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7 early signs of burnout

28 Sep 2020

Most of us have days when we feel depleted, stressed and lacking in energy, but if you feel like that most of the time, you may be at risk of burnout

A certain amount of stress can be energising. An urgent deadline can sharpen your concentration and push you to keep on going. But too much stress over long periods has the opposite effect, leading to a condition known as burnout.

‘Stress causes the body to release stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline,’ says licensed psychologist Linda Karlsson. ‘In the short term, this can temporarily boost performance and make you more alert. But if you’re under continuous and prolonged stress, without sufficient rest and recovery, this can increase your risk of developing burnout, which is when you feel mentally, physically and emotionally depleted.’

What is burnout?

The term burnout was first defined in the 1970s by US Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger who described the key symptoms as loss of motivation, emotional depletion and cynicism caused by work-related stress.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in 4 adults will be affected by burnout at some point. The WHO recently included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), describing it as ‘chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’. Its 3 main areas of symptoms include lack of energy and exhaustion, feeling detached, negative or cynical about one’s job, and reduced work performance.

A recent UK survey showed that two-thirds of employees experienced burnout: 23% reported they felt it often or always and 44% sometimes. The top reasons were unfair treatment at work, an unmanageable workload, lack of clarity, lack of communication, lack of support in the workplace and unreasonable time pressure.

What are the early signs of burnout?

‘It can take weeks, months and, in some cases, even years to recover from burnout,’ says Karlsson. ‘So, ideally, you want to spot potential symptoms early before they become chronic. That way, you can take steps to pull yourself back from the brink before the situation becomes too problematic.’

Here are common early signs to look out for.

1. Exhaustion

This is the kind of persistent tiredness that is not relieved by rest, so you feel mentally and emotionally drained and physically run-down most of the time. You’re low in energy and frequently feel overwhelmed. Research shows that when there is work overload, there is little opportunity to rest, recover and restore balance.

2. Loss of enthusiasm for work

The stress and frustration make you increasingly negative, cynical and resentful about work. You no longer feel enthusiastic about anything and start to distance yourself emotionally. You wake up every day with a feeling of dread about work. Studies have shown that lack of control, insufficient recognition and reward (financial, institutional or social) makes people more vulnerable to burnout because they feel devalued.

3. Reduced work performance

You have difficulty concentrating. Everything takes twice as long and you’re less efficient. You’re finding it hard to do work assignments, or are late with them when you never used to be. You’re forgetful. A Swedish study shows that burnout changes neural circuits, affecting people’s ability to deal with stress. So, the more stressed you are, the harder it is to deal with new stressors. Stress also affects the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with executive function.

4. Worry and anxiety

You feel anxious and worried, especially if it’s linked to your performance at work. You might feel better when you get home and do things you enjoy but the anxiety returns as soon as you’re back at work. Research shows that burnout is related to the development of mood disturbance,
depressive symptoms and anxiety.

5. Sleep problems

Stress is affecting your sleep. You may have developed insomnia and are finding it hard to fall asleep, keep waking in the night, or wake too early and then can’t get back to sleep.

6. Physical symptoms

Chronic stress can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches (caused by tension) and migraines, back pain, skin problems and general aches and pains. A review of the scientific literature on burnout has shown that it is a contributory factor for physical symptoms including headache, back ache, respiratory and gastro-intestinal issues.

7. Irritability and mood swings

You may feel moodier than usual. This is because the amygdala — the part of the brain associated with fear and aggression — is larger in people suffering from burnout. There are also strong connections between the amygdala and areas of the brain linked to emotional distress.

6 ways to help control early stage burnout

Here are Karlsson’s pointers for things that could help slow or stop your early signs of burnout.

1. Set boundaries

  • Start and finish work at a reasonable time. Stick to regular hours, when you can
  • Take regular breaks throughout the day
  • Set aside a time each day when you completely disconnect from your mobile, computer, email and social media groups
  • Always take your holidays and make sure you switch off from work in the evenings and during the weekend
  • Don’t overextend yourself – you’re more likely to suffer from burnout if you find it hard to say no. Delegate if you can

2. Maintain a healthy work/life balance

‘When you’re stressed it’s easy to forget that spending time with friends and family and doing things you enjoy is just as important as work,’ says Karlsson. ‘You can’t just work all the time and give up other activities. We’re not created to handle stress over a prolonged period of time.
Maintaining a balance between your work and personal life allows you to switch off and recharge, so that when you do get back to work you feel more energised. Even if you’re worried about losing your job — and that’s a real worry right now — you need to remember that if you don’t have your
health, you can’t work.’

3. Prioritise exercise

'Exercise is one of the best things you can do to protect yourself from burnout,’ says Karlsson. ‘Doing at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise every day such as walking, cycling, swimming or dancing helps your body to discharge excess stress chemicals. You’ll also produce more endorphins (feel-good chemicals in the brain) to make you feel better.’

4. Stop trying to be perfect

‘If you’re a perfectionist you’re more likely to suffer from burnout,’ says Karlsson. ‘It’s likely that you put high demands on yourself. But, you need to ask yourself — does everything always have to be perfect? What’s the worst thing that can happen if you don’t make that call, send that email right now? It might not be as catastrophic as you think. Talking to a psychologist can be useful.’

5. Eat well

‘What you eat can have a huge impact on your mood and energy levels,’ says Karlsson. ‘Eating the right foods will help your body to cope better when you’re under pressure.’

  • Avoid all processed foods, white carbohydrates and caffeine
  • Eat fresh, healthy foods, including vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, lean proteins such as meat, chicken and oily fish, or eggs and dairy for vegetarians, tofu, beans and pulses for vegans, as well as healthy fats, nuts and seeds
  • Eat foods that are high in Vitamin C. These include leafy greens, citrus fruit, kiwis and berries. Vitamin C helps to reduce cortisol levels
  • Get enough magnesium. Magnesium is essential for energy production and can have a calming effect. It is found in dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and wholegrains. If suitable, you might also want to take a supplement. One study showed that daily supplementation with magnesium can lead to a significant decrease in symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Drink more water and herbal teas

6. Don’t be ashamed of seeking help

‘If you’re worried that you may be at risk of burnout, always talk to a GP’ says Karlsson. ‘They will check that there aren’t any underlying physical causes for your symptoms. If there’s nothing medically wrong, ask for a referral to a psychologist.

‘While there’s a lot you can do yourself, it’s not always easy to break certain deep-rooted patterns of behaviour and thinking. This is where a psychologist can help you to get to know yourself better.

‘This can mean that in the future you’ll know what signs to look out for and have the tools to stop yourself going in the wrong direction.’

This article has been reviewed by Linda Karlsson, licensed psychologist

Last updated:
28 Sep 2020

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