What is burnout and how can it be combatted?

Simon Brittz, Counselling Psychologist at Roodlane Medical, part of HCA Healthcare UK, clarifies what burnout is and identifies its triggers, as well as advising on some of the coping strategies if you or someone you know is experiencing it.

Global online searches for the term ‘occupational burnout’ have increased more than 2,500% since 2015, with the pandemic only fuelling this increase with many people being unable to switch off from work whilst working at home. 

During the past year, with the outbreak and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we have all had to face challenges which have impacted our day-to-day lives. Amongst these challenges, there has been a significant increase in mental health issues – one of those being burnout. Burnout is an occupational phenomenon and is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as ‘a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’. It can be difficult to identify burnout as there’s no physical measure for when someone is deemed ‘burnt out’ - but instead manifests as anxiety and/or depression which can be caused by a gradual build-up of pressure on a person.

What are the triggers?

Working outside of contracted hours and struggling to switch off due to working from home are said to be two of the main triggers. A recent survey conducted by The Office Group found that 51% of respondents said that they were working beyond their contracted hours and 42% struggle to separate their home and work life. Whilst stresses resulting from work is often the most common trigger of burnout, shifting from home working to hybrid working and familial stress are also often major triggers. 

How to prevent or manage burnout?

When I speak to my patients, who are either experiencing burnout or are expressing concern that they are becoming more stressed than usual, I try and get them to think about the ship and anchor analogy as a technique to help manage their stress. I ask them to think of themselves as a ship which requires anchors to hold them grounded and stable and to weather an approaching storm. I will then talk through the six primary anchors that keep patients stable and attached:

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Nutrition
  • Social interaction
  • Spirituality
  • Cognitive ability

The idea is that if you manage to remain attached to as many of these anchors as possible, even as a storm hits, that you will be able to weather the storm. 

Often when someone becomes stressed at work, they will start to work late and wake up earlier, but this means that the first anchor ‘sleep’ is cut, which can in turn increase stress levels, or they might eat fast food, drink too much caffeine or other stimulants or eat at their desk to save time, which in turn is cutting their ‘nutrition’ anchor, and the same applies for the other anchors.

It’s important not to cut these anchor ropes and instead when a stressful time approaches at home or at work, become stricter with your anchor ropes to avoid things from becoming worse.

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How can you identify ‘burnout’?

It’s often difficult for the person experiencing ‘burnout’ to notice any changes as the changes are often gradual and a culmination of things. If you notice the following changes in yourself or a colleague, employee, family or friend, then it’s important to speak with them about the changes. Changes can be physical, emotional or cognitive:.

Signs of physical burnout

  • Tired, fatigued or lethargic
  • Change in eating patterns
  • Change in sleeping patterns
  • Change in energy levels

Signs of emotional burnout

  • Irritable
  • Lacking enthusiasm and motivation
  • Feeling unusually anxious and down 
  • Easily moved to tears – emotional stability feels compromised
  • Mood swings

Signs of cognitive burnout

  • Struggling to concentrate
  • Easily distracted
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Brain fog/not as sharp-minded

What to do if I identify ‘burnout’ symptoms?

If you notice someone at work or at home who could be displaying symptoms of burnout, it’s important that you approach the conversation in a compassionate and empathetic way. To start the conversation, it’s often best to phrase your concern in a non-accusatory way and say to an employee for example, “I’ve noticed that you look like you’re finding it difficult to concentrate during meetings” or to a loved one, “I’ve noticed that you seem quite irritable and tired and I’ve noticed you’ve been going to bed late.”

Often asking these questions will allow the person to share how they are feeling, and from there you might want to suggest that they seek help, if you both feel that they need it.

What do I do if a patient has already ‘cut’ these ‘anchors’?

A lot of the patients that I see in clinic have already cut some, if not all of these anchors. I work practically with these patients to get some of these anchors back, but it’s important to understand that it’s a gradual process and will involve a series of micro-changes. For example, I might suggest that a patient should try to go to sleep 15 minutes earlier, download a mindfulness or meditation app or go for a 15-minute walk. Even though these are only small changes – they can have a big impact and minimise the feelings of ‘burnout’.

It’s also important to practice ‘anchor maintenance’ even if you’re not feeling stressed of burnt out to avoid slipping into bad habits.

If you think you have become more stressed than unusual and have noticed any of the ‘burnout’ symptoms that I have mentioned, seek help from a GP or psychologist to ensure that these feelings or stress and anxiety don’t escalate further.