As someone who has had issues with both people-pleasing and imposter syndrome, burnout is something you have to worry about. The times I’ve burned out have happened because I hadn’t been paying attention to my own wellbeing, and before I knew it, it was too late. Now I had to recover from burning out, which can take a very long time.
What Is Burnout?
When the term burnout was first coined, it was used to describe how work stress can cause you to break down, so there’s lots of material around work burnout as a result. However, the problem with burnout is if you stick to the traditional definition, that it’s a result of work-related stress, then you can’t always tackle that root cause.
This is why we’ll use the more current definition of burnout because we’re more than just our jobs. When it comes to life, we’re bombarded by stress from pretty much every angle, be it work, chores, relationships, money, or other commitments. Stress is an adaptive response to these kinds of demands we’re faced with (Priory). Burnout, on the other hand, can be the result of unrelenting stress, but it isn’t the same as too much stress (helpguide.org).
That’s because burnout refers to a state of emotional and mental tiredness (Priory), whereby you just don’t have anything left in the tank after trying to coast on fumes for too long. Any role you find yourself in for a long time that is either physically or emotionally draining can lead to burnout (Mental Health UK).
During my postgraduate degree, I had so much going wrong and was stuck in a complaint regarding my Mental Health Trust that had dragged on for years, that I just burnt out. I had nothing left to give, and I became suicidal, to the point I couldn’t stop thinking about the one method that had popped into my head, and which refused to leave.
I felt mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation, I felt completely empty, and I just didn’t care anymore (helpguide.org). This can leave you in a state of feeling fatigued, disconnected, and worn out (BetterUP). There’s only so much your body and mind can take.
Unfortunately, the world won’t often stop to help you recover from burnout, and it took me about three months before I was back at my baseline. During that time I still had all these complaints to resolve, which was a nightmare. At this point, I had stopped feeling stressed because I was basically broken. And that’s the difference between stress and burnout. When you’re stressed, you’re able to tell yourself things can get better. But with burnout, you’ve long since passed that point, which is what can make burnout dangerous.
Not everyone will have the reaction to burning out that I did of course, but that doesn’t make it any less harmful to your health and mental wellbeing (Mind Tools).
How To Spot Burnout
The life we’re all currently living between managing our debts, working, and trying to find time for ourselves, our relationships, and our families are going to cause us stress. As society currently is, the idea of trying to have it all is more of a lofty ideal than something that’s attainable, which sucks. So here are some warnings signs to let you know you’re heading for or even might be in a burnout. Because sometimes it can be hard to tell.
The first signs of burnout are usually physical. Therefore, you might find that you’re feeling more tired than usual, no matter how much sleep you’re getting. You could also be experiencing more episodes of poor health where you might get sick more often, or feel run down in general.
The second sign of burnout is mental. You might find yourself forgetting things, or having a hard time concentrating. You might start to feel more anxious or depressed. If you’re experiencing mental symptoms, it’s important to take a step back and assess your situation.
The third sign of burnout is emotional. You might find yourself more irritable than usual, or quick to anger. You might start to feel like you’re not good enough, or that everything you do is wrong. If you’re experiencing emotional symptoms, again, it’s important to take a step back and assess your situation.
One of the many downsides of feeling stressed is the amount of cortisol (stress hormone) released into our bodies. This abundance of cortisol will cause us to feel exhausted, causing us to feel fatigued the longer we expose ourselves to such high amounts of stress. Thus, if you’re feeling tired all the time, even after a good night’s sleep, then you could be heading towards or currently experiencing burnout.
If you’re finding it hard to focus on a task, or even on your hobby or other things you enjoy, or you’re making more mistakes than usual, it could be a sign that you’re burning out. Stress makes it harder for our brains to process information and we can have trouble concentrating. So if you’re having trouble concentrating, then your problem could be burnout.
Signs Of Burnout
- Chronic stomach or bowel problems.
Complete neglect of personal needs.
- Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment.
Continuation or increase in escapist activities.
- Lower productivity.
Desire to isolate.
- Dreading going into work, and wanting to leave once you’re there.
Desire to move away from work or loved ones.
Development of an escapist mentality.
- Lack of motivation.
Feeling empty inside.
Obsession over problems at work or in life.
- Having thoughts that your work doesn’t have meaning or make a difference.
A pessimistic outlook on work and life.
- Feelings of sadness.
Physical symptoms intensify and/or increase.
- Taking frustrations out on others.
- Anger or aggressive behaviour.
Having a cynical/negative outlook.
Decreased sexual desire.
Denial of problems at work or at home.
Feeling threatened or panicked.
Feeling pressured or out of control.
Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope.
Increased caffeine consumption.
Lack of hobbies.
Missed work deadlines and/or targets.
- Feeling that your work and contribution go unrecognized.
