Beyond Exhaustion: How to Recognize and Confront Burnout
As we navigate our high-paced, incessantly active contemporary society, fatigue has become an all too familiar sentiment, often swept under the rug as a mere side effect of diligence and ambition. But what happens when this fatigue surpasses routine tiredness, morphing into a continuous state of physical and emotional exhaustion? We enter a hazardous domain referred to as 'burnout', a silent pandemic affecting countless individuals globally. In this blog post, we will explore how to identify early signs of burnout and confront it proactively so that you have the knowledge and tools to prevent burnout from dominating your life.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is a complex phenomenon that can often build up stealthily, leaving us blindsided by its impact. Burnout commonly emerges from chronic job-related stress that hasn't been adequately managed, but it can branch out to any life sphere where prolonged stress and anxiety are prevalent. Key symptoms can include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's role, and reduced professional efficacy.
The consequences of burnout are severe, impacting not just professional performance but also personal relationships, physical well-being, and overall life quality. Recognizing and accepting that you're experiencing burnout is the crucial first step towards confronting and overcoming it. It is also important for us to acknowledge that approaching burnout is not a symbol of honour or a sign of dedication to our work - it's a signal that considerable change is needed.
Spotting Workplace Burnout
Burnout often manifests in three distinct dimensions: emotional, physical, and behavioural.
Emotional signs of burnout primarily encompass feelings of exhaustion, disengagement, and cynicism. These could manifest as a diminished sense of achievement, a lack of motivation, or a general feeling of helplessness and defeat.
Physical signs of burnout frequently echo those of chronic stress and may encompass headaches, muscle tension, sleep disruptions, or gastrointestinal problems. It's not unusual for individuals undergoing burnout to have a weakened immune response, leading to frequent illnesses. Additionally, severe burnout may contribute to changes in appetite and increased use of alcohol or substances as coping mechanisms.
Behavioural signs of burnout range from withdrawal from duties and isolation from colleagues or loved ones to procrastination and the use of sarcasm or cynicism as a defence mechanism. People undergoing burnout might observe changes in their productivity levels, a decrease in their ability to concentrate, or a decline in overall job performance.
Keep in mind, these symptoms can differ significantly between individuals and may fluctuate over time. Therefore, it is important to maintain an honest dialogue with oneself about one's emotional, physical, and mental well-being to effectively spot the signs of burnout.
12 Stages of Burnout
Herbert Freudenberger, the psychologist who originally coined the phrase burnout, identified 12 stages that individuals move through as they progress towards workplace burnout.
1. Compulsion to prove oneself and increased commitment to work: Individuals feel driven to prove their worth and dedicate excessive energy to their work.
2. Neglecting personal needs and loss of balance: Personal needs and self-care take a backseat as work consumes a majority of time and energy, resulting in a lack of balance.
3. Gradual neglect of personal needs and increased isolation: Personal needs and social connections are neglected, leading to increased isolation and a sense of disconnection from others.
4. Shifting values and questioning the significance of work: Individuals begin to question the purpose and value of their work, experiencing a shift in their core beliefs and values.
5. Feeling of emptiness and emergence of behavioural changes: A sense of emptiness arises, accompanied by behavioural changes like increased irritability, withdrawal, or unhealthy coping mechanisms.
6. Growing sense of depression and feeling trapped: Feelings of depression intensify as individuals feel trapped in their circumstances, leading to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.
7. Physical health begins to deteriorate: Chronic stress and neglect of self-care start manifesting in physical symptoms and health issues.
8. Cognitive impairment and decreased productivity: Mental functioning is compromised, making it challenging to concentrate, remember, and perform tasks efficiently.
9. Increased detachment, cynicism, and disengagement: Individuals become detached from their work, colleagues, and personal relationships, showing signs of cynicism and disengagement.
10. Loss of enjoyment and motivation, emotional exhaustion: The joy and motivation that once fueled work diminish, replaced by emotional exhaustion and a lack of enthusiasm.
11. Overwhelming burnout with complete exhaustion: Burnout becomes overwhelming, resulting in extreme physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion, often leading to a breaking point.
12. Total burnout leading to a breakdown, requiring significant time and support for recovery: At this stage, individuals experience a complete breakdown, necessitating substantial time, support, and professional help to recover and regain overall well-being.
How Common is Burnout?
According to a 2021 study by the Mental Health Foundation in the UK, around 74% of people have at some point felt so stressed that they've felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Moreover, the British Safety Council suggests that up to 5 million people in the UK are "very" or "extremely" stressed by their work.
In terms of the financial impact of burnout, the Centre for Mental Health estimated that mental health problems in the UK workforce cost employers up to £45 billion each year – and a significant portion of this is likely attributable to burnout. These costs come in the form of absence due to illness, 'presenteeism' (where employees are present at work but significantly less productive), and staff turnover as employees leave jobs due to poor mental health. This figure is supported by the findings of the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) that stress, depression, or anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health cases and 55% of all working days lost due to ill health in 2019/2020.
What these figures tell us is clear: burnout is not just a personal crisis, it's a public health issue and a significant economic concern for UK companies. Recognizing and addressing burnout, therefore, is not only crucial for individual health and well-being, but it's also a smart business strategy. By investing in proactive measures like stress management training, flexible work policies, and mental health support services, businesses can help reduce the incidence of burnout, leading to healthier, happier employees and a more productive, profitable workplace. In fact, a study conducted by Deloitte UK indicated that for every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions, they get £5 back in reduced absence, presenteeism, and staff turnover.
