Burnout might have only just reached official status as a medical diagnosis by World Health Organization (WHO), but it’s something that mental health professionals like myself have long recognised as a serious health threat – both at an individual level, but also on a much wider scale too.
Burnout is much more than ‘work stress’. Burnout happens when high levels of stress become chronic, and are left unchecked. In other words, it doesn’t just happen overnight. By the time someone has reached the latter stages of burnout, they have usually bulldozed their way through a lot of warning signs in order to get there. The good news is that if we can heighten awareness and educate people about these signs, burnout is very much preventable.
What are the signs of burnout?
Changes in sleeping patterns should be seen as a major red flag. This might involve difficulties falling asleep – what many of us would recognise as ‘classic’ insomnia – but it can also manifest as mini-awakenings throughout the night or waking up very early and struggling to get back to sleep again.
An inability to set proper boundaries between work and home life should also be a warning. This tends to lead to a preoccupation with work, so a lot of ruminating or stressing over work at home or on the commute to/from work, or perhaps even getting a bad case of the ‘Sunday blues’.
Changes in mood also indicate that someone is struggling to cope. You might notice that you have a shorter fuse or you’re becoming increasingly irritable with those closest to you. You might find that you’re drinking more, eating more (or less) or perhaps without even noticing it, you’ve gradually stopped doing the things that once brought you a lot of enjoyment.
Burnout is usually the result of an imbalance of what we are giving out to the world and what we are taking back for ourselves. Someone who is putting all of their energy into their work is investing too heavily in just one aspect of what it means to have a full, rounded life. When we lose this balance, over time, our psychological and physical resources will simply burn out.
What steps can we take to prevent burnout?
Starting your day with a five-minute mindfulness exercise can be really beneficial because it gives you the space to check-in with how you’re feeling. We all have good and bad days, and beginning your day with a short mindfulness meditation allows you to tap into what kind of emotional state you’re in, so you can frame your day around that. It’s also really important to balance activities that you ‘have’ to do with activities you do simply for enjoyment, so that means creating space in the day to do the things that nourish you. Maybe that’s as simple as reading a book during your lunch break or making the time for your favourite gym class, regardless of what comes up at work.
It’s important to stress that if you find that you’re doing all the right things but you’re still finding work overwhelming, it might be an indication of something deeper. The way we relate in work tends to be similar to the way we relate to our families. There might be deeper patterns at play which are being triggered by work and are worth exploring with a psychologist.
Moving beyond the individual, burnout is something we need to also be looking at on a much wider scale. Our always-on culture that promotes over-working as an ideal is fundamentally flawed. In order to be our most productive, we need the capacity to be present and give our full focus to what we’re doing. This simply isn’t possible when we’re over-stretched. When we give people the time and space to nourish themselves, their energy and mental capacity naturally increases. And when this happens, we also see higher levels of productivity. Work makes up a significant part of our lives, and we need to become better at understanding the emotional complexity of the work environment and start seeing people as individuals. When people are allowed the space to give their best, everyone benefits.
Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic