We’ve all heard the term burnout being bandied about without really being sure exactly what it looks like, or, well… feels like. The NHS website describes it as: ‘A state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when an individual feels overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to meet constant demands.’ Sound familiar? You’re not alone.
A survey from 2020 found that the average age to suffer from burnout was in fact, not later in life, but at just 32. The age when many women are attempting to juggle childcare, a career, the running of a home, a social life, self-care, a hefty book pile, a Netflix watch list, 27 Whatsapp groups and a serious Instagram scrolling addiction.
Combine that with a pandemic that has pushed the nation’s mental health to its limits (over 40% of young women have admitted feeling depressed since the start of the year and maternal mental health referrals have more than doubled in some regions), and you’ve got one heck of a burnout boiling pot.
We spoke to Burnout Expert and Mental Health First Aider Katie Phillips about what causes burnout, how we recognise it in both ourselves and our loved ones and just what we can do about it…
What is burnout?
Katie says: “Burnout is the wall we hit when we have dealt with too much, for too long, without support. It’s a bit of a silent assassin, it creeps up on us, especially in people-pleasing perfectionists or those that struggle with high function anxiety. I’ve experienced mild, medium and chronic burnout, the latter leading to a full scale mental health crisis. It’s important to note that burnout and stress are different. Stress is part of burnout, but the key difference is that with stress, everything feels too much and with burnout, nothing feels quite enough.”
What are the symptoms of burnout?
Katie says: “Symptoms tend to fit into three categories but not everyone will get all of these, and some will experience others – there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to mental wellbeing. The key thing to remember is that you’re looking for changes to how you usually think, feel and act. Those changes are your warning signals.”
Physical symptoms: Trouble sleeping, nausea, gastritis and digestive issues, headaches and muscle aches, jaw grinding and eye twitches, breakouts and skin complaints.
Emotional and cognitive symptoms: Feeling low, lacking energy and brain fog, tearful and numbness, self doubt and criticism, dreading work and feeling anxious.
Behavioural symptoms: Withdrawing from loved ones, irritable and impatient, sensitive and defensive, working too much to ‘prove self’, restlessness and trouble switching off.
What are the biggest causes of burnout?
Katie says: “I really believe that the way we have been taught to value our worth as humans through our professional (and academic) achievements since we were tiny is the root cause of burnout. Our need to constantly prove ourselves sucks us into a cycle where we prioritise work over our own needs and feel unable to ask for support or set boundaries with others.” She says that if we look at burnout from a purely work perspective, everyone she work with mentions that it comes from the below places..
No clear purpose or goals: Not knowing what you are aiming it and why will drain your energy, hold you back and feed insecurity and self-doubt
Too many demands: From others on your time and energy. But in many cases burnout is caused by the unrealistic demands people place on themselves. Set boundaries with others and be gentler with you.
Lack of control: Having little to no autonomy is a key contributor to burnout. If your boss or clients micro manage and control everything, it’s time push back.
Unhealthy relationships: We need more than positive relationships, we need to know poor behaviour is promptly dealt with so we feel mentally safe and can work calmly.
No support: Right up there with a lack of purpose for triggering stress and burnout. Without encouragement, support and guidance your wellbeing suffers.
Being unprepared for change: Having change sprung on you or being unprepared for changes you instigated is horribly stressful and unmotivating.
Who is most likely to suffer from burnout?
Katie says that there are certain character traits that make you more susceptible to burning out. The most common?
The Workaholic: Hyper goal focused, super keen to prove yourself, always going the extra mile and rarely taking time out to rest.
The People Pleaser: Afraid to challenge others in case it makes you look bad, upsets them or causes hassle.
The Perfectionist: Always setting yourself super high standards and showing your efforts with criticism and worry over what others think.
The Duck: Calm and collected on the surface, flapping your legs around like crazy in a desperate attempt not to not drown underneath.
If we have burnout, what can we do about it?
Katie suggests that different things will of course work for different people, but her top tips for recovery are…
Rest – Trying to push on through, despite how much the world glamourises overworking and hustling, is the worst possible thing you can do. It’s is a slippery slope to chronic anxiety and even to depression.
Figure out the source of stress – Burnout often stems from professional triggers, like high workloads, long hours or poor management. But we all know that life can come thick and fast, too. Things like personal relationships, caring for loved ones, studying, or just doing too much, for too long, can also leave us exhausted.
Get support and speak out – Try speaking to a trusted friend or a family member to brainstorm ways to remove stress. I also highly recommend getting some professional support. A therapist or a coach that’s an expert in burnout will be well placed to help you figure out not just the ‘what’ but the ’why’ behind your burnout.
Establish clear boundaries – Limiting the time and energy you give to others is essential to nurturing your mental health.
For more info about what burnout is and how you can aid recovery, follow Katie on Instagram at @katiephill. For more in-depth tips, tools and stories to help you avoid or recover from burnout, Katie also offer free,expert guidance in her Anti Burnout Bible.