Burnout is an increasingly common affliction, yet it’s not actually recognised by healthcare professionals. Why is that? Well, the trouble is that burnout is often brought on by multiple issues—among them, anxiety, insomnia, depression and adrenal fatigue—and it affects everyone slightly differently.
And it isn’t a new phenomenon: The term was actually coined back in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. Back then, it was used to describe the result of severe stress, especially among those who helped others, such as doctors and nurses. These people wound up “exhausted, listless and unable to cope.”
Nowadays, the term is used to describe anyone who feels so overwhelmed (be it with their job or with their personal life) that they can’t function. The trouble is that in this modern society where we’re all busy and we all feel like we should all be overachieving just to be noticed, how do we know if we’re headed for burnout?
We asked three people who have suffered with burnout to share the tell-tale signs.
How would you describe burnout?
“I didn’t realise I had ‘burnt out’ until it was too late. Consequently, I was signed off work for two months,” says Kate Morgan, who works in PR. “Looking back, there were warning signs and I should have paid attention to; I was burning the candle at both ends. I went to work one morning feeling horrendous, but I couldn’t put my finger on why that was.
“I got to my desk, turned on my computer and a cold sweat starting dripping from the back of my neck. As I wiped the sweat away, my hands felt clammy, and then my head started pounding. My colleagues quickly quipped ‘You don’t look well—you should go home.’ I booked a taxi straight to the doctor, and I told her ‘I don’t know why I don’t feel well; I just don’t.’
“She asked me to describe my typical day and lifestyle, and upon receiving this information asked ‘Why have you been working from 9-to-5 and then entertaining clients four nights a week after your working day, every week for the past year?’ She signed me off work for eight weeks then and there, and explained that my body and mind needed to recover from the excessive go-go-go lifestyle I had been leading.”
Looking back, there were warning signs and I should have paid attention to.
A journalist I spoke to who wanted to remain anonymous told a similar story: “I was exhausted yet wired. It was an adrenalin rush but not in a good way—I was tired, bad tempered, anxious and always in a rush. There was never a spare second.”
Influencer Lindsey Holland—known as Ropes of Holland to her followers—is not only a blogger but also a physiotherapist in elder-care by day. She described her feelings of burnout in a frank post on her website, Living a Double Life.
“I didn’t cope well with stress. I was wildly anxious about a lot of things, mainly things that I couldn’t control,” she wrote. “I found it hard to find logic in problems. I was a terrible sleeper. I was always emotional. I was clingy to those I love. I would bury my head in the sand over any problem that came my way. I would cancel plans with friends almost as soon as I was making them.”
Was the burnout work-related?
Holland’s burnout came from trying to carry out two full-time jobs successfully, but is work always to blame?
“I know that some people have social burnout that I’ve heard of, but mine was work related,” explained our anonymous journalist. “I read my emails while I bathed my son and didn’t listen to him. I couldn’t sleep, and I would wake at 2 a.m. thinking about work dilemmas and email myself notes in case I forgot by the morning.”
“Very much, yes,” agrees Morgan. “I personally wanted to do well—get ahead, climb the ranks, etc. I was producing good results, and the adrenalin of wanting to keep going, keep achieving, keep setting and pushing personal work goals I had set for myself all came to a head. The body can only be pushed so much,” she adds.
How did you get better?
With burnout, everyone’s route to feeling themselves again differs, as does their doctor’s willingness to diagnose them. In Morgan’s case, her doctor spotted it right away, while our anonymous journalist took a private adrenal test as part of a feature that led her to re-evaluate her life. “I was told that if I didn’t change something, I would burn out within two years,” she told me.
For Ropes of Holland, her doctor diagnosed the individual problems she was dealing with. “I called in sick to work and took myself to the doctor,” she writes. “Hearing the doctor tell me that I was underweight, had low blood pressure and was suffering this attack because of exhaustion absolutely kicked me into touch.
“From that day, and don’t get me wrong, it was not instant, I took every step possible to make my life more balanced, happier and calmer. I booked a dream holiday and quit my day job with the intention that I would consider more physio work when I was ready. I was in a very lucky position because Ropes of Holland was keeping me financially stable at this time.
“I’ve been back at my physio job for 2 weeks now,” Holland wrote back in June. “For the first week, I cried every single day. I can no longer run two full time jobs, and that’s okay,” says Holland.
In hindsight, Morgan wishes she had made the most of being signed off work the first time around to heal more. “I was still checking work emails every day (not necessary with a doctor’s note, but I did it anyway). I was on full pay while off, and I should have just taken the time and got better quicker. I went back to the office and got signed off again. That time, I listened to my body—I rested and checked out so I could recover from my burnout.
“It actually prompted me to rethink my whole lifestyle, my goals and what I really want out of this life. Consequently, I now live in America. I started my own PR firm (my rules, my time, my way), and I am enjoying being busy and successful but also knowing to ‘stop and pause’ before my body creates a non-negotiable stop-and-pause,” says Morgan.
Our anonymous journalist quit her job before burnout could strike. “The doctors recommended yoga, but with a fast-paced job, a second job building, a 2-year-old and no family help nearby, the thought of trying to fit that into my life stressed me out even more. Something had to go, and my day job was the only thing I could let go of.”
What did burnout teach you?
“It’s just so important that we take the time we need to enjoy our lives as much as we possibly can, and we’re the only people that can make that happen, ultimately. You have to make yourself happy before you can make anyone else happy. As someone said to me recently, “You can’t pour from an empty glass,” and that’s stuck with me like velcro!” says Holland.
For Morgan, it’s about being listening to her body. She’s expecting a baby, so she has to do it for her child. “I will tune into my body and listen to what it is telling me. If I need to take a ‘me’ day, I’ll make up for it the next day. As long as my clients are being serviced and getting results (they all are) the 9-to-5 concept, for me, has gone out the window. I’ll work when I’m at my peak and rest when I’m not; that’s what burnout taught me.”
It’s just so important that we take the time we need to enjoy our lives as much as we possibly can.
“I took my work/life balance into my own hands,” says our anonymous journalist. “I don’t work past 9 p.m.—my laptop goes down. I take my son to nursery, and I don’t ditch him as I walk through the door! I sit him down and pour his breakfast and make sure he’s okay. I’ve alleviated the guilt. I work on what I want to when I want to.”
Next up: how to cope with stress by the women who work in A&E.