Burnout: signs, impact, recovery and coping strategies

Deadlines, meetings and endless piles of work can create stress that often leads to hitting a breaking point. Perhaps your responsibilities and duties cause residual stress that builds up over time. In a 2018 study, the UK-based Mental Health Foundation found that “74% of people have felt so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope.” Here are some ways to overcome and avoid burnout.

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What is burnout?

Burnout is when you are unable to handle responsibilities or duties at capacity because the stress has caused you to reach your mental, emotional or physical breaking point. In the same way that a car may run out of gas without replenishing the tank, we too can grow exhausted from the overwhelming stress that our duties may bring.

We often associate burnout with professions that cause physical exhaustion, however, emotionally and mentally demanding jobs can be just as stressful. It is the very nature of mentally and/or emotionally demanding jobs that can make it difficult to maintain boundaries, as this kind of exhaustion may be difficult to acknowledge as readily as physical fatigue. It is only when those physical manifestations of mental and emotional exhaustion arise that we take notice of signs that we have reached our breaking point. Fatigue is bound to happen, but burnout is fatigue that is severe and enduring.

3 causes of burnout

1. Internal and external

The causes of burnout can be both environmental (outside of ourselves) and internal. Internal causes of burnout may include coping styles which seem helpful in the short term, but that in the longer term can cause problems, or or negative thoughts or self-beliefs. External circumstances are challenges that happen outside of ourselves. For this reason, external causes are often outside of our control and this realisation can contribute to burnout. You may be experiencing a major life event or are facing demanding work tasks. When you are not able to properly address life’s challenges, you may be at an increased risk for burnout after a point. In many cases, burnout is caused by a blend of internal and external factors.  Locating the domains in which there is stress for you can be beneficial, and a good starting point from which to take action to reduce your stress levels.

2. Occupational and personal

The most commonly-known form of burnout is related to occupation. Perhaps the consistent responsibilities of your job are causing a form of chronic fatigue. Furthering your education or working with very little personal time in your daily routine can negatively affect your ability to recover from stress over extended periods. Overbearing work demands, toxic work environments or dissatisfaction with wages are common challenges that create chronic stress. According to a 2021 survey, nearly 79% of US employees had work-related stress.

Stress outside of your job or occupation is just as challenging. Personal causes can be related to friends, family, community, personal interests or goals. This can include a major life event or grappling with a tough decision. Grieving and coping with loss is another example of a risk factor. Sometimes burnout can happen residually due to responsibilities such as caregiving for a family member or managing responsibilities as a community leader.

All of these types of burnout have the potential to escalate stress to a breaking point. Stress without healthy boundaries or helpful ways to address the stress can result in it lingering or becoming compounded, making it difficult for you to handle life’s challenges.

3. Impact of trauma

Trauma can have a profound impact on stressors and the way we may perceive or deal with stress. In the same way that trauma can make every day feel like a crisis, if your experience is one of being submerged in stress, it may be difficult to detect a breaking point as opposed to someone that has not experienced trauma. People who have experienced trauma are easily susceptible to burnout and stress due to the compacted nature of stress. Their past ways of coping with trauma may negatively impact chronic fatigue. Present stressors may trigger responses and invoke feelings related to stressors of the past, creating another barrier in dealing with stress.

Signs of burnout

There are many signs that may allude to the physical, mental or emotional exhaustion of burnout. One of the first symptoms you may notice is if work or personal duties feel demanding to the extent that there is difficulty completing them. For example, this could be in the form of an inability to perform errands such as grocery shopping or meeting work deadlines. You may feel chronic aches or pains or that the focus of every day is to survive. Severe burnout can also seem benign, such as the desire to watch excessive amounts of entertainment or the lack of motivation to maintain social connections.

Here are some examples of burnout:

  • Lack of sleep/ lack of quality sleep
  • Difficulty maintaining work/life balance
  • Feeling the need to “zone out” most days
  • Muscle tension or aches
  • Feeling tired most days
  • Feeling consistent stress or frustration
  • Having little patience consistently with others
  • Emotional outbursts or rage
  • Emotional withdrawal or Numbness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Incomplete tasks at work or delay in finishing them
  • Neglected personal errands
  • Lack of hygiene
  • Lack of engagement with family or friends
  • Dependency of non-prescribed substances such as caffeine, alcohol or drugs to get you through the day
  • No time for breaks or relaxation
  • Performing repetitive tasks without breaks
  • No time to engage with family or friends
  • Anxiousness
  • Low mood
  • General irritability
  • Heart conditions
  • Vision problems
  • Feeling dizzy

Impact of burnout on physical health

The impact of stress and burnout can create long-term physical effects. Severe burnout can affect the heart and impact our blood pressure negatively. Stress that is not dealt with may transfer into physical pain. Somatization of stress that has escalated to physical pain can manifest in many ways. Some examples may include muscle cramps, tension, heart palpitations, weight, stomach pain, eyesight complications and dizziness.

