After sharing this on my Instagram recently, I was surprised how many of you messaged me to tell me you were struggling with similar feelings. I also had work colleagues who said they’d seen my post and realised they had many of the symptoms of burnout.
Personally, I’ve definitely struggled on numerous occasions throughout the year as we go into and out of lockdowns. It has hit me particularly hard over the last few weeks. Not helped by being seriously understaffed and overworked at the hospital. I didn’t realise how many of the things I was feeling were actually linked to burnout!
I feel like we’re on our knees at work. And I’ve found myself complaining with colleagues almost constantly – which I hate! We’ve actually introduced Positive Pants Friday to try to combat it. I go to bed at 9/9.30 but I feel constantly exhausted, and definitely irritable at lot. I must be a dream to live and work with!! Luckily we were able to escape to The Maldives for a full break and reset last week which I know is not an option for most right now. But I do think being aware of the signs/symptoms can be the first step in taking control of your current situation.
How to Tell if You Have Burnout and How to Tackle It
What is burnout?
The term “burnout” was first heard in the 1970s when it was coined by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He first used it to describe the feeling of emotional exhaustion experienced by doctors, nurses and others in “helping” professions, who sacrifice themselves to help others. This feels especially relevant given the current pandemic! I’ve definitely seen a lot of it in the NHS over the past few months.
Now, we use the term burnout across all professions and occupations. Essentially it can be characterised by a feeling of constant exhaustion, stress that won’t go away, and suddenly hating your job or struggling to find meaning in it. It can also affect people outside of typical “professional” jobs too, such as carers or full-time parents.
In some ways, it’s not surprising that this is something we experience (more so than ever this year). Most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work. If we’re not careful, it’s easy for the balance to tip. Especially this year, with more people working from home, it can be difficult to switch off and not become consumed by work. We’re also trying to do so much outside of work, which can be another big contributor – train for marathons, have side hustles, be a good friend, deal with a global pandemic!
Are you burned out? The signs and symptoms
Firstly, I just want to stick in a quick disclaimer that “burnout” isn’t currently a specific, diagnosable psychological disorder. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch out for the signs. As they could very well lead to other mental health issues if left unresolved. And if nothing else, feeling like this isn’t very fun and is definitely something worth tackling!
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are some of the key signs…
Performance and productivity drops
You normally pride yourself on working hard and producing great results in everything you do. But suddenly you still feel like you’re working all the time. And now you’re making silly mistakes and your productivity has taken a landslide. Sound familiar? It could be a sign of burnout.
Unable to switch off
It’s natural to think about work outside of your office hours, and maybe even have the odd sleepless night before a big presentation. But if you find you’re lying in bed night after night thinking about your mounting to do list, or anxiously checking your emails on a Saturday morning, it’s a likely sign that something isn’t right. The same goes for hobbies too. If you find yourself constantly stressing about your training plan, maybe it’s time to think about how important that marathon PB really is.
Loss of enjoyment or interest
Losing enjoyment in work can first just seem like not wanting to go in the morning or being eager to leave at the end of the day. In itself this isn’t a huge problem – not everybody is lucky enough to do something they love. But this can start seeping into other areas, such as no longer feeling enjoyment spending time with friends and family. You may find yourself avoiding projects you would normally have found interesting at work because it, and turning down social activities, in turn adding to those feelings of inadequacy. It’s a vicious cycle!
Problems in your personal relationships
It’s difficult to contain stress to one singular area of your life, and you may find your feelings of burnout about one thing leaking into other areas of your life and affecting your relationships. You may find yourself losing your temper more easily, or withdrawing from the people you normally love spending time with.
How we feel emotionally can have a huge impact on our physical health, and burnout can present itself through headaches, increased susceptibility to colds and flus, nausea, gastrointestinal disorders and sleeping problems.
How to tackle burnout
Whether your feelings of burnout are centred around work, home, training – whatever it may be – speak up as soon as possible. That might be to your manager, your partner or your coach if you’re a runner. Let them know what’s going on and chat about how they can help you. You’ll likely find that the thing you’re really worrying about doing perfectly isn’t actually so important to them.
Take a break
Although burnout can often be sparked by genuinely being busy, ultimately what’s actually on your to do list can become irrelevant. It’s not so much about having a lot to do, it’s more about becoming completely overwhelmed by it. For this reason, simply offloading some of your tasks might not help (e.g. by chatting to your manager and delegating some of your workload). If possible, you likely need to take a full break where you can completely switch off in order to hit reset.
You may think there’s no point taking holiday at the moment if you can’t go anywhere. But just shutting your phone and your computer in a cupboard for a few days and making time to do things you find relaxing at home could really help.
Stop piling up your to do list
Once you’ve recovered from that initial burnout, you need to think about ways to prevent it happening again. Try having a daily to do list that only contains 3-5 tasks that you can actually achieve that day. It’ll help you work in more manageable chunks, rather than constantly staring down the barrel of a long list of things you couldn’t possible achieve in a month, let alone a week or day. Be realistic about it.
Try to Find a release
Burnout is often caused by becoming all-consumed by one thing and being unable to really enjoy other things. Try and find something that truly is a release for you. For instance, for runners, this likely isn’t running – trying to stick to a plan and hit PBs can be a cause of stress in itself. Try something totally new that comes with no expectations. It could be something totally random: a weekly pottery class, for instance, where you just get to leave your phone in your bag and do something with your hands for an hour a week.
Think about a big change
Although it’s probably not a great idea to make big life choices in the midst of a burnout, if you think it’s genuinely as a result of something specific (such as job where unrealistic expectations are placed on you, and your boss is calling you in the middle of the night to talk about spreadsheets), then it might be time to think about moving on. This goes for other things too. If you’re suddenly finding training a stressor, maybe take a couple of months or a year out from marathon training.