How to spot the signs of burnout
Exhausted, stressed? You may be heading for burnout. We spotlight the tell-tale signs and offer top tips to battle it
With a worrying 74 per cent of the population reportedly ‘overwhelmed or unable to cope at some point in 2018’, burnout syndrome is a major contemporary concern. Here, we look at some of the major signs of ‘burnout’, as well as the best ways to help beat it.
What is ‘Burnout’?
In May 2019 the World Health Organisation recognised burnout as ‘an occupational phenomenon’ – citing long periods of stress in the workplace as a trigger. Diagnosis is non-specific – no blood test will categorically recognise burnout. Doctors will usually diagnose it if symptoms, some of which are listed below, have been presenting themselves for more than four months.
A word of warning - burnout can be confused with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME, and symptoms can be broadly similar. The manifestation of burnout, however, is most often work stress related, whereas CFS can present in physical dysfunctions and can be caused by overexposure to physical stress or to prolonged viral infection.
Seek medical advice immediately if you are in any doubt – symptoms of burnout may be indicative of other underlying medical conditions or illnesses, too.
What are the symptoms?
Prolonged exposure to stress, particularly workplace stress, can catalyse burnout. It may be that you are feeling completely overwhelmed by the smallest of issues; finding it difficult to keep your head above water; or finding work and activities that you once found enjoyable less fun. Negativity and resentment in the workplace are also common, leading to a fall in performance despite working longer hours and forgoing holidays and breaks.
Other symptoms include adrenaline rushes interspersed with slumps in energy. In many cases, people lose the ability to look after themselves properly and fall into a vicious circle of sleep deprivation, feeling too tired to exercise and then craving sugary foods and alcohol, which in turn lead to tiredness and further exacerbate the problem.
The compound effect of the above symptoms can often then lead to physical problems, including muscular aches and pains (sometimes psychosomatic) and a general lowering of the immune system, which may result in frequent infections and viruses.
If you are suffering from more than a handful of the problems listed above, you should visit your GP – early intervention is the best way to avoid a lengthy and debilitating illness.
What causes burnout?
The body is hard-wired to react to stressful situations that were historically presented in the form of predators and aggressors. Nowadays, we are more likely to experience stress in the form of work overload, increased competition in daily life, paying the bills, or the emotional ups and downs of family life. Whatever the trigger, the body’s response to this drip-drip of daily anxiety is exactly the same as that produced in the theoretical event of an aggressive physical attack.
The normal stress response causes the hormones adrenaline and cortisol to be produced, preparing the body for ‘fight or flight’. Blood pressure will rise, brain function will be enhanced and all tendencies non-essential to the ‘fight or flight’ response will be quashed. This natural alarm system can feel scary (you may feel your heart racing, sweaty palms or breathlessness), but it is very effective, normally short lived, and switches off when the perceived threat disappears.
The trouble comes when there is a constant stream of low-level mental stressors, and adrenaline and cortisol are in a state of continuous activation. The effect can be devastating to the body’s natural processes, and lead eventually to burnout.
In today’s hectic world there is a constant pressure to achieve, both in and out of the workplace. In a world where technology, and its up-to-the-minute flow of information, allows us to be ‘constantly plugged in’, we are losing the ability to switch off and relax. And it is typically the ambitious, motivated and determined types who are most susceptible to burnout. Similarly, people with low self esteem or a history of trauma may well be vulnerable to work stress and predisposed to burnout syndrome.
So, how to implement an anti-burnout action plan?
The good news is that anti-burnout strategies are all about looking after yourself. The even better news is that there are plenty of treatments, remedies and strategies which you can implement yourself to prevent (or cure) burnout. Many companies now also have their eyes wide open to the possibility of burnout, so are adopting strategies to ensure a happier and healthier workforce.
- Eat nutritious and delicious food: a healthy, balanced diet, rich in antioxidants and other vital nutrients, will help combat illness . Avoid sugar as this will stimulate the production of insulin, which can lead to slumps in energy. Alcohol and caffeine may seem to help with stress levels, but prolonged overindulgence will actually exacerbate the problem, so keep an eye on your intake.
- Experiment with supplements: people can be particularly susceptible to burnout in winter. The shorter days foster an urge to cosy up indoors and reach for quick fix comfort food, low in vital nutrients. It may be a good idea to take some vitamin and mineral supplements at this time of year. Vitamin D3 is now routinely prescribed by doctors to compensate for lack of sunlight; Vitamin C can help to prevent infectious illnesses; and Vitamin B complex will help to combat flagging energy levels. Click here for the guide to which supplements to take.
- Get moving to banish the blues and help lift your mood: a minimum of three hours of moderate exercise a week can help to stave off the symptoms of burnout. For optimal mind/body efficiency, get those endorphins flowing by embracing the great outdoors: take a walk, adopt a team sport; try a new class at the gym, or sign up for a charity sporting event.
- Chill out: Yoga, mindfulness and meditation practises are becoming increasingly popular across the capital. London now buzzes with all sorts of classes that will help you zone out and achieve spiritual peace. Breathing techniques, learning to live in the moment, and guided meditation are all hugely effective at combating the effects of workplace stress. For some quality ‘me time’, head to Beeja Meditation in Shoreditch, NW1 6PD; or treat yourself to a massage, reflexology appointment, or facial to help you wind down.
- Try Emotional Freedom Technique: EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) is an easy to learn technique that taps into the various energy channels in your head and upper body, enabling you to unlock blockages caused by negative emotions. Visit a listed EFT practitioner in your area.
- Implement a ‘digital detox’: a scary, but very effective anti-burnout ritual is to restrict your use of technology. Go technology free in the evening or live a digital free life on selected weekends and holidays — you will reap the mental benefits.
- Take stock and visit the doc: regular medical check-ups are the best way to stay healthy and stave off burnout, or, indeed, anything more sinister.
- Kick back on holiday: try to get regular breaks away. The price of a holiday is way lower than an enforced stint in rehab.
- Unveil your ‘inner artist’: creativity can be restorative and calming. There is a wonderful book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron that aims to nurture the ‘artist’ in everyone.
- Wearable technology: fit bits and smart watches are great for monitoring your general health. For basic wellness checks you can: set alarms to remind you to get up from your desk every hour; set a goal to take an optimum number of steps per day; eat a nutritious and delicious diet; monitor your heart rate for cardiovascular health.
- Take note of your workplace environment and act accordingly: most employers now recognise that a happy workforce will lead to greater productivity and therefore to greater profitability. Most importantly do not let yourself fall prey to workaholism, an increasingly common condition thanks to competitive working environments. Make sure you are able to communicate openly and transparently with colleagues and managers, and that you are happy with your workspace and equipment. Plus, use your holiday allowance and any employee wellness schemes on offer.