How long does burnout usually last on average?

Burnout is extended from the stress that is not managed effectively, and can resolve as the stress is dealt with. If there is no intervention, burnout can extend to extreme circumstances where it may affect physical, mental, or occupational ability. Stress can negatively affect every aspect of our lives if not properly dealt with.

Can burnout cause permanent damage?

According to a 2016 research paper, burnout can affect brain functions in extreme cases in which the stress has not been dealt with for an extended period of time. Chronic stress, resulting from burnout can not only stifle professional growth but can also overwhelm cognitive skills. It is important to consider seeking strategies to deal with stress before it elevates to severe chronic stress.

How long does it take to recover from burnout?

Burnout does not have to be a final state for you if you are seeking ways to deal with stress or recover from a stressful situation. Knowing where your sources of stress originate from and making adjustments to address avenues of stress is a helpful tactic in recovery. Having awareness of the stages of burnout provides clarity on burnout onset and can make it easier to address when spotted.

7 coping strategies for burnout

Once you have some clarity on the type of stress and where it may originate, a natural next step may be to carry out lifestyle changes that assist in coping with stressors. Finding what works for you is a process of trial and error where you are on a journey of healing and recovery. Here are some lifestyle changes that can help:

1. Deep breathing

Controlled breathing can help to slow the heart rate and restart the breathing pattern to a relaxed state. Controlled breathing can also slow the racing thoughts that can lead to stress or anxiousness.

2. Set aside relaxation time

Taking time off from work, asking for help and incorporating activities that promote relaxation can be a great way to change the stressful pace of life you may be experiencing. Some other activities include pampering yourself, getting extra sleep or enjoying some sunlight. Some people may also benefit from listening to feel-good music or engaging in a hobby they once enjoyed.

3. Be firm in setting boundaries

What do your current workload and responsibilities look like? Are all of them necessary and need to be done by you? Feeling confident about saying no and prioritising your well-being is beneficial for long-term mental wellness. This could be by requesting childcare, delaying large projects or requesting a leave of absence from work. Clearly defining your responsibilities can make it easier to complete tasks.

4. Try to follow a schedule

Efficient schedules and following through on tasks allow less stress and possibly more time away from responsibilities. When basic tasks are not completed en masse, it is understandable that you may be experiencing some level of stress and frustration. When a schedule is planned realistically and tailored to your needs, it is easier to keep and may become more natural over time.

5. Incorporate exercise into your routine

Stress is not always dealt with by slowing down, and may improve with exercise. Raising heart rate through exercise can create a release of tension, increased energy over time and a natural relaxation of the body afterwards. Some may find light exercise helps too. Overall, exercise and moving your body positively affect mental wellness. Some examples include walking, cardio exercises, pilates, lifting weights, low-impact chair exercises, or stretching. Wysa also includes a few desk exercises and yoga asanas that you can try.

6. Practice reframing negative thoughts

Stress may be an underlying cause of self-doubt, self-confidence and low mood. When we feel capable of accomplishing tasks, they are more likely to be accomplished.

7. Reaching out for assistance

Reach out to family, friends and others to ask for support in recovering from stress and maintaining a balanced life. This can include delegating tasks to others and talking frequently with those in your community.

How Wysa can help

The mental health app Wysa offers several free self-help tools and exercises for managing stress and anxiety, many of which are based on evidence-based cognitive behavioural therapy techniques. Some are based on stress, productivity and energy that can assist in recovering from burnout.

Wysa also has paid coaching services, in which qualified emotional well-being professionals can assist you in healing from burnout. Coaching takes place over live in-person sessions in which you can safely and discreetly share concerns about work or personal stressors. This provides a safe space to self-evaluate strategies for job performance, as well as support for those with many responsibilities. Reaching out for support can be your first step in your successful recovery from burnout.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

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