Persistent tiredness in the mornings.
- Experiencing physical complaints such as headaches, illness, or backache.
Repeated lateness for work.
- Self-doubt and low self-esteem.
- Blaming others for your mistakes.
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to take a step back and assess your situation. Take some time for yourself, and make sure you’re taking care of yourself both physically and mentally. Burnout is serious, and it’s important to catch it early.
Consequences Of Burnout
Apart from my extreme reaction to burning out, leading to me struggling with the desire to end my life, there are other consequences for burnout. Feeling emotionally exhausted, like I was, can come in varying degrees. So you may not become suicidal as I had, but you may find it more difficult to interact with people and manage conflicts, which could impact your relationships (BetterUp).
One of the more commonly portrayed burnout examples in films and TV shows is substance misuse. It can be easy to fall into the habit of using alcohol or drugs to manage how we feel and our tiredness, but this is a very unhealthy way to go about it. It also never ends well.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the other consequences are heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and an increased vulnerability to illness. One thing I’ve picked up over the years is how our overall mental wellbeing can impact our physical health because increased levels of stress hormones can weaken the body (WebMD). And if you’re using substances to cope with burnout, then that opens you up to more health risks, such as liver damage.
How To Avoid Burnout
You may think there are a lot of treatments designed for burnout, but that’s not really the case as burnout is best treated with lifestyle changes (BBC). So here are some lifestyle changes and other tips that can help you avoid and recover from burnout.
Pay attention to your body, because your body will be showing signs of burnout before you’ll be consciously aware of it. And pay attention to those around you, they may have spotted something you haven’t.
For the past two years, I’ve refused cautions — from editors, from family, from peers — that I might be edging into burnout. To my mind, burnout was something aid workers, or high-powered lawyers, or investigative journalists dealt with. It was something that could be treated with a week on the beach. I was still working, still getting other stuff done — of course I wasn’t burned out.
That realization recast my recent struggles: Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young.
Often one of the best ways to cope is to have someone to talk to about our difficulties, who can then help keep us on track as we make changes to our lives. The best person for this can be a therapist. So even though burnout might be best treated with lifestyle changes, that doesn’t mean talking to a therapist isn’t effective. For example, they may be able to help identify the sources of burnout, which you might not be able to find on your own. This is a surprisingly common issue for people. They can’t see the wood for the trees. Thankfully, techniques like motivational interviewing can be good at detecting this.
Identify your stressors
Speaking of identifying the likely causes of your burnout, if you can identify these then you have a much better long-term recovery ahead of you. For example, you may find yourself getting stressed a lot, especially at work, but might not have figured out why yet.
But if you sat down with a journal and started to look at what was happening around the time waves of stress were triggered, then you may be able to identify a pattern and the cause. I had a client whose cause of stress turned out to be due to uncertainty. Therefore, we problem-solved how to tackle that uncertainty, and their work stress was massively reduced and they recovered quickly from their burnout.
As stated above, journaling can be a handy tool to identify stressors and other patterns you might otherwise have missed. But journaling can also be a great way to organise your thoughts, help you make decisions, and be a great way to unburden your mind.
Learn to say “no”
One key cause of burnout is not being able to say no. The people-pleasers amount us will recognise that. A common issue is that people take on more tasks or commit to more things than they can handle. Often this is because they can’t say no.
You have every right to say no to a request made of you, and you don’t have to give a reason as to why you’re saying no. I say that because if you give them a reason they may find a way around it for you, which means you’ll be stuck helping them with the request. Obviously, in a work setting this might be harder to do, but one way to say no is to offer to help them problem-solve how the request can be dealt with instead.
If you’re in a position where you can delegate tasks, then do it. This is especially true at home. According to the University College London, women do more housework than men in 93% of British homes, even when both parties work full-time. So don’t let your partner(s) or children get away without doing their fair share of the household chores.
Too often people will push themselves to the limit to get things done, skipping their breaks and working while eating their lunch. But breaks are important, which is why lunch breaks are required by law. Embrace taking a break, and if you have time, make it a Fika break.
Leave work at work
When you’ve finished you’re contracted hours, leave your work at work. Unless you’re being paid overtime and it’s something you’ve agreed to do, then don’t work for free at the cost of your wellbeing. Instead, be like France and don’t read, send, or reply to work calls or emails out of hours (BBC).
There’s probably not a perfectionist alive who hasn’t had to deal with burnout and high levels of stress. Trying to do everything to unrealistic high standards is just a waste of time and energy, so instead of aiming for perfection, aim for ‘good enough’. Your health and wellbeing will thank you for it.
A good defence against burnout is having a good support network around you. This support network can be made up of friends and family, but also organisations. Humans are social animals, so engaging in social activities, whether it be a Fika or a video chat, can all help.
