Vitality coach and positive psychology practitioner Melissa Britton explains how to spot the early warning signs of “burnout” and offers tips for tackling the stress-related syndrome.
The term “burnout” made headlines in 2019 after the World Health Organization officially recognised it as a “syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.
While burnout is not a seasonal phenomenon, recent research found that levels of cortisol – the stress hormone – were higher during the summer, suggesting we could be more susceptible to it this time of year.
Here, Vitality coach and qualified positive psychology practitioner Melissa Britton explains how you can spot the early warning signs of burnout and better manage your stress levels at work.
What are the symptoms of burnout?
“Burnout is something that creeps up on you quite slowly. You don’t just wake up one day have it. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of changes in your mood and behaviour early-on before it gets out of hand,” says Britton.
“You may experience feelings of irritability, anxiety and dread before coming to work or whilst at work. You may also notice that your attitude to work changes. Whereas you may have been quite positive in the past, you are now cynical and pessimistic; often overwhelmed; unable to switch-off; more forgetful and therefore less effective at your job – all of which adds to your feelings of stress.”
Britton says that people suffering from burnout may develop damaging behaviours such as smoking, drinking, drug use and unhealthy eating in order to cope. But there are long-term health implications to consider, too. “Chronic stress has been linked to heart diseases such as high blood pressure and I’ve even known clients to develop stomach problems, resulting in frequent bowel movements and vomiting.”
What’s the difference between burnout and depression?
“The two have overlapping symptoms so it’s difficult to fully understand whether burnout causes depression or whether depression causes burnout,” says Britton. Indeed, there is an ongoing debate over the difference between the two, precisely because the symptoms are so intrinsically entwined. But it’s almost beside the point, as Britton explains: “If you’re experiencing these symptoms you need to take note and make a change to your lifestyle in some way.”
How can I tackle feelings of burnout?
Britton recommends carving out some ‘me time’ in which you can unwind. “Exercise is a fantastic way of doing this. Take advantage of the warm weather and go for a run at lunchtime, if you have the facilities. People – including myself – often find they are much more alert and energised afterwards,” Britton says.
“Another thing you can do is attend an exercise class after work. If you find that you are isolating yourself during the day – which again is a symptom of burnout – exercising in a group is going to be a great mood booster, plus you’re releasing those endorphins by being active.”
Strengthening your relationships with colleagues can also be hugely beneficial for managing workplace stress: “No one understands the stress you’re under at work better than your colleagues. If you have a good relationship with your co-workers you will find it easier to ask for help when you need it,” says Britton.
How can I prevent burnout in the future?
It’s important to set boundaries for work and life in order to maintain a healthy balance between the two. Strategies for this can be as simple as turning your work phone off as soon as you leave the office, so that you’re not tempted to check your emails late at night. Britton also recommends making it clear to your colleagues that you should only be contacted on your work device, so that your personal phone can remain just that.
She continues: “You’re assigned annual leave for a reason. Take it! It’s time to switch-off and recuperate, yet a lot of us don’t utilise it and by the end of the year we find we’re unwell, stressed out and feeling quite resentful.”
Britton emphasises the importance of being aware of the signs and symptoms of burnout and also your own behaviour. “Be aware of your limits and if you feel that you’re about to reach breaking point speak to your manager about how you can adapt your work environment. If the symptoms do persist, speak to your GP. A lot of people don’t realise that your GP can provide help and advice on how to support your health and wellbeing in relation to work.”
If you think you are suffering from burnout, speak to your GP. Eligible Vitality members can access tailored mental health support through their Vitality plan, including up to eight sessions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or counselling per year, plus 24/7 online support via Vitality’s mental health partner Big White Wall.