Are you struggling to drag yourself to your desk each morning? Is your job leaving you feeling exhausted, demotivated, and pessimistic? If so, then you might be suffering from burnout.

Burnout (or ‘occupational burnout’) is a phenomenon that’s caused by excessive and prolonged work-related stress. It can not only affect your career but other aspects of your life too.

A 2020 survey found that 22% of adults in the UK experience work-related burnout. But despite so many being affected – and Psychology Today calling it a ‘chronic workplace crisis’ – burnout has only recently been given the attention it deserves.

In 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially recognised it as an ‘occupational phenomenon’.

With this in mind, we’ve put together a short guide detailing the signs and symptoms of burnout, as well as some tips on what you can do to prevent it and recover from it.

What is burnout?

First coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, the term ‘burnout’ refers to mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged stress at work.

According to WHO, burnout has three key elements: 

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion

  • Increased mental detachment from work, accompanied by feelings of negativity and cynicism

  • Poorer professional performance

There are many ways you can tell if you may be experiencing burnout, or beginning to. The most common of which are:

  • Feelings of exhaustion
  • A change in sleeping habits
  • A change in eating habits
  • A loss of motivation
  • Decreased job satisfaction
  • Increased feelings of pessimism, cynicism, and helplessness
  • Increased feelings of irritability and impatience
  • Reduced creativity
  • A sense of failure and a loss of self-confidence
  • An inability to concentrate and be productive at work
  • A decreased level of immunity
  • Relying on unhealthy crutches, such as drinking or smoking

What’s important to remember is that, although stress and burnout are closely related and often used interchangeably, they’re actually two separate things – with burnout being caused by stress.

The easiest way to differentiate the two is to remember that stress is characterised by doing too much and caring too much, while burnout is defined by doing less and caring less because stress has depleted your energy levels and motivation.

What causes burnout?

Just as there are a whole host of signs and symptoms that may indicate that you’re burnt out – there can also be a wide range of reasons why this might be happening.

The most common causes of burnout are:

  • Being consistently overworked – for example, regularly doing shifts that are too long or being given too much to do in too little time.

  • Having a lack of control over your work – this includes feeling as if you have to engage in work-related tasks, such as answering emails, at all hours of the day.

  • Unclear or unrealistic expectations at work – if your workload is too intense or your bosses are consistently unclear in their communication of what they expect of you.

  • Lack of reward – if the amount of time, effort, and energy you put into your work isn’t proportional to the rewards you receive, such as pay, positive reinforcement, promotions, etc.

  • Dysfunction in the workplace – this includes anything from being a wrong culture-fit and receiving unfair treatment, to workplace bullying, discrimination, and harassment.

  • Feeling lonely or isolated – either personally or professionally.

Now that we know the causes and symptoms of burnout, we can explore ways to prevent or recover from it…

9 ways to prevent and recover from burnout

1. Set clear work-life boundaries

One of the main causes of burnout is not giving yourself time to switch off. If your brain is always in work mode, whether you’re actually doing work or not, it’ll feel like it – and this isn’t sustainable.

In fact, according to data collected by NordVPN Teams and Wildgoose, ever since the pandemic, home workers in the UK are spending over two hours a day more at their desks and more workers are reporting being ‘always on’.

The most effective thing to do to avoid feeling this way and risk burning out is to set clear boundaries between your work and leisure time. This includes sticking to your designated work hours by not answering any work-related correspondence or returning to your workstation out of hours.

If you work from home, you can help keep a clear distinction between work and leisure time by having separate areas for each – although we recognise that this is not always possible.

Keeping work within work hours might involve saying no to some people. And while this isn’t always easy, it’s worth remembering that your leisure time (whether that be spending time with your family or taking time to do things that you love) is just as important as your work.

With that said, as burnout can cause a sense of apathy towards work (including turning up late and finishing early), setting clear work-life boundaries also means sticking to your start and finish times.

2. Find some value in your career

When Herbert Freudenberger first observed burnout in a clinic for addicts and homeless people back in the 70s, he noticed that the volunteers, who’d once found their roles rewarding and purposeful, eventually became cynical and resentful of their patients. And this wasn’t because they stopped believing what they were doing was worthwhile – it was a symptom of being overworked.

So if you feel yourself becoming burnt out and beginning to become resentful of your job, it’s worth trying to remember why you chose the role in the first place. Maybe you work at a company that has a positive social impact by, say, providing a service that’s needed by vulnerable people?

Or, maybe you chose your role because it doesn’t require a long commute, leaving you more time to spend with your family?

If you didn’t choose your role for any particular reason (other than that you needed a job), try re-framing your view and finding some positives. Is it well paid? Have you made some good friends there?

By discovering or rediscovering what’s valuable about your career and expressing gratitude for it, you’ll hopefully regain some motivation.

3. Make sure you get enough sleep

We all know the importance of sleep. It’s what we spend (or should spend) a third of our life doing. If we’re feeling irritable, sad, or ill, one of the first questions we ask ourselves is whether or not we’re getting enough sleep. So if you’re beginning to feel burnt out, or want to avoid it, then making sure you get enough sleep is important.

A good night’s sleep can improve your cognition, concentration, productivity, performance, and mood, which are all negatively affected when you’re burnt out.

Many quote the modern parable that we each need eight hours of sleep per night. However, we’re all different, and The Sleep Foundation recommends that adults under 65 get between seven and nine hours of sleep a night, while anyone aged 65 and over should aim for between seven and eight hours.

If you’re struggling to get enough sleep, one of the best things you can do is to stick to the same sleep schedule each night. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time each night (even on weekends).