Hobbies and interests
Another great way to guard against burnout is to actively engage in hobbies and interests. Hobbies and interests can give us a sense of meaning, purpose, and of course, joy, that we might not otherwise get from work. Thus, it’s important to remain active in your hobbies and interests, and if you notice you’re no longer doing that, it could be a sign of burnout.
According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise is a great stress reliever. There are many ways to add exercise into your week, such as using a yoga app. You can also follow my Dice Man tip to avoid fitness boredom.
Speak up for yourself
Unfortunately, not everyone will speak up when they’re struggling. There can be many reasons for this, but in my personal experience (which is anecdotal evidence and not real evidence), it’s often because other people don’t appear to be struggling. This is supported by Koutsimani, Montgomery, and Georganta (2019), who said that while there are some employees who report that they’re experiencing burnout, others will not, which tends to come down to personality characteristics.
It doesn’t matter if those around you appear to be struggling or not, it only matters if you are or not. Speak up for yourself so you can work on how to recover from burnout, or ideally, avoid it before it progresses too far.
In the modern age, this is often easier said than done. But if you can readdress your work/life balance, then you can help protect yourself from burnout. It can also help with recovering from burnout.
Create more autonomy
A common cause for burnout is feeling like you have no control. At home, this could mean talking to your family to help you feel heard and get a sense of control back. While at work, for example, you could talk to your manager to see if you can have more control over your projects, tasks, and other deadlines (Mind Tools).
Create a healthy sleep schedule
Poor sleep can make everything 10 times worse, so if you’re struggling with getting a good night’s sleep, then why not try CBT-I? CBT-I is cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia and will help you work on your sleep hygiene so you can improve your quality of sleep.
Having healthy boundaries is a good way to help avoid drama and stress in your life. A part of having healthy boundaries, for example, would be having the ability to say no to someone. For more information on establishing healthy boundaries, click here.
Breathing exercises and meditation
A simple thing you can do to help calm down and relax is to engage in some good old-fashioned breathing, but not regular breathing, no no, proper breathing exercises. To help you with this, I created an article on the 10 best breathing exercises which you can find by clicking here.
People also swear by meditation, although it’s not been something that works well for me personally. But because it has been shown to be effective, then, of course, it’ll be something I recommend.
Address money issues
One of the most common forms of stress in our lives is money, or more accurately, the lack thereof. With the cost-of-living crisis, I created an article that might help with this which you can find here. There are also many organisations set up to help with money issues, such as Citizens Advice in the UK. I know when I had money issues I would be filled with dread whenever I got mail because I was worried about what was in the letter. Once I decided to tackle my issues head-on, my life became a lot less stressful.
Reframe the way you look at work
Whether you have a job that leaves you rushed off your feet or one that is monotonous and unfulfilling, the most effective way to combat job burnout is to quit and find a job you love instead. Of course, for many of us, changing jobs or careers is far from being a practical solution, we’re grateful just to have work that pays the bills. Whatever your situation, there are still steps you can take to improve your state of mind. One way of doing that is to try and reframe the way you look at your work.
Finding meaning and purpose
We can find meaning and purpose in our hobbies and interests, but it’s also possible to get it at work as well. According to HelpGuide.org, you can turn a mundane job into something that gives you value by thinking about how you’re helping others. Therefore, you should try to focus on the parts of your job that you enjoy, even if it’s just talking to your coworkers. Such reframing of jobs can help give your a sense of purpose and control.
Support for this comes from Mind Tools, who say we need to look deeper into the impact we have every day, and if we find it lacking, think about how we could add more meaning to our days. However, should you feel you’re in the wrong role or career, then Mind Tools advise developing a career strategy so you can find a career better suited to you. There is nothing wrong with changing jobs or careers. But if you consistently feel the need to do this, then there may be a deeper issue with burnout that needs addressing.
According to Mind Tools, not having clear goals can be a cause of burnout. A way to avoid that would be to create clear goals for yourself, and the best way to do that is by making SMART goals. For more on how to create SMART goals, click here.
Avoiding burnout is no easy feat in today’s world. We’re overworked for little pay. And when we’re not working, we have other commitments to deal with, like chores and family stuff. But, there are things you can do to manage and avoid burnout, and I hope my tips in this article will help you with that.
However, because we live in a world where the majority of people live paycheck to paycheck, real change is needed on a national and global level. If we really want lasting change in beating burnout then there has to be a shift in how work is done, like fewer hours for the same pay, four-day work weeks to rebalance the work-life balance, or a universal income so we can prioritise our health when we need to.
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, please share your experiences with a burnout in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget, if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Koutsimani, P., Montgomery, A., & Georganta, K. (2019). The Relationship Between Burnout, Depression, and Anxiety: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00284/full and https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00284.