What is Burnout and how can you prevent it?

With the world is opening back up, you'd be forgiven for thinking society had just returned to "normal" (whatever that means). But for many of us, the pandemic has irrevocably changed not only our lives but how we want to live them. What we do to earn our keep, whether "working to live" or "living to work," can dramatically affect our minds and bodies. This brings us to the concept of burnout, alternatively known as "why the hell am I so tired and annoyed all the time?".

 Image showing burnout

What is burnout?

Let's be clear: burnout is not depression but one of its causes. This mental exhaustion isn't just the result of working into the night or the balancing act of focusing on too many tasks, though both might play a part. Instead, the irritation, depression, and lethargy that are endemic of burnout most often occur when you're unable to control or manage how your work is carried out, whether at work or home, and the things you're working on conflict with your sense of self.


Who is likely to suffer burnout?

Individual differences play a relatively minor role in the development of burnout. However, people with specific personality characteristics such as low self-esteem, high vulnerability, competitiveness, excessive need for command and control, as well as job attitudes (i.e., higher job expectations) tend to have a higher potential for burnout.


How many people does burnout affect?

As you might expect, the pandemic has inflamed these tensions. It's becoming increasingly commonplace with internet searches for 'signs of burnout' showing a 24% increase throughout 2021 compared to previous years. Worse still, burnout isn't classified as a medical condition (WHO, 2022), so it's challenging to seek help for it. Mental Health UK found in 2020 that 85% of UK adults correctly identified symptoms of burnout, while 68% mistakenly misidentified the symptoms as anxiety.

With this in mind, it's crucial to understand how and when burnout occurs so you can work towards getting a handle on it. We've written extensively on stress and how to combat it, and this is really no different. In this short guide, we've highlighted five phases to help you see where you're at and what you might be feeling at these times.

 Illustration showing brain burning out

Are you experiencing burnout? Questions to ask

Do you feel overwhelmed with work demands?
Do you feel your work is unimportant?
Do you feel you don't receive support from your team?
Do you seem physically exhausted and wiped out?
Do you feel tired all the time?
Do you feel frustrated because of work?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you might be on the road to burnout. Here's what to look out for.


The 5 phases of burnout

Burnout can affect anyone at any time in their lives. Yet, a recent study has shown that the average worker, regardless of industry or sector, experiences burnout when they hit the big 3-0. As with any illness, symptoms of burnout change from person to person; however, the following five stages are typically found with the syndrome. Let's look at this in more detail:


1 Undertaking a task

When we undertake a new activity, we often start by experiencing high energy levels, commitment and creativity. However, in this first stage, you may begin to experience predicted stresses of the initiative you're undertaking, so it's essential to start implementing positive coping strategies, such as taking practical steps to support your wellbeing alongside your professional ventures.

The theory is that if you create suitable coping strategies when you reach this stage, you can continue in this phase indefinitely.

Common symptoms include:

Job satisfaction
Readily accepting responsibility
Unbridled optimism
Commitment to the job at hand
Free-flowing creativity
High energy levels

Illustration showing worker juggling tasks

2. The start-up of stress

The second phase occurs with an awareness that some days are more problematic than others. For example, you may find your commitment waning and notice everyday stress symptoms that affect you physically and emotionally, making minor things feel unsurmountable.

Typical symptoms
Reduced focus
Job dissatisfaction
Worsening sleep
Diminished sociability

3. Pervasive stress

In this phase, the feelings of being swamped or overwhelmed become apparent. It's marked by a change in your stress levels, shifting from feelings of motivation to experiencing stress daily. Here, the symptoms become more intense, and the desire to work (and the satisfaction of accomplishing something) diminish. As the stress has been persistent for so long, your body begins losing its capacity to combat the stressors, which begins to have a physical effect on your body.

Typical symptoms
Churning stomach
Lingering headaches
Feelings of inadequacy
High blood pressure and heart rate
Persistent tiredness throughout the day
Social withdrawal
Feeling pressured or out of control
Increased alcohol/drug consumption

4. Exhaustion & burning out

Here, the symptoms become critical and "business as usual" is untenable. Here you might notice a sense of emptiness or that you no longer feel your actions are valuable. Of course, we all have our limits of tolerance and copeability, but it's vital to seek support at this stage.

Typical symptoms
Increased sweating and anxiety
Development of an escapist mindset
A pessimistic outlook on work and life
Physical symptoms intensify and multiply
Social isolation
Behavioural changes
Chronic headaches
Chronic stomach or bowel problems
Illustration showing stress at work

5. Continual and pervasive burnout


The final stage of burnout is where it persists every day. This means that the manifestations of burnout have become so ingrained in your life that you're likely to encounter significant ongoing mental, physical or emotional problems instead of occasionally experiencing stress or burnout.

Common symptoms include:
Chronic sadness
Burnout syndrome
Chronic mental fatigue
Chronic physical fatigue

How can you prevent burnout?

As with other forms of depression, self-diagnosis can be difficult with burnout. It's tough to see the state you're in when you're experiencing the problems first-hand.

Manage your boundaries
Time is never entirely on our side, and as a species, we often commit to more than we can handle. Managing that sweet spot between a healthy workload and a debilitating one is key to feeling good about work.

Take control
It's a hard pill to swallow, but if you're worried about issues that need facing, ignoring them will only make them worse. Instead, it might be helpful to work out the pros and cons of potential options and develop an action plan. Be realistic about goals and consider if other people can help.

Learn what you can't control
One of the most challenging life lessons is to accept which problems are out of your control. A prime example is other people's opinion of you, and in an age of social media, it's

Illustration showing holiday

Take some annual leave (and actually take it)
After almost two years of being cooped up inside our own houses, our holidays have often felt more like a break from our desks rather than our work lives, which really is no break at all. Holidays are the perfect time to recharge and recalibrate yourself, and they don't even have to be far from home.

Find time in the day to recharge.
Sometimes having something non-work related to look forward to can really help you recharge and recalibrate, helping you gain perspective about what you do enjoy about work - or give you the distance you need to gain perspective on what you might like to do.

Find time to switch off.
Finding the time to relax before sleep or a nap is easier said than done in our 'always-on' world. But it does get easier, and similar to any exercise, relaxing your concentration can become as easy as finding it. Check out our tips on a Good Night's Sleep for more extensive knowledge on this.

Try to finish work on time.
Letting things slide is much easier when we're outside of the workplace or choosing our own hours. However, our minds often keep focusing on a task long after moving on to something new, so keeping that mental focus and completing the task at hand ensures we can actually move on.

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