Are you at risk of burnout? Signs, symptoms and how to deal with it

·8-min read
Burnout: Tired employee with head in laptop. (Getty Images)
The pandemic has made us much more susceptible to burnout. (Getty Images)

Burnout is, unfortunately, on the rise. But there are things we can do to help deal with it, and more importantly, prevent it.

There are precious few people – the lucky few – who can genuinely say they never feel any stress in their line of work and today, as technology continues to make huge leaps and bounds, people are working longer and harder, wherever and whenever.

It’s a trend that, inevitably, leads not just to stress and a variety of related complaints, but also to the very real risk of burnout, something that’s been revealed in the 2022 Burnout & Imposter Syndrome Research Study, published by Soultuitive Leadership earlier this year.

iIt surveyed 2,000 people, both in the UK and the USA, to determine the effect on workers after two years of COVID-related restrictions. And with energy levels flagging and anxiety rising across the board, all, it seems, is not good.

“The constant stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic can make people much more susceptible to burnout,” says Clare Josa, the study's leader and author of Ditching Imposter Syndrome.

“They have had two years of ‘coping’, with massive uncertainty and changes to the way we live, beyond what people would normally have to handle in normal times.”

Read more: 'Dream job' means a good view, free tea, and an easygoing boss says survey

Man working from home with toddler. (Getty Images)
Two years of covid restrictions and working form home has left us in a fragile state. (Getty Images)

The results make for troubling reading. While 52% of people were worried about burning out, 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% 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.

Read more: The Life Edit Podcast: Are you suffering from burnout?

Workers in office could be suffering from burnout. (Getty Images)
More than a third of workers are at a ‘high risk’ of burnout – are you one of them? (Getty Images)

What is burnout?

While we all can experience work pressures, it’s important to know when work-related stress becomes burnout, as Josa explains.

“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 says.

“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 Clare 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.

Read more: Ruby Wax urges mental health honesty as 77% of us claim to be 'fine' when we are not

Mother multi-tasking with young children in kitchen table. (Getty Images)
Women are more likely to be affected by burnout and will keep 'pushing through', despite their awareness of it. (Getty Images)

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 I don't check my emails before I go to bed, then I wake up to howlers in my inbox, which ruins my day before it even starts,” said one respondent.

Read more: Men and depression: How to spot the signs and address it

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.

"The tips on this page should help, but if you have been experiencing stress for some time and it's affecting your daily life or causing you distress, you should consider seeking further support," the site adds.

Woman in bed checking smartphone. (Getty Images)
Are you checking your emails before bed? Unfortunately, you're not alone. (Getty Images)

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.

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Serious businessman with headphones travelling to work. Standing inside underground wagon, holding handhandle. (Getty Images)
The stresses of returning to the office might compound the situation for some. (Getty Images)

How to avoid burnout?

It doesn’t help that some organisations don’t see fit to address a work culture that allows burnout to become an issue. Indeed, 71% of those surveyed felt there was an expectation just to pick yourself up and carry on regardless, believing that asking HR or their line manager for help would be frowned upon or limit their careers in some way.

“It’s what we call ‘toxic resilience’,” adds Josa, “And it’s a core risk predictor for burnout.”

For Josa, it’s imperative that companies and workplaces proactively to address the issues at hand. That means talking to their staff and really engaging with them and their concerns.

“There's more to preventing burnout than beanbags in meeting rooms – and there's no one-size-fits-all solution,” she says. “It's essential to talk openly with staff about what kind of working environment would best support them to thrive.”

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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.

For more information on the study, click here.

Watch: 5 tips to boost your mental health