Burnout. It’s a term most people know and it’s often used in day to day conversation; but do you really know what it actually is?
You’d be forgiven for falling short of an answer, and part of the difficulty relates to the shared similarities with other mental health conditions including depression and anxiety. It should be noted that while depression and anxiety are recognised as clinical psychiatric or psychological disorders, burnout is not.
There are lots of reasons why this is the case, including a lack of consistent and generalisable research informing diagnostic criteria; but that’s not to say burnout doesn’t exist. While we don’t know precisely how many people are affected by burnout at any one time, it’s clearly recognised as a serious burden for working individuals, organisations and society as a whole (1,2).
Ultimately the negative effects of burnout spill over into all areas of life and can also increase the risk of physical illnesses as an indirect consequence of chronic stress.
There are lots of reasons why people may become burnt out, but the single most defining feature is chronic stress usually in relation to work. That’s not to say you have to be employed or working in the conventional sense, but any situation which involves performing a duty that is repeatedly experienced as stressful carries a risk. When a person is developing or has developed burnout, this reflects an extreme and often end result of such work-related stress.
When mental health clinicians talk about burnout, alongside identifying such work-related stress, we are also thinking about the presence of three key features. These include:
iii) Feelings of reduced professional ability
Alongside this, some people also notice reduced motivation to do anything, cognitive disturbances including poor concentration, problems in relationships at home and at work, and an overall inability to look after themselves. Put more simply; feeling exhausted all the time, hating your job, feeling alone and being less capable/functional at work may be signs of burnout.
So if you think you might be burnt out, then what should you do about it? The following 8 tips are a great place to start.
It goes without saying that one of the most important things you can do is see your doctor. Left alone and untreated your mental health might get worse. Being burnt out increases the risk of developing other mental health disorders that can lead to additional complications.
If you feel like you’re getting increasingly snowed under at work, then talk to your boss. Let them know what’s going on as most employers fully recognise the need to support staff burning the candle at all ends. Ultimately well rested, functional employees are better than overworked, overstretched ones. It can also be really helpful to talk to a friend, a colleague or family member as bottling things up causes greater difficulties in the long run.
Try to understand what’s really important to you and what you can realistically expect to achieve. Is it all about work? Or are there other things that you really care about? Try doing this with someone if it’s difficult to do alone and write it down somewhere as a reminder. Learning to say ‘no’ in the short term with a view to saying ‘yes’ in the longer term is an excellent mentality to adopt.
This may sound obvious but it’s surprising how few of us actively take steps to look after ourselves in an intentional and mindful way. Learning to relax, whether it’s taking up meditation, reading, walking or having a hot bath is so important to build mental strength. If burnout is likely or has already taken its toll, then it may be best to take some time off work.
Working life has long meant being connected to various forms of technology, and in the last few decades, our personal lives have taken a similar turn too. Learning to unplug and disconnect from growing stressors like social media and work emails on a weekend is crucial to maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
As a rough guide, most clinicians advise trying to get at least six hours sleep as anything less than this can increase the risk of mental health disturbances.
What you put in your body can have a huge impact on your energy levels throughout the day. Try to avoid fast, convenience foods at the expense of nourishing wholesome foods that your body and mind will thank you for.
While all these may superficially make you feel better, in the long run, they really don’t. Excess nicotine and caffeine can actually increase anxiety and alcohol is a well-known mood depressant.