How to avoid burnout
Through the working week, many of us can feel like we’re running on empty. Exhausted, we try to catch up on sleep at the weekends and tell ourselves that we’ll bounce back after our next period of annual leave. And while most of us will, others push themselves to the point of burnout – or, as the World Health Organisation describes it, ‘a state of vital exhaustion’.
Unfortunately, burnout is becoming all too common, with as many as one in three people struggling to cope at work, according to a survey by the Depression Alliance. But why are we all feeling the pressure? Psychotherapist and burnout specialist Jacky Francis Walker has a couple of ideas: ‘An increasing emphasis on productivity in the workplace is one likely factor, along with a growing reliance on smart devices that create pressure to stay switched on 24/7.’ So in a modern world, where we feel like we have to be ‘on’, it’s helpful to recognise the early symptoms of burnout in order to treat it properly.
Are you burning out?
Burnout has an impact on your mental and physical health, and there are scientifically proven reasons why. ‘Stress affects the body on a very physical level, triggering the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol,’ says Francis Walker. ‘In the long term, high cortisol levels can have a serious impact on brain function and the immune system. Eventually, the adrenal glands simply can’t keep up and we become physically and mentally depleted.’
If you’re finding it hard to concentrate at work, it could be an early indicator of burnout. ‘You may struggle to focus and think clearly,’ says Walker. ‘Emotionally, you may feel numb, detached and more easily overwhelmed. Physically, you’re likely to be run down, tired and become more susceptible to illness – things like coughs and colds.’ And if you’ve noticed these symptoms, you should do something about them, before they escalate.
‘Time out is crucial, whether it’s a short break or, if need be, sick leave,’ says Walker. ‘Most HR departments are aware of burnout and it’s in their interest to take it seriously. A study by the London School of Economics and King’s College London estimates that the issue costs European businesses around £77 billion a year, so discuss ways you can make your workload more manageable.’ If you regularly work late, make an effort to change this and try to limit your screen time at home, too. ‘It’s important to create good boundaries outside of work as well: turning off your phone during set hours, for example.’
And if you’re struggling, also think about how your social life might be adding to the signs of burnout. ‘Try to reduce all other demands on you, delegating as much as you can, and scaling back your social engagements,’ says Walker. ‘Rediscovering pleasurable pursuits is also important – these switch the central nervous system from fight or flight to relaxation mode. Gardening, cooking, yoga; anything that helps your brain idle. Aerobic exercise is particularly effective for lowering levels of stress hormones and boosting mood.’
Listen to your body
It’s not uncommon for burnout to tip into depression, so speak to your GP if your mood doesn’t lift, or seek counselling. ‘Counselling can be extremely useful for exploring unhelpful behaviours and developing coping strategies,’ says Walker. ‘Perfectionists are particularly prone to burnout since they’ve been programmed to give everything 120%. Examining the beliefs behind this can help you to find some perspective – remember, the world won’t stop if you don’t reply to an email immediately.’
Mostly, the solution is about tuning into your own intuition and learning to listen to your body. ‘If you feel tired, rest,’ says Francis Walker. ‘Eight hours sleep is crucial for building up resilience to stress. A healthy, balanced diet is vital for supporting your body’s recovery, so try to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, and moderate amounts of protein.’
Taking a multivitamin and mineral might also be helpful. ‘Studies indicate B vitamins and zinc help counter the effects of stress, while magnesium can help calm the nervous system and encourage good sleep,’ says Walker. ‘It can take months to fully bounce back from burnout, so be patient – and, above all, kind to yourself.’