Download our free Burnout Symptom Checklist:
How to Prevent ‘Burnout’ as an Employee
Because burnout itself is often caused by a multitude of factors, prevention and management of burnout also often requires a multi-faceted approach. Below you will find some ideas to help you manage burnout in your own life:
Manage Your Stress Levels: Learning healthy coping mechanisms for stress can significantly reduce your risk of burnout. Make time for activities that replenish and rejuvenate you. This might include regular exercise, a balanced diet, sufficient sleep, and mindfulness practices like yoga or meditation. Self-care can look different for everyone, so explore what works best for you.
Balance Your Workload: We know that being overwhelmed with tasks can be a significant contributor to burnout. Regularly assess your workload, delegate tasks where possible, and communicate openly with superiors if you're feeling overwhelmed.
Lean into Social Connections: You can reduce your chance of burning out by cultivating relationships with colleagues, friends, and family. Support networks can provide emotional support, and sometimes, practical solutions to work-related issues.
Seek Professional Help: If burnout symptoms persist, don't hesitate to seek help from a mental health professional. They can provide guidance, resources, and therapy options tailored to your needs.
How to Prevent ‘Burnout’ in Your Team as an Employer
Physical Health: Offering subsidised gym memberships, arranging for on-site fitness classes, or setting up walking meetings all promote physical health as a priority.
Nutritional Health: Providing free fruits and healthy snacks, or organising nutritionist visits can contribute to employees' wellness.
Mental Health: Consider introducing mindfulness or yoga sessions to help employees manage stress better.
Financial Wellness: Workshops or seminars on managing finances, investments, and retirement planning could also form part of your wellness plan.
Positive Work Environment
Workplace Culture: Work to create an environment of collaboration and respect. Recognize and reward hard work, encourage work-life balance, and avoid excessive overtime.
Flexible Work Arrangements: Consider options like remote work, flexible hours, or job-sharing arrangements, which can enhance work-life balance and reduce stress levels.
Physical Environment: Keep the office space clean, well-lit, and comfortable. Include indoor plants, ergonomic furniture, and access to natural light as they can contribute to a positive work environment.
Promote Work-Life Balance: Encourage employees to disconnect outside of work hours and take regular breaks during the day. Respect personal boundaries and consider implementing flexible work schedules where possible
Providing Mental Health Resources
Workplace Counseling Services: Provide access to an employee counselling or therapy services.
Mental Health Days: Encourage taking mental health days as part of your sick leave policy. This not only provides time for recovery but also reduces the stigma around mental health.
Workshops/Seminars: Conduct workshops or seminars on stress management, resilience, and mindfulness to equip employees with strategies to manage their mental health.
Regular Check-Ins on Workloads and Stress Levels
Regular Reviews: Regularly review employees' workloads to ensure they are manageable and evenly distributed. Avoid placing too many responsibilities on one single person.
Feedback Sessions: Arranging regular one-on-one meetings to discuss stress levels, work pressures, and any support needed can open lines of communication and help alleviate stress.
Promote Open Communication Around Mental Health
Encourage Open Dialogue: Make it acceptable to discuss mental health openly. Let employees know it's okay to ask for help when needed.
Stigma Reduction: Conduct awareness programs to reduce stigma around mental health and promote a supportive work culture.
By implementing these measures within your team, you can create a healthier, more productive workplace where employees feel supported and valued. It's a win-win situation: employees are happier and healthier, and the company benefits from increased productivity and decreased absenteeism!
Bringing it all Together ...
Burnout is a significant issue that demands our immediate attention. It's not just about feeling overly tired or a little down - it's a critical state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion that has severe consequences on individuals' personal lives, careers, and overall health. However, by recognizing the signs of burnout, we can intervene early.
To do so in our workplaces, we must foster an open dialogue about stress and burnout, encouraging people to speak up about their struggles without fear of judgement or discrimination. We must advocate for healthy lifestyles, balancing work and leisure, and promoting regular self-care, which can greatly help in managing stress levels and preventing burnout. Taking proactive action in addressing burnout not only helps in protecting individual mental health, but it also creates more productive and healthier workplaces, fostering a culture of wellness that benefits both employees and employers.
How We Can Help
At Bluebird Counselling & Consultancy, we can help you with all aspects of employee wellbeing, from assessment of where you are now to training for your managers or employees. We can also support you in setting up your own bespoke and responsive employee counselling service.
All our services can be offered in-person or online to fit your company’s needs.
Would you be interested in learning more? You can just reach out using the form below to get more information or to arrange a consultation with our team.
Mental Health Foundation. (2021). Stress: Are we coping?
British Safety Council. (2018). Health, Safety and Wellbeing in the Modern Workplace.
Centre for Mental Health. (2020). Mental Health at Work: The Business Costs Ten Years On.
World Health Organization. (2016). Mental Health in the Workplace.
Health and Safety Executive. (2020). Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain.
Deloitte UK. (2020). Mental health and employers: Refreshing the case for investment.
Mind. (n.d.). Mental health facts and statistics.