‘Flexible’ working may cause burn out: here’s how to stay stress free

Exhausted young man with laptop in office
Flexible working hours may be contributing to burn out. [Photo: Getty]

Flexible hours were supposed to allow parents to fit work in around the school run.

While casual contracts may sound handy, working mothers could be paying for the convenience with their health.

The number of people on zero-hour contracts rose by 100,000 between 2016 and 2017, with 1.8 million people in the UK working without a minimum number of guaranteed shifts two years ago, The Guardian reported.

A psychologist warns the increase in this precarious work is leaving many anxious where their next pay cheque will come from.

And with no guarantee of work, casual employees may be saying “yes” to everything, leaving them burnt out.

READ MORE: 3 strategies to help you bounce back from burn out

Zero-hour contracts are usually for “on call” work. Employees are phoned when needed and are not obligated to take up the work.

With the freedom to turn jobs down, casual contracts may enable you go on that last minute holiday.

Equally, however, employees are not contracted to give out work. This leaves workers without a set income, with them also missing out on pension and redundancy benefits.

Zero-hour contracter Don Lane hit the headlines last year when he died aged 53 from diabetes complications after repeatedly missing check-ups, The Guardian reported.

READ MORE: What is parental burn out and what can be done to prevent it?

The courier supposedly felt under pressure to complete his round and faced a £150-a-day ($190) fine from parcel giant DPD if he failed to find cover for his shifts.

DPD reportedly only pays couriers per delivery, offering no sick or holiday allowances.

“This in an extreme example but for the increasing number of people who rely on ‘gig economy’, the stress of not knowing how much money will be coming in each month is a key part of behaviours that lead to burn out,” Dr Meg Arroll, psychologist at Healthspan, told Yahoo UK.

“This financial instability means those on ‘pay-per-delivery’ or zero-hours contracts take all the work they can get, no matter what impact is has on their health.

“And often the damage isn’t immediately obvious.”

What is burn out?

The World Health Organization (WHO) listed burn out as an “occupational phenomenon” in its International Classification of Diseases last year.

While not a medical condition, the global body claims stretching yourself too thin can “influence health status or contact with health services”.

The WHO defines burn out as “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

READ MORE: Red wine can relieve stress and anxiety, study reveals

Symptoms include “energy depletion” or exhaustion, “mental distance from one’s job” and a poor performance at work.

While it may sound like workplace stress, burn out can seriously affect your health.

A 10-year study by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health found forest workers were more likely to be hospitalised with heart problems if they showed signs of burn out.

“Hence, the harm burn out causes to our bodies can result in extremely serious health conditions, leading to early death in some cases,” Dr Arroll said.

The symptoms of burn out and how to protect yourself

If you find yourself canceling plans last minute, feeling you are failing at work or neglecting your self care, Dr Arroll warns you may be on the road to burn out.

Signs you are already experiencing the “phenomenon” include feeling irritable and overly emotional or thinking you cannot cope when you used to manage similar situations well.

Sufferers may also struggle to concentrate, sleep or remember things.

Others feel “wired but tired” most of the time and rely on comfort eating to get through the day, Dr Arroll added.

The good news is, burn out may be preventable.

READ MORE: Stroking a cat or dog can reduce your stress levels, study finds

“Because burn out can affect our both or physical and mental health, in addition to decimating our social lives and relationships, it’s important to take a three-pronged approach to preventing it,” Dr Arroll said.

She first recommends workers look after themselves physically by not skipping meals, not matter how busy they are.

“Make time to eat as our engines can’t run for very long on empty,” Dr Arroll said.

“Choose foods that contain complex carbohydrates for a steady release of energy, such as porridge, and ditch those sweet processed options such as pastries.

“For lunch, be sure to include some protein to maintain energy and focus in the afternoon.”

Dr Arroll also recommends taking a magnesium supplement, with research showing chronic stress depletes our levels of the important mineral.

On a psychological level, the medic encourages stressed out workers to stop and count their blessings.

“Use negative imagery,” she said.

“This may sound strange as we’re told so often to visualise the best case scenario, but taking some time to think about how a situation could have ended up worse allows us to be more grounded and accepting of our lot, which usually isn’t as bad as it can feel in the heat of the moment.

“By seeing a range of imagined realities, it’s possible to truly count our blessings and limit constant comparisons”.

It is also important to schedule time for the things you enjoy, whether it’s a walk in the park or catching up with loved ones.

And on a social level, don’t underestimate the Joy Of Missing Out (JOMO).

“Be realistic about the amount of social, work and community engagements you can commit to, and stick to it,” Dr Arroll said.

“Overcommitting and feeling you ‘should’ attend a party, help out with a committee or look after other people’s children can easily tip someone with an already packed schedule into burn out.”

Dr Arroll admits life does sometimes throw up curveballs, like a child being taken ill at school.

“If something is urgent and important, take a deep breath, work out a strategy and stay calm,” she said.

For everything else, focus on what needs to get done.

Try to limit the number of last-minute favours you pull for friends and avoid things that just don’t need doing.

“Surveys from a store you once popped into, mindless internet browsing and watching an entire boxset at one time are tasks akin to energy vampires – avoid, especially if you’re showing the signs of burn out,” Dr Arroll said.