Burnout. It’s a term we’ve started to hear a lot more recently, as we’ve begun to open up the conversation on workplace wellbeing, and the importance of finding balance in our lives.
First coined in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, burnout is a mental health condition that can occur following long-term stress, leading to both physical and mental exhaustion.
While the causes of burnout can vary from a wide range of conditions and circumstances, the key thing to know is that it can happen to people in any profession. That said, a 2018 study by consultancy company Gallup analysed 7,500 US workers and found that burnout tends to stem from unfair treatment at work, an unmanageable workload, and a lack of clarity about what an individual’s role should involve.
Whatever the cause may be, the first step to tackling burnout is spotting the signs that you may be approaching it. Here, we explore 12 things to watch out for to address the overwhelm before you reach burnout…
You may not be the earliest of risers, but you’ve noticed that getting out of bed in the morning is becoming increasingly difficult. Whereas before you might have hopped up at the sound of your alarm, now you’re very familiar with the snooze button. You may spot that rising is particularly difficult at certain times of the week, perhaps even lining up with regular work commitments, such as meetings and presentations, or at the start of the week when your to-do list is looming over your head.
It could be for the work that you do, or for your hobbies, but if you’ve noticed that your excitement and enthusiasm for things has been dulled, this could be a sign of burnout. It might feel like apathy, or you could disengage entirely, but if you find yourself struggling to muster the passion and creativity that you once had, think back and see if you can decipher when this first started being a problem for you. Does it line up with any other periods of stress or heightened workload?
Previously, you may have started your day and approached tasks on your to-do list with a positive attitude, but now there is a layer of cynicism covering your mood. Perhaps things that never bothered you before now feel like deal-breakers, or you no longer feel satisfied with the work you’re doing. Rather than taking this as a sign that your role no longer works for you, could this instead be linked to burnout and overworking?
From headaches to muscle aches, did you know that mental health problems can sometimes manifest themselves in physical pain? When it comes to burnout, you might experience pain caused by holding a lot of tension in your body. On the other hand, chronic pain can also be another thing added to our mental load, making for a vicious cycle. However, if you have noticed an increase in headaches, or other bodily pain, it’s always worth speaking with your GP.
What are you going to have for dinner? What outfit should you put on? What do you want to watch on TV? They’re only small decisions, but you just can’t muster the energy to make your mind up. This could be linked to a sense of apathy that is creeping into the rest of your life, or it could simply be your mind’s way of telling you that it’s overwhelmed, and no longer has the capacity to take on additional decisions that would usually take no effort at all.
You’ve managed to drag yourself out of bed, and are about to get started with the day’s jobs, when suddenly you realise you don’t know where to begin. Perhaps you’re experiencing something similar to brain fog, and you’re trying hard to ground yourself but, for all your efforts, you can’t see a clear path forward. A to-do list, or a catch-up with your manager to work out priorities, might help you here, but the underlying problem could run deeper.
That task has been sitting on your to-do list for days now, but every time you decide to get stuck in, you instead find yourself picking up your phone, starting up a conversation with someone – or even focusing on a different, less important job altogether. If this sounds familiar, are there any patterns to this behaviour? Do you find you put off certain kinds of tasks more than others?
Whatever it may have been, you’ve found the straw that broke the camel’s back, and you can’t keep your irritation in any longer. It might have been something really small, or perhaps a series of things, but you’ve snapped. Take a moment to think, is this something that would have bothered you normally? Was there a just cause to feel frustrated? Or has your reaction been over-the-top, or out of character?
In very basic terms, one of the key differences between stress and burnout is that stress can lead to an increase in anxiety, whereas burnout can lead to depression. Low-mood may show itself in many different ways, but will often touch you in the experiences we’re describing here. It may not be easy, it will probably take some time, and you may have to make some big lifestyle changes, but know that burnout is something that affects many people, and is also something that can be overcome.
“According to WHO, burnout is the result of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”
Over time, we might find ourselves in a more settled place, or at a point where we value certain kinds of achievements over others. But if you notice a sudden change in the way that you react to your workplace achievements, this could be a sign that you’re experiencing burnout, and have lost the sense of value that you once had in your role.
Whether it’s Sunday night anxiety, or intrusive anxious thoughts whirling around your head, if you’re experiencing a sense of dread that wasn’t there before, this is something to take seriously and to make a note of. You could try journaling, or using a mood tracking app, so that you can build up a bigger picture of what you’re going through. This can then be really helpful if you decide to speak to a professional, and want to help them understand what your experience has been so far.
It may be with friends, family, or colleagues, but something has changed between you. Are you usually a social person who enjoys spending time with others? Are messages now going unanswered and plans cancelled at the last minute? When going through any kind of mental health challenge, the people around us are key to feeling better, and so if you feel as though your relationships are suffering, this is a sure sign that it’s time to reach out for help.
If you think you are experiencing burnout, speak to your GP or connect with a mental health professional. Visit counselling-directory.org.uk for more information and support.
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