At the turn of 2021, health experts predicted an impending ‘burnout spike’ for Britain’s workforce. Research into Google Trends revealed a spike in searches for “symptoms of burnout” in the wake of the pandemic, while seasonal changes also made a difference. This article looks at how to prevent burnout.
The effects of burnout can spill over from our professional lives into our relationships, while also impacting our physical and mental health. To tackle burnout at the source, we need to understand what’s causing it – and what changes we can make to stop it from taking over.
What is burnout?
The term ‘burnout’ was coined by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. His definition was specifically for occupational burnout, but the more widely accepted definition is a “state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress”.
As such, we can apply the term to work burnout, social burnout, parental burnout, academic burnout and many other everyday situations. Quite simply, if the stresses are there and we become overwhelmed, we could trigger these symptoms.
The three types of burnout
Many coaches and health organisations have different views on burnout. The World Health Organisation, for example, links the symptoms to work, but the NHS definition above looks at all situations.
Some psychologists say there are three distinct ways in which the condition manifests: volume, boredom, and social burnout.
According to burnout management coach Emily Ballesteros, volume burnout is the commonest form. As it’s caused by being booked up day-to-day with no time for ourselves, it’s easy to associate with work burnout – but it can be just as applicable to students or parents.
Boredom burnout is an interesting phenomenon as we tend to associate burnout with being too busy. The boredom form is the complete opposite – we find ourselves twiddling our thumbs because we’re not being challenged in our day-to-day lives, whether that’s at work, home or while studying.
People facing this kind of burnout may feel uninspired like their life is going nowhere, and that they are ‘stuck’ in certain situations.
Socialising might sound like it’s all fun and games, but it’s more stressful than you might think. Social burnout sufferers tend to be ‘people-pleasers’ who struggle to say no. They would sooner be uncomfortable and say yes than let others down – which means they often end up in situations they’d rather avoid.
Likewise, it’s not just about being ‘social’. It’s about a fear of rejection, so it can apply to the workplace, too. These types fear letting down their superiors, so they may take on more work than they can handle.
What causes burnout?
While we can categorise it into external influences, like ‘pandemic burnout’ or ‘parental burnout’, the causes overlap in many situations. Burnout is most often caused by:
Too high a workload
Lack of a support network
Feeling like we have no control
Being a people-pleaser
Little or no self-care.
We can see the symptoms manifest both physically and emotionally.
Signs of emotional burnout
Emotional burnout or mental burnout manifests in the way we conduct ourselves and may change our attitudes in our everyday lives. These mental exhaustion symptoms include lack of motivation, apathy, irritability, trouble concentrating, nervousness and hopelessness. They can also show up physically.
Physical symptoms of burnout
The anxiety and exhaustion caused by burnout can lead to a range of physical symptoms. These may include headaches, back or muscular aches as your body struggles to deal with the tension. You may also have trouble sleeping, while your immune system could even be affected.
If you’re feeling ‘run down’, are in physical pain, or notice changes in your appetite, then you could be burnt out.
The ‘5 stages’ of burnout
There are many schools of thought as to the stages of burnout, but many agree on the five key stages to be aware of.
Lack of awareness
At this stage, sometimes referred to as the ‘honeymoon phase’, you might be feeling driven by all the tasks you have to accomplish. You’ll occasionally feel overwhelmed but shrug it off as part of life, and may let people push your boundaries.
Onset of panic
At this point, you are beginning to recognise that something is not right. You may not feel as driven as before and you may start to become irritable. Something is ‘nagging’ you but you’re not sure.
Higher stress levels
By this stage, you have begun to recognise the symptoms but may not want to deal with them. Instead, you look at options to ‘numb’ the symptoms, such as excessive exercise, comfort eating or alcohol. You may look for things you know you can control.
Anxiety and exhaustion
By now the symptoms are becoming more extreme with more noticeable ‘lows’. Rather than tackling the problem, you might be looking for new ways to ignore it so that you can find time to get things done.
At the last stage, burnout has become a way of life and your body is in a long-term state of stress. At its most extreme, this may result in panic attacks or illness. You may be using ‘coping methods’ that are actually making you worse, for example, relying on high amounts of caffeine.
How do I know if I have burnout?
