When exhaustion becomes a bigger problem (and how to come back from it)
We often use the phrase ‘burnt out’ to describe feelings of exhaustion or overworked-ness. But the term is now included in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ by the World Health Organisation.
‘Burnout is a sign of our times and the result of constant high levels of stress that we are all under,’ Dr Bella Smith, known as @thedigitalgp on Instagram, tells us. ‘In my job as a GP we are seeing it more and more due to higher work pressure and long working hours.’
Knowledge is power, so it’s imporant to know the risk factors so you can spot it from a mile off. ‘Take time to look after yourself and don’t be frightened to take back control of your life, as this could prevent burnout,’ Dr Smith adds. ‘Please see your GP if you have any concerns about your mental, physical or emotional health.’
Without further ado…
What is burnout?
‘Burnout is a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion caused by prolonged and excessive stress and lack of support, that can lead to low achievement and inefficiency at work, explains Dr Smith. ‘In burnout, there are often overwhelming feelings of helplessness and resentment that initially affect you at work, but in time your home life and health may also suffer.
‘It is normal for us all to occasionally have a bad day at work, but burnout is when every day seems like a bad day. This is when things can spiral out of control. It’s important that the signs and symptoms of burnout are recognised early, as early intervention may prevent it.’
‘Work is the biggest contributor to stress in the women I work with,’ adds anxiety expert, hypnotherapist and author Chloe Brotheridge. ‘It can seem as though we’re expected to be “on” all the time, answering emails at all times of day and night. Because work is connected to our ability to put food on the table and pay our rent (basically our survival), we can push ourselves ever harder in order to create a sense of security.
‘Many people don’t feel able to be open about any mental health struggles they might be experiencing and workplace support is often lacking. Burnout happens when we’ve pushed ourselves so hard that our body forces us to stop. The adrenal glands are overworked and people report fatigue and an inability to continue with normal life when a ‘burnout’ happens.’
What causes burnout? What are the risk factors?
‘There are many factors that can lead to workplace burnout – just a few of the most common are: having a heavy workload, including overtime work; chronic workplace stress; not being able to meet constant demands; and always feeling under pressure to achieve,’ adds Dr Imogen Bexfield, Medical Director of White Swan Aesthetics.
‘Burnout is not simply caused by long working hours, but can occur when a person does not feel in control of how their job is carried out, or is not supported in the office or at home,’ Dr Smith continues. ‘We all respond differently to stress and workload pressures depending on our past experience, lifestyle, current social circumstances and personality traits. Burnout can creep up on you and sometimes it will take someone else to notice that you are not yourself or not coping as you normally would.’
What are the signs and symptoms?
‘Burnout is a gradual process,’ explains Dr Bexfield. ‘It doesn’t usually happen overnight and is more than just a “bad day” or a “tough week.” Workplace burnout is something that persists for longer than a week or two. Spotting the early warning signs of burnout in someone can be difficult, as the condition can develop over weeks or months, as their response to work-related stress evolves.’
So, what are the tell-tale signs? ‘Being in fight or flight much of the time, waking up feeling exhausted even after eight hours in bed, fatigue, a lowered immune system and irritability could all be signs you’re pushing yourself too hard and could be on your way to burning out,’ Chloe adds.
But being aware of these red flags is a vital step in getting on the road to recovery more quickly. ‘Recognition of burnout in yourself and colleagues is so important as, if it is caught early, wheels can be put in motion to deal with the problem,’ adds Dr Smith. ‘Emotional symptoms include feeling guilty about not working hard enough, feeling negative, trapped and detached from others.
‘Physically, you may notice that you are getting unwell with regular coughs and colds, you may not be sleeping well or have noticed a change in your appetite. Some people describe aches, pains and headaches from the constant stress.
‘Behavioural changes then occur whereby you may isolate yourself from others, focus on your own mistakes or your workload; you may even notice that you are becoming repeatedly cross or angry with a colleague and find it hard concentrate. You may be drinking more alcohol due to your stress levels or have stopped exercising due to time commitments. This can all lead to a negative cycle where you are exhausted, cynical and inefficient at work creating a more negative environment and increasing workload.’
We’ll discuss things you can do to support burnout recovery next, but first and foremost you should always make an appointment with your doctor.
‘If you feel you may be under too much pressure and having any of these symptoms, be sure to see your GP,’ says Dr Bexfield. ‘Many people feel as though workplace burnout isn’t as serious as some illnesses, but if not treated it can lead to depression and other more stress-related illnesses. Your GP will be able to assess and diagnose you, offering you the appropriate treatment and time off work if necessary.’
‘Maintaining a work/life balance is crucial to having a good quality of life,’ says Dr Bexfield. ‘Try to schedule in time for yourself, take a yoga class, catch up with positive friends, or just take some out to relax and breathe.’
‘The most important thing to do is to recognise [burnout] in yourself and others,’ says Dr Smith. ‘It needs to be managed in a multifactorial way including focusing on your lifestyle, your workload and your mental wellness.
‘Practical ways to avoid burnout are to take back control and say “no” to more commitment or responsibility. Make a list of all your stresses and responsibilities as this can help visualise your workload enabling you to switch off. Take a break or a holiday and block out time where you are with your family or friends and can’t be disturbed.
‘Focus on healthy living – improve your diet with fresh home cooked food, cut down your sugar intake and drink plenty of water to keep hydrated. Try to find time to exercise regularly, even if it is just a walk outside to get some fresh-air. Cut down the amount of alcohol and the caffeine you are drinking and limit your time on social media.
‘Focus on relaxation; for example, try yoga, meditation or mindfulness. Communicate with your family, friends and work colleagues for support – burnout can happen to anyone of us at any time and makes us human. Consider changing your job or reducing your workload in the long-term to prevent this happening again.
‘Finally, celebrate small achievements by writing down in a diary how you are feeling so that you can reflect on how far you have come. Recovery can be slow so don’t be too hard on yourself, see you GP for support, to help with time off work if required or, in some cases, medication.’
Remember that, if you feel exhausted and like there is too much on your plate, there is always help and support available (even if it doesn’t feel like it!) The first step is that all-important GP appointment.
We’ll leave you with some wise words from Chloe Brotheridge: ‘Remember that you are more than your achievements and ‘being productive’ is not the road to lasting happiness. Connect back to what really matters to you and make time for the simple pleasures in life that can only be enjoyed when we slow down.’