Burn, Baby, Burn….out….
Alright kids, it’s time to talk about burnout! Ughh I hear you cry! You’re sick of hearing about it, everybody’s talking about it, you’ve heard it all already! But have you really? Because if you had fully listened, people like me wouldn’t still be talking about it.
Burnout has definitely been a hot topic over the past few years, but there’s a very good reason for that. It’s a condition that can have massively, detrimental repercussions on both your physical and mental health and can take years to recover from which is no laughing matter. So, if you value your health (and really, we all should), then grab a cuppa and prick your ears up because I’m ready to lay it all out for you.
So what exactly is burnout?
Burnout is described by Mental Health UK as, “a state of emotional and physical exhaustion”. The two key words in that sentence? Mental AND physical. It’s not just stress, it’s stress to the point of causing physical harm. It can happen over a short timeframe but is more likely to be from prolonged periods of stress. This can be from a job (we’ve all been there) or simply from being in a situation that is physically and emotionally draining.
Fortunately, there are signs to look out for so you can get a potential heads up of the impending implosion.
Fatigue is a really common symptom and can manifest in different ways. You may feel like you need to sleep all the time (and take lots of naps), or you could go the other way and develop insomnia. It could feel that no matter how much sleep you get, you still feel tired or drained most of the time. This fatigue can then impact cognitive functions like concentration, focus or the ability to complete tasks. I feel like the word fatigue doesn’t quite encompass it, neither does exhausted even though it’s both of those things. Weary, might be a better word, weary to the bone.
Feeling emotional in ways you wouldn’t usually. Everybody has emotions that they deal with but with burnout, it’s feelings of helplessness, being defeated or even completely trapped, whether that’s in a particular situation or just your life. But as with the fatigue, this will manifest differently in different people. For some, the helplessness can cause them to appear depressed or completely apathetic with a feeling of detachment or being alone in the world. They wonder what the point of it all is and may start to become lax in things like cleanliness or personal hygiene because they simply don’t care. Others can lash out, being quick to anger with heightened emotions. They do care, very much and it makes them angry. All of these responses can make people quite stubborn and unwilling to listen to others or accept any help that is offered either because they don’t care, feel ashamed or think it will give the appearance of being weak and unable to cope.
Being cynical or negative all of the time. This can follow on from feeling emotional and absolutely bleed over into all aspects of a person’s life, both at home and at work and can have a significant effect on their ability to complete tasks. It can also cause self-doubt about anything and everything, making you second guess yourself all the time. You get stuck in the negativity and can’t find the right answers.
Procrastination is a huge symptom, especially if this is out of character. Look, we’ve all had those times when we put off doing something we don’t want to do, but for most of us it’s not that often. By it’s nature, procrastination is an avoidance tactic, whatever your reasons are. With burnout, those reasons are slightly more sinister than not wanting to do the ironing and waiting until the pile is big enough to jump in. You put things off because you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope with the task or you are simply unable to think clearly because your head is full of cotton wool and you’re so unbelievably tired. It could be a complete lack of energy or motivation stemming from the aforementioned apathy. Whatever the reason, it’s not good.
Physical ailments eventually start to take root such as headaches, stomach issues, shortness of breath and sleep issues, all of which culminate in your body not working as well as it should. Wounds take much longer to heal and happen more easily. Relatively minor illnesses like coughs and colds have a longer recovery time because your body doesn’t have capability to fight them off. Longer term, you can develop heart problems, high blood pressure, stomach ulcers or even have a stroke.
What are the causes of burnout?
Burnout was first used to describe overworked healthcare workers, but has since been expanded to recognise everyone in any walk of life. While work appears to be the main culprit, the pressures can come from outside the workplace. A stay-at-home parent can be just as likely to experience burnout, but it’s not as recognised as it’s often not seen as a proper job. Caring for a parent/child/loved one can also lead to burnout because these types of work are relentless. There’s no respite from the monotony. And sometimes work feels like the problem but it’s everything else that’s happening in a person’s life and their work suffers.
By the numbers though, work does appear to be the main culprit at the moment with 1 in 5 workers in the UK saying they felt unable to manage their stress levels at work. Worryingly, a high percentage of these were women. These women also identified that there were a number of other potential factors impacting that like job security, responsibilities in the home and the added pressures of home-schooling children due to the pandemic. Financial worries were also high on the list.
None of this means that women are less capable, but is more of a reflection of the societal perception that unfortunately still prevails – that women are less capable than men and should stay home where they belong. The need and desire to be seen as just as competent is what can cause the added pressure. We all know the old saying, “women need to work twice as hard to be seen as half as good”. Which is bullshit.
The fact that more women are reporting burnout doesn’t mean that men don’t experience it. Those same societal expectations can often be what prevent men from speaking out and talking about it. They feel like if they do, they’ll be seen as weak or unable to do the job and they’re supposed to be the breadwinners and people will think they’re not good enough and how will they be able to look anyone in the face and the list goes on and on and on. Which is also bullshit. It is getting easier for both genders to speak up, but we’re not there yet.
Burnout in the workplace.
The pandemic (and the following years) has definitely made burnout a much more prevalent issue in the workplace. Or at least one that people are more willing to admit feeling. However, only 23% of people surveyed said they were aware of what plans their employers had in place to address it. So is this a case of employers not having strategies in place, or not communicating these effectively to their employees? People suffering from burnout are more likely to have health problems, take sick days or need to visit A&E. They are also much less likely to have confidence in their job performance or ask for help and are three times more likely to leave. It’s in the employer’s best interest to be aware of the causes of burnout and have plans in place to combat these. Happy workers are both more productive and more efficient.
Burnout or anxiety?
When polled, 68% of people mistakenly attributed the symptoms of burnout to anxiety, which is kind of understandable as anxiety can lead to burnout, but the symptoms are much more extreme. Anxiety is something that you manage and live with for years quite successfully. Burnout is more like being stuck on a rollercoaster you can’t really control that eventually stops and leaves you shaking, stammering and unable to stand up. You’re screwed basically.
Are depression and burnout the same?
No. They share common symptoms but they aren’t the same. Burnout is usually tied to a situation or environment. Improve or change these and the burnout can go away. Depression us more deep-rooted and isn’t necessarily a response to a singular trigger. For example, if you were to go on holiday your depression would still follow you there like a black cloud, but your symptoms of burnout should ease once you’re removed from the situation. Burnout can lead to depression though if no action is taken to improve it.
Ok, so how do we stop burnout from happening?
It’s very easy to say, “do these things and everything will be fine”, but in reality, it’s not that simple. I can give you all the tips in the world but if you’re unable to change your situation (note I said unable not unwilling, some situations are out of our hands) then it’s not easy to just magically fix it. I can give you some ideas of things you can try.
Burnout is not something you have to go through. It’s not a rite of passage or a badge of honour. It’s damaging and doesn’t need to happen. Don’t let yourself get to that point. Recognise the symptoms and take action, because a burnt out you, will be no use to anyone.