Burnout is often difficult to diagnose because the symptoms cross over with other mental health conditions. If you’re seeking medical help, make sure you look out for symptoms of stress and depression as well.
Burnout and stress: the differences
Whereas both stress and burnout involve taking too much on, stress implies a means to an end. Stressed people may have control of the situation and know things will calm down once they can sort everything out.
Burnout, by comparison, is feeling like you’re not enough – you do not have the motivation to fix things because you’re physically and mentally exhausted.
Burnout and depression: the differences
While burnout and depression may both manifest in feelings of hopelessness, burnout usually has a circumstantial cause. For example, you may be feeling overwhelmed at work. Depressing might be more difficult to pinpoint; there may be several causes, or it could be determined by genetics.
How To Prevent Burnout?
Prevention is better than the cure in all circumstances, so it’s important to recognise the symptoms before taking on anything new, such as a job or study assignment.
Control the physical symptoms
Burnout may have us reaching for unhealthy foods or staying up long hours. Set yourself a standard by having ‘treats’ rather than relying on junk food, and go for a set number of hours per night.
Rather than feeling bad that you missed a 10 pm bedtime, give yourself a set number of hours. Apps such as Sleep Cycle can help you to better understand your sleep patterns.
Manage your tasks
Negative thought patterns can convince us that we cannot handle everything we’ve taken on. Often, it’s better to visualise your task list. Write down everything you need to do and categorise it into one of four:
Urgent and important
Urgent and less important
Important and less urgent
Less important and less urgent
Order your tasks 1 to 4 as above, and break them down into manageable chunks. Tools like Trello may help to visualise them. You could also try the ‘eat that frog’ method, which involves taking on the hardest task first, or ‘snowballing’, which involves ticking off a few smaller tasks to get a sense of achievement.
Set boundaries and expectations
It’s essential to set boundaries, particularly if you want to avoid social burnout. Tell your peers how much time you need for each task, and be firm about the times you won’t be available. Email signatures or auto-replies are a great way to do this.
Reach out to your support network
If you know you’ve got a lot coming up, reach out to those around you. Are there professionals with whom you would spread your workload? Can you talk to your family about issues that are stressing you out? Can you manage your time better with a tutor?
By planning ahead, you’ll know the best contacts to turn to should the going get tough.
I think I have burnout. What should I do?
If you think you’re experiencing it, and you’re wondering how to prevent burnout or the emotional or physical symptoms of burnout, you should address them as soon as possible. This will stop you from reaching the harmful ‘fifth stage’.
Find the source of your stress
Sometimes, we’re not entirely sure what causes our stress. Make a note every time you start to notice physical symptoms, such as a tension headache or increased heart rate. Is it an email from your boss or a looming deadline? Once you know the triggers, you can start working to stop the source of stress.
Prioritise your tasks
Try using the ‘importance/urgency’ quadrants to get your tasks in order. Look to see which of these tasks could be shuffled around – can you reach out to your network and see if they can extend deadlines? Often, deadlines are not as urgent as you might think. If it’s a study context, you may be able to ask a tutor about extenuating circumstances.
Make time for yourself
We’re so focused on prioritising what we have to do, we often forget to make time for ourselves. Just like you would schedule a meeting or pick up the kids, schedule a moment to yourself. Use this time to switch off devices, go for a walk, take a bath, exercise – whatever calms your mind.
Address bad lifestyle habits
Staying physically fit has an even better impact on your mental health. Rather than obsessing over calories and diets, choose exercise and foods that make you feel good. It might be a workout class with a friend, or a superfood smoothie to start your day right.
Don’t forget the impact of sleep, either. Take the electronic devices out of your room and keep your bedroom as a place of relaxation. Aim for eight hours.
If you have to…move on
This one is perhaps the most difficult to take, but it could be critical. If you know you cannot improve your situation, it might be time to leave. Some examples might include:
Toxic bosses – is your boss receiving multiple complaints?
Work/life balance – have you taken on too many shifts while studying?
Parental burnout – do you need more help from your friends and family?
While it’s healthy to try to change a negative situation, sometimes we have to remove ourselves from it. There is no shame in this and you should approach it with an open mind – an investment in your long-term physical and mental health.