Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first defined burnout in 1980 as, “a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life”. Additional symptoms include, feelings of isolation and helplessness, work dissatisfaction, reduced productivity and sleep disturbance. However, beyond the impact on our professional lives, burnout adversely affects relationships and chronically raised stress hormones, such as cortisol, suppress the immune system, raise blood pressure and increase the risk of diabetes. So burnout is a problem which should not be ignored.
A worrying trend of increasing prevalence has been emerging in the last few years, with a 2020 survey of 1,000 adults in the UK suggesting 22% had experienced burnout; in 2021 the reported figure was 64% and in 2022 it was 79%, with those surveyed citing increased workloads (49%), mental health challenges (34%) and pressure to meet deadlines (32%) as contributing factors. The financial cost of work-related stress is also considerable, an estimated £26 billion annually, resulting from sick leave and reduced productivity. It’s perhaps because of the increasing impact on the world’s working population that burnout was finally recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2019.
The way we work appears to be as impactful as the actual hours that we spend “at” work. The introduction of mobile phones and email allow us to be accessible 24-7, which has resulted in a culture where many of us never really switch off. The sudden move to working from home for many people during the pandemic further exacerbated this problem; turning our homes into a work environment has made it more difficult to shut down and walk away from the laptop and be fully engaged with loved ones. Many (myself included) succumb to the temptation of checking work emails late into the evening. This phenomenon of having no boundaries dividing work from the rest of our lives has been described as living in the “grey zone”. Having no end point to the working day effectively means that we are less likely to relax, recharge or be fully immersed in the most important activity in our lives; spending quality time with the people we love.
1. Talk about it: Your employer has a legal duty of care to support your health, safety and wellbeing. Let your manager know you’re struggling so that options to adjust your work commitments can be considered to relieve some of the pressure. Confide in those closest to you and consider speaking to your GP. Having experienced burnout myself, I can reassure you that you’re not broken and it’s not a sign of weakness or failure. It demonstrates that you’re human, you work hard and you care.
2. Spacial boundaries: If you work from home, allocate a workspace, otherwise your entire home becomes your office. When you finish work for the day, shut your computer down, leave it in its designated spot, close your office door and step into your home.
3. Clocking out: Decide on a finish time for the end of your work day and commit to it by setting an alarm. Having an end point focusses your attention and reduces procrastination. Studies have shown that our brains can only work at optimal performance for about 90 minutes, also that a 20 minute break improves concentration, so you use regular pit stops to stretch, walk around and keep yourself hydrated between periods of deep work.
4. Sleep hygiene: Abandoning electronic devices early in the evening helps to avoid sleep disturbance. Screen emitted light reduces melatonin levels, prolonging the time it takes to nod off. Other sleep stealers include eating late and alcohol consumption. A warm bath and a paperback novel are delicious ways of lulling yourself into restful slumber.
5. Time out: Many people didn’t take their annual leave allowance during the last 2 years, due to work pressures and/or the difficulties of travelling during lockdowns. It’s important to schedule regular breaks, whether you spend your time on an idyllic tropical beach, in a camper van or opt for a staycation.
6. Have fun: It’s one of the most effective ways to mitigate work stress. Exercise is great for both physical and mental wellbeing; activities with a sociable element also help to reduce feelings of isolation. Parkrun is a perfect example; this free, weekly event where people can run, walk or volunteer in their local park, has become a global phenomenon, possibly because of its inclusiveness and community spirit.
7. Mindfulness: Whilst the M word seems to be cited as a panacea for all ills these days, it definitely has a place where mental wellbeing is concerned. As an increasingly secular society we experience few moments of the inward contemplation prompted by silent prayer, or the calming, controlled breathing necessary for singing hymns or chanting mantras. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness recreate these beneficial physiological effects, so worth exploring, even if at first glance they seem a bit “out there”.