A woman who was on the brink of burnout says there were two key things that helped to save her mental health.
Gabriela Flax, 28, started to feel burnt out which working in a product management job, an industry she says had a lack of resources and practical help and left her in a 'chronic state of overwhelm'.
"Burnout is when your brain is in direct conflict with what your body truly needs," Flax, from London, says.
"Sometimes we let the need for success interrupt with the very need to rest. For me, it was about learning tactics and removing things from life that were causing me more stress and then looking inside to see what was holding me stuck from a mental perspective."
This is why Flax came up with the 'boring list', a way to simplify everyday activities in order to reduce the risk of burnout.
"The boring list is for people who have just acknowledged burnout - it's a mental reprieve," she explains. "It's going to be tough but it's about focusing on small changes that can be made to your daily life. It's not a cure to burnout, but these are things you can do in the early stages to let some steam out."
Flax began with two simple things: buying three sets of work outfits to make getting dressed for the office easier, and having a 'clean' basket alongside her dirty laundry basket.
"Get three versions of an indoor outfit and three of an outdoor set," Flax recommends. "What I find with implementing a 'capsule wardrobe' is people stick with it long after burnout. It's a massage on the brain to remove the decision on what to wear."
As for her 'clean basket', flax says it's a way to replace our pile of clean clothes that aren't ready to be washed yet that usually sit on the floor or a chair in our room.
"Most of us have a clean chair, but anything that creates chaos through mess makes us feel worse," she explains. "The clean basket allows you to keep the space tidy but if you don't want to open your closet because of decision fatigue - don't bother with it, go to the clean basket, you know it's clean. No decision needed."
Other tips from Flax's 'boring list' include using paper plates when you can't fathom doing the dishes, having a go-to dish on a delivery app for an easy meal, and buying a pack of 10 identical socks.
So, what is burnout and who does it affect? Burnout is a relatively new mental health phenomenon that has grown in tandem with people who are working longer and harder, wherever and whenever.
In fact, a recent study found that 52% of people were worried about burning out, and over a third were identified as being at ‘high risk’ of it, with 27% were at a ‘medium’ risk.
The precursors to burnout were also worryingly common, with 65% of the 2,000 Americans and Brits surveyed saying they were working at energy levels that simply weren’t sustainable, putting them at risk of burnout, while 18% went even further, describing themselves as ‘on their knees’.
Alarmingly, though, hardly any had actually raised any concerns with their boss, lest they be considered to be complaining or not coping with their work.
What is burnout?
While we all can experience work pressures, it’s important to know when work-related stress becomes burnout, Clare Josa, the study's leader and author of Ditching Imposter Syndrome, says.
"Burnout is severe mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion, where we lose our motivation, struggle to perform, and where you might even be signed off from work," she adds.
"But stress becomes burnout when it goes on for too long without a break and the ‘fight-flight-freeze’ mechanism gets stuck ‘on’, meaning we’re constantly running on stress and adrenalin. It’s exhausting."
Women are twice as likely to suffer from burnout, largely because of what Josa calls the 'plate spinning' of family life.
"It’s the ‘headspace’ aspect of this constant decision-making responsibility that is exhausting, not just the physical doing," she says.
What does burnout feel like?
It’s critical then that you recognise the early signs that you might be suffering from burnout and these won’t be things that you’re feeling once in a while, or on an occasional basis. Instead, look for a combination of symptoms that persist over longer periods.
Typical warning signs include deep exhaustion and low mood, negativity and irritability. You might also be struggling to concentrate, making mistakes at work and, as a result, working longer hours to try and compensate. Impatience and anger can also be an issue.
How to deal with burnout
The way in which the sexes deal with burnout, and its consequences, also differs markedly. Women, for example, are aware when burnout is becoming an issue and are ten times more likely to take a ‘push on through’ which tends to exacerbate the problem, increasing anxiety levels still further and leading to more issues, both at work and at home, with career and relationships all impacted.
"Men are less aware that there was a problem until it became something they couldn't ignore," says Josa. "They felt they had to be strong and that asking for help was a sign of weakness."
Compounding the issue is our inability to turn work off, with 86% of respondents finding constant notifications from their phone or email distracting and 47% feeling under pressure to respond quickly when they do receive communications, even when it’s outside of official work hours. Some 59%, meanwhile, said they checked their emails, often before bed, so they could get ahead of the game for the following day.
If you are already bunt out, the NHS' tips for dealing with it include:
Split up big tasks: If a task seems overwhelming and difficult to start, try breaking it down into easier chunks, and give yourself credit for completing them.
Challenge your thoughts: The way we think affects the way we feel. Watch our video to learn how to challenge unhelpful thoughts.
Talk to someone: Trusted friends, family and colleagues, or contacting a helpline, can help us when we are struggling. Watch our video for more ideas.
Why is burnout on the rise?
It’s this constant availability that’s got worse with people working from home during the COVID pandemic, as the boundaries between work and home life became increasingly blurred. So while you might think that working from would reduce stress and, therefore, burnout, it’s actually had the opposite effect, as the anxiety and uncertainty caused by coronavirus itself has fundamentally affected the way we live our lives.
The pressure of work hasn’t diminished either. "Many men will have felt under more pressure to perform even better than usual at work, to prove that working from home wasn’t affecting their productivity."
Now, as people either return to the office or adapt a hybrid working model, the old, pre-pandemic stresses and strains of work will return. From the tiring commutes to long hours and too many meetings, slipping back into the old way of work may prove too much for those already on the edge.
How to prevent burnout
To help prevent burnout, the tips on Mind's website include:
Make sure you take your annual leave: A lot of us haven't taken as much holiday from work as we normally do as we haven't been able to travel, but time off is important even if you are just at home. It gives you an opportunity to relax and recharge.
Get enough sleep: Turn off your screens and do something to relax before you go to bed at night. If your mental health is causing you to have problems falling asleep you may find our sleep tips helpful.
Try to finish work on time: Without the commute and with the pressures of homeschooling, it's easier to work late into the evening to try and get everything done. Once in a while this is ok, but try to make sure you finish work on time most days.
Schedule in time for pleasant activities: Make time for relaxing, hobbies and calls with friends and family. Sometimes having something non-work related to look forward to can really help.
How to recover from burnout
Most importantly, Mind says that if you are struggling with burnout it may be beneficial to take a few days off work while you recover. You might want to talk to your manager about any issues you are facing at work, which its Workplace mental health guides can help with.
Additional reporting by SWNS.
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