The phrases ‘burnout’, ‘lockdown fatigue’ and ‘emotional depletion’ have been thrown around a lot on the last year or so, but particularly in the last six months. Every time we log on to social media we new articles and discussions about these states of psychological distress and how the entire world seemed to simultaneously experience a coordinated grind to a halt.
Our minds have been under immense pressure and stress for the last year. Everyone’s world has been turned upside down without warning and for a long time there was no end in sight. With our brains on hyper-alert, we’ve been trying to handling immensely anxious times while also going about our day to day lives as much as possible – burning the candle at both ends, so to speak.
This was sustainable for a surprisingly long time for most of us. It was only in January that people really began to crash and the term ‘burnout’ was being used more and more frequently.
This tracks with what we know of burnout.
It’s not a sudden and overwhelming condition that just happens to show up one morning. It’s the result of being too depleted for too long. A sign chronic psycho-social stress, the pandemic and working from home was the perfect storm to generate a wave of burned-out workers across the globe.
Our work and home lives became enmeshed and almost inseparable, we were under constant emotional stress for both our own health and the health of our loved ones, as well as the added stressor of functioning within the work place with no boundaries, no social outlet to let off steam and no security in our day to day lives anymore.
Because burnout is a gradual process, there is a chance for it to be stopped in its tracks before you succumb to it completely. This condition affects the brain and the body and both of them issue warning signs to tell us that we cannot keep up with the demands of our psyche. When our emotional and physical resources like resilience, sleep, a good diet, positivity and adaptability begin to falter, burnout is sure to follow if we keep dipping into those resources without taking the time to fill them back up again.
Early warning signs
Some of the early warning signs are chronic fatigue, pessimism, Sunday night ‘blues’ or ‘scaries’ and dreading going to work. There’s a certain amount of this that’s normal – feeling like you want your weekend to last is a thought that everyone has had. But when you’re stomach drops at the thought of showing up for work tomorrow and you’re filled with anxiety for no good reason, then it might be time to look at why that is.
You may experience physical symptoms that work is wearing you out, like headaches, muscle tensions, inability to sleep, nausea or backaches. A lot of these are the body showing the physical toll of stress, especially the lack of sleep, which ties in with the chronic fatigue mentioned earlier. Anxious racing thoughts may keep you from drifting off or result in a poor night’s sleep. Muscle tension in the neck and back can be down to poor posture, but it can also be your body’s way of telling you to take a break.
Your attitude and work performance may also start to suffer. You may be making ‘silly’ mistakes, be complaining a lot, have a negative or critical attitude or be neglecting your own needs. A mistake here and there is normal, but if you’re continually missing the mark, it might be time to take a step back. The negative attitude and complaining could be directed towards the things or people around you or it may even be directed at yourself. Feelings of stress can often turn inwards, and the person can berate themselves for not being able to cope or handle the stressors that life brings. If you’ve noticed you’re on-edge about seemingly small things, it’s time to self-assess.
Neglecting your own needs, however, is a major sign you’re heading for burnout. When working overtime, meeting deadlines and being available to work takes unreasonable priority over things like your diet, social engagements and sleep, that’s when it’s a clear sign that your work life is taking over to an unhealthy degree.
Signs you’ve hit burnout
When the demands of your job outweigh the available coping supports and emotional/psychological resources, the mind attacks itself with assertions of worthlessness. Burnout is often misdiagnosed as depression because they share a lot of symptoms.
Giving up on professional or personal goals, withdrawal from loved ones and friends and reordering priorities to put work first are all signs that you have hit burnout. Work comes first and anything that gets in the way – even if it would be good for you – is not a priority. It can be hard to see beyond the current moment making future planning difficult. You’re also very worn out by this point so planning ahead isn’t something you have the energy for.
Denying problems like lack of sleep and social life, experiencing overwhelming feelings of inadequacy, numbness or emptiness make it difficult to perform your normal routine meaning that lots of other things get compromised. Your work performance, your relationships and your health. You’re easily set off because your anxious thoughts are at an all-time high and it feels like there’s no way to get on top of this.
Some workplaces provide Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) which can allow you to attend confidential counselling and guidance, so it’s worth checking out if your workplace provides a programme like that. If not, there are other places to seek help and mental health support.
Pieta House is the Irish centre for the prevention of self-harm or suicide. If you need help, they can be contacted at (01) 6010000
Mental Health First Aid is not a crisis helpline, but has resources available to people developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis. The first aid is given until appropriate professional treatment is received or until the crisis resolves and their website can be found here.
Samaritans is a service that can be used either if your situation feels more urgent, or if you feel like all you need is a good chat. There are 20 branches of Samaritans in Ireland with volunteers ready to answer the phone if you feel overwhelmed. Contact them at 116 123.