No matter how much you love your job, work can occasionally turn into a hamster wheel. Maybe it starts with a runaway to-do list, long hours, some weekend work – but it can spiral. Soon, the hamster wheel isn’t just out of control, it’s on fire. Work becomes everything and the stress is unbearable. It’s called burnout.
Half a million people in the UK alone suffer from work-related stress and psychologists have called it a silent epidemic that most of us witness every day. Now, the World Health Organisation has stepped in. Even though we’ve known about burnout since the ’70s, it took until 2019 for the WHO to add the problem to its International Classification of Disease Manual.
According to the new report, burnout has three common elements: feelings of mental fatigue at work, detachment from your job, and poor performance at work. Sound familiar? Then the official definition definitely will: “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
But who among us has the time to ‘successfully manage’ office stress? Better to just plow on, head down, right? Few pints, gym sessions, you’ll be OK, surely? Well, no. The health effects of long-term stress are no joke, and they can harm more than your career prospects, with cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, and depression all more likely if you keep your stress bottled up.
So how exactly can you prevent burnout – short of quitting your job? And how can you manage it once it does happen? To help you fight back against chronic office-based stress, we asked John-Paul Davies, psychotherapist at thistrustedplace.co.uk and author of Finding A Balanced Connection, to talk us through cooling down when you’re feeling the burn.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout isn’t just wanting to give your boss a dressing down before throwing your computer in the bin. In fact, burnout is a cumulation of months, if not years, or chronic stress. And, like the WHO report explains, it occurs when the demands placed on us seem to exceed our ability to cope.
“Burnout is the term used to describe what you’re likely to experience if you’re under too much work stress, too consistently, over too long a period of time; where you’ve run out of the physical, emotional and mental resources required to perform your job in the way you want and need to,” says Davies.
In short, burnout is your breaking point.
Burnout Symptoms And Warning Signs
It doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a difference between losing your rag after one bad day, and soldiering on diligently for weeks, only to feel that things aren’t improving. To help you tell the difference, it’s important that you know what to look out for.
“People will usually report some or all of being physically exhausted, feeling hopeless, anxious, helpless, chronically irritated, isolated, trapped, numb, overwhelmed, being distanced emotionally from the job and unable to meet its demands,” says Davies.
Unfortunately, this feeling of stress isn’t helped by your body’s natural systems, which boost levels of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol when we feel stressed. As well as exhausting the body, these hormones can affect how we think, stopping us from being able to perceive situations accurately, which of course only serves to stress us out further.
In this condition, it’s easy to get stuck in a loop of negative thinking, and start to spiral. It isn’t helped by the fact that these hormones also mess with your sleep patterns, which only makes you more stressed, too. Keep this up for a few weeks and you’ll soon be at breaking point.
However crap you feel, though, it’s important that you don’t start to self-medicate with junk food or alcohol, as both will only make things worse.
“Because we don’t like feeling any of this, we might also increase the use of potentially addictive substances like alcohol, food or drugs as quick, short-term ‘fixes’,” explains Davies.
Instead, address your feelings as soon as possible; loading more and more stress on yourself can have a number of unproductive results: “As well as exhaustion, the constant supply of stress hormones leading to burnout can cause other physical symptoms, such as frequent illnesses, headaches and changes to sleeping and eating patterns,” says Davies.
How Do I Know I Don’t Just Need A Break?
Do you need a week off, or do you need to start rethinking your career path and life choices? First of all, saying “I’m just stressed” isn’t an excuse. Yes, you are. That’s the problem. If you can admit you’re stressed, you can do something about it.
“Stress is inevitably going to be part of the complicated, demanding, hyper-stimulated lives most of us lead,” Davies says. “Occasionally experiencing some of the thoughts and feelings described above is therefore to be expected. It’s their intensity, pervasiveness and duration that distinguishes you just needing a holiday from the profoundly life-changing experience that is burnout. If you’re burnt out, a holiday will do little to lessen your ongoing distress.”