For more tips and advice on everything sleep-related, you might want to check out the sleep and fatigue section of our website.

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4. Find time to do relaxing things

Sleep isn’t the only type of rest we need, so if you’re beginning to feel burnt out, then it’s important to make time to relax. This could mean taking the time to read a good book, treating yourself to a massage, going for a long walk, or anything else you find relaxing.

You could even combine relaxation time with exercise by engaging in mind-body activities such as yoga and Tai Chi. These combine meditation and breathing exercises with physical movement – and will leave you feeling simultaneously exercised and relaxed.

Alternatively, you could try meditation. Meditation is proven to reduce stress, limit anxiety, lengthen attention span, improve sleep, and much more. Nowadays, apps such as Headspace and Calm, offer hundreds of guided meditations and a free trial. Alternatively, you can access thousands of free guided meditations on YouTube.

5. Practise mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practise that can help you improve your focus and take control of your emotions by bringing your full attention to the present moment. To be mindful means to concentrate on what you’re thinking and feeling, or on what’s happening in your immediate environment at a single point in time.

The beauty of this exercise is that it’s designed to stop you from worrying about the past, future, and anything that you can’t control in the present.

When you’re experiencing burnout, you might find yourself procrastinating more and being less productive. But studies have shown that practising mindfulness can help you to focus on the task at hand and get yourself back on track.

You can practise mindfulness anywhere, at any time. So if you’re feeling burnt out and struggling to focus, then why not try being mindful?

To help get you started, we’ve got a great introductory guide that you can check out here. Or, you’ll find some more mindful ideas in our articles; 10 everyday activities that can help you stay in the present moment and 32 ways to connect with nature and feel inspired.

6. Make time for exercise

When you’re feeling exhausted and unmotivated, the last thing you might want to do is to go out for a walk or bike ride. But, exercising is one of the best ways you can combat burnout.

Exercise increases our endorphin levels (happy hormones), leaving us feeling more positive and energised. It also improves our quality of sleep, which helps us to feel better rested and in a better mood throughout the day. Plus, exercising outdoors can help to boost vitamin D levels.

Working out also improves brain health, which helps to combat the symptoms of burnout, and makes it easier to stay focused and productive at work.

7. Eat a healthy, balanced diet

It might sound obvious, but another way to avoid or recover from burnout is to eat a healthy, balanced diet. This, as the NHS tells us, generally involves eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day; getting a balance of carbohydrates, dairy, and protein; choosing unsaturated fats over saturated ones; and drinking plenty of water.

It’s also best to avoid foods with a high sugar content (such as sweets and sugary drinks), highly caffeinated drinks (such as coffee and energy drinks), and heavily processed foods like crisps. These can all contribute to feelings of fatigue.

For more healthy eating tips and recipe inspiration, why not visit the diet and nutrition section of our website? Here, you can find articles like 12 essential vitamins that your body needs and 12 healthy recipe ideas.

8. Seek support

As we’ve already established, when someone’s burnt out, they often become more cynical and pessimistic, and may experience a sense of helplessness. This can be problematic because it can discourage them from taking proactive steps to feel better.

However, seeking support from your bosses, colleagues, mental health professionals, friends, and family can often be an effective way to begin working towards a solution.

Fostering relationships at work is an effective way to help combat burnout. If you’re struggling with your workload or the number of hours that you’re working, then it’s worth talking to your line manager. Having clear and consistent communication between you and the person you report to will not only help you manage your workload, but it’ll also keep their expectations of you clear and prevent you from becoming burnt out as a result.

Similarly, if you’re self-employed, then one of the best ways to avoid or recover from burnout is to get comfortable with delegating tasks to others, and recognising which tasks can wait.

Letting your friends and family know how you’re feeling can also be a cathartic experience – sometimes just getting something off your chest can make your load seem a lot lighter.

Or, if you find yourself feeling desperate and need somewhere to turn quickly, then it’s worth getting in touch with a mental health organisation like Samaritans or The Silver Line. They work round the clock to be there for people who need a listening ear and some friendly support. They’ll also be able to advise you on where to turn next, so you can start feeling like yourself again.

9. Consider a career change

Although it’s a radical step, if you’re struggling with burnout in your current career, a change could be just what you need to shake things up and rediscover your purpose.

If there’s a career that you’ve always wanted to pursue, but haven’t had the chance, then now might be the perfect time to do so. Though changing careers can feel daunting, it can also be exciting.

If you’re not sure where to start, then we’ve got over 30 handy career change guides, tailored specifically to people wanting to take on a new role later in life. We also have plenty of ideas for new careers on the career change and job ideas section of our website.

Or, if you’re trying to decide whether a change of role is the right move for you, then why not check out the personal stories section of our website? Here, you’ll find plenty of inspiring interviews from people over 50 who made career switches for the better.

Final thoughts...

Mind UK tells us that 1 in 5 workers are unable to manage the pressure and stress levels at work and that 46% of workers feel that they’re ‘more prone to extreme levels of stress’ than before the pandemic. So if you’ve been stressed at work lately and are beginning to feel burnt out, you’re certainly not alone.

Thankfully, there are steps you can take to avoid feeling this way – whether that means getting out for more exercise, adjusting your sleep schedule, or changing your career entirely.

For more help on maintaining your mental health, why not have a read of our articles; How practising gratitude can lead to a happier life and 18 ways to step outside of your comfort zone?

Or for more work-related content, you might want to check out our jobs and careers page.

Have you felt burnt out recently? If so, do you have any tips and tricks that have helped you deal with it? We’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.

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