Published: 4 November 2020. Written by: Marina Gask.

Do you feel exhausted all the time? Short-tempered and unable to cope?  Or perhaps you’re struggling to concentrate on the simplest of tasks? These could be signs of burnout. Of course we all have bad days, but if you have been feeling increasingly overwhelmed, it’s time to heed the signs.

Recognised in 2019 as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organisation, burnout is characterised by ‘feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.’ According to TOG (The Office Group), almost a third of the workforce said lockdown had brought them closer to burnout. The working from home culture means the lines between work and leisure have been blurred and staff feel they can never switch off. 

In fact 69% of employees are experiencing burnout symptoms while working from home, according to global online employment platform Monster. ‘We all experience stress at times, but burnout results from prolonged and excessive stress,’ says business coach Shilpa Panchmatia who has experienced burnout herself and coaches business owners and employees on how to avoid it. ‘While many of the symptoms of burnout are the same as depression, burnout is generally work-related,’ she adds.

Coping with the extra workload after redundancies are made or staff are furloughed, worrying if your job is on the line, feelings of uncertainty about the future… all are taking their toll on our collective mental health and causing added stress and pressure. And if you happen to be self-employed, working all hours to keep your head above water makes you equally vulnerable. 

Headaches, migraines, high blood pressure, gastric disorders and cardiovascular problems have all been linked to burnout, as well as mental health issues. So how do you know if you’re in danger of burnout and what can you do to avoid it?

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‘I feel exhausted all the time’

Online searches for symptoms with terms such as ‘signs of burnout’ have increased by 24% throughout 2020 compared to 2019. If you’re waking up with an empty tank, it’s time to take action. ‘Above all, learn to switch off and allow yourself enough time to rest. Get some rules in place, starting and finishing your working day at strict times and taking sufficient breaks,’ says Shilpa. 

Consultant psychiatrist Dr Sarah Vohra, aka The Mind Medic, says it’s important to make clear distinctions between your day and night-time routines so you feel well-rested. ‘Make sure you have consistent wake and sleep times. This helps regulate your body’s 24-hour circadian rhythm or sleep/wake cycle.’ 

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‘I can’t focus on anything’

The TOG study found that 32 is the age we are most likely to experience burnout, and this can manifest in an inability to concentrate and stay productive. ‘There’s a sense that we have to keep pretending everything’s OK, even when it’s not,’ says Shilpa. Set aside ‘must-dos’ for the day and write them down. ‘Studies show that the more tasks we commit to simultaneously, the lower our attention span is. This can affect how quickly we complete our tasks, with time often wasted switching between them, making us less efficient and more prone to making mistakes,’ says Dr Vohra.

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‘I feel down and irritable a lot more than usual’

‘Your stress signature is your own personal alarm bell telling you you’re starting to head towards burnout – you may find you’re unable to sleep or to concentrate, your mood is low, you’re snappy and critical, emotional or indecisive. 

‘We have to learn to recognise our stress signature in ourselves so we can prevent burnout,’ says Elaine Carnegie, founder of wellbeing and mental health consultancy Beingworks. ‘Make time to do more of whatever brings you joy and less of what brings you stress. You’ll have more energy, become more productive, feel more positive and think more clearly – and most of all you’ll avoid the serious health implications of burnout,’ says Shilpa.

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‘I just can’t cope – I’m constantly on edge’

This feeling of being overwhelmed can be frightening, but don’t bottle it up. ‘Burnout thrives on silence. We just keep going, especially if we’re high performers or perfectionists, trying to be everything to everybody, but sharing those feelings with friends and family, or even a GP, can really help you recognise the symptoms and make some changes,’ says Elaine. 

Diarise recharge breaks to make sure they happen, as well as regular walks, gym and yoga (or whatever fitness discipline works for you). ‘Start the day with meditation so you feel calm and anxiety-free once you start work,’ says Shilpa.

Remember, if you’re concerned about your health or that you might be facing burnout, speak to your GP. 

For other ways to improve your mood while we’re stuck working at home, read our article on why getting outside can help boost your mental health – even during the winter.

As a Vitality member, you could get 30% off an annual subscription with Headspace. Plus, earn Vitality points from other mindfulness apps. Available with eligible health insurance, life insurance and investments plans. Log in to Member Zone for the details.

Written by Marina Gask