So, if things start to feel all-consuming and you can’t stop thinking about work or find yourself overthinking interactions with colleagues or your boss, or a client, it’s time to take a step back and re-assess your wellbeing.
How To Prevent Burnout
“If you think of burnout as the debt felt where your resources are outweighed by life’s demands, there’s a lot you can do to maintain the self-care that avoids it,” says Davies.
In the short-term, he suggests simply assessing your work load, and seeing what could be delegated. In addition to that, try to manage your time, cutting down on web browsing and social media use. Do these and you’ll start to feel more in control of your day. And of course – as in all areas of life – being comfortable with asking for support when you need it is also key.
In the long-term, Daviesl has a number of psychological self-care strategies which will undoubtedly pay dividends, if you put the work in:
Set Yourself Limits
“Always keep your work ‘boundaries’ in mind and try to enforce them. These include the number of hours you’re comfortable working to make sure you’re keeping a healthy balance between work and personal life. You also need to know what’s ‘enough’ status and income for you, because, if you don’t, you’ll tend to be overly reliant on external demands, opinions, affirmation and expectations from others who, understandably, will just be speaking from their own experience and potentially prioritising their own needs.”
Don’t Always Listen To The Voice In Your Head
“Try to be consistently aware of what you’re thinking and feeling. A proportion of your stress is likely to come from your own thinking patterns. A tendency to catastrophise (having distorted beliefs that you’re helpless/hopeless/trapped) and imposter syndrome (leading you to think you’re not good at what you do) can exponentially increase work stress.”
Beware Of Over-Working
“Be aware that the status, validation, goal-achieving, money and power that can come from work can also be highly addictive due to their dopamine highs. There isn’t anything wrong with this as part of a balanced life, but as with all potentially addictive behaviours, you may then be compelled to pursue them despite an adverse consequence like prolonged stress.”
Find Something Meaningful Outside Of Work
“Make sure you have a toolbox of mind, body, feeling and behavioural techniques that help keep you in a state of psychological and physiological balance – ie, feeling both calm and alive. Deep breathing, sleep, creative pursuits, helping other people, laughing, synchronised group activities, spending time outside, exercise and mindfulness will all help to achieve and sustain the balance that manages work stress, avoids burnout and more generally leads to a happy and purposeful life.”
How To Recover From Burnout
The good news is, if you’re feeling burned out, you’re sort of over the worse. At least the apprehension of the build-up is gone, right? What you have to know now is that burnout and stress are normal. They affect us all, and there’s no shame in it. The key is to not let yourself ruminate on how you feel.
“In spite of the depressed and anxious thoughts consistent with burnout generating a self-fulfilling prophesy that it’s permanent, it’s absolutely a state you can recover from,” says Davies. “It might be that some anti-anxiety or depression medication is required for a short period, and also some counselling to look into the reasons why you felt like that in the first place, and how you can look after yourself from now on.”
This might sound daunting, but look at it as your road to recovery. You’d take painkillers and see a physiotherapist after a sporting injury, right? Getting back into good mental health is exactly the same thing – and more common than you might think.
“It may also be that you just need to accept that the combination of your psychological temperament with the demands and cultures of a certain industry means you’re trying to defy gravity to maintain your wellbeing whilst remaining in it,” says Davies. “If this is the case, it might be an idea to start thinking about an ‘exit plan’.”
In other words, our bodies have clever ways of telling us something has to change. If you have burned out, or feel like you might, use it as an opportunity to change your life and health for the better. It needn’t mean leaving your job, maybe it’s something as simple as setting yourself a ‘home time’ each day and sticking to it. Maybe it’s committing to running home from work a few nights a week and seeing what that does to your stress levels. Maybe, it’s re-reading Davies’s advice above whenever you feel stressed.
At the very least, it should involve talking about how you feel on a regular basis – it might just be the case that your friends, family and colleagues feel the same way and by discussing it, you can all help each other to become happier, healthier, and more productive.