing any of these issues, remember that you can always ask for help, says Dr Powles. “If you’re stressed it can help to talk to someone about how you’re feeling, whether this be a close family friend, relative or a medical professional. If you are really struggling, I would advise speaking with your GP and finding out what you can do to relieve some of pressure you are putting yourself under.”