What is burnout and can I do anything about it?

Behaviour Change Adviser at Bupa UK
24 October 2019

Getting up in the morning and going to work with a sense of purpose is good for us. But sometimes, if our working environment isn’t right, it can affect not just our physical health but our mental health too. Recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) – an organisation dedicated to improving the world’s health and wellbeing – classified burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’. But what exactly is burnout and can you do anything about it? Here I explain.

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What is burnout?

Burnout is descried as an ‘occupational phenomenon’, meaning that although it’s not a medical condition, it’s something that people would seek help and support for. It’s used to describe what happens when you are stressed and under pressure at work for a long time. When this stress isn’t managed, you may experience burnout.

How does burnout make you feel?

If you are experiencing burnout, you may:

  • lack energy and feel emotionally exhausted
  • feel negatively about your work – you may feel detached from it or cynical about it
  • be less efficient at work and feel inadequate or unable to accomplish things

How will burnout affect me?

Burnout can affect both your physical and mental health. For example, people experiencing burnout are more likely to have problems with their heart and circulation. They may also have symptoms of depression and trouble sleeping.

But burnout can also affect your working life. You may feel dissatisfied at work and be more likely to take time off or leave. Or, you may feel pressure to be present and seen to be busy doing things. Because burnout can affect so many different aspects of your life, it’s important to deal with it right away. Here we explore what causes burnout and how you can manage it.

What causes burnout?

It’s thought that there are six key areas that can contribute to burnout.

1. Workload

If you can’t keep up with your workload, you won’t have the opportunity to rest and recover, and this can lead to burnout. On the other hand, being able to manage your workload allows you to give tasks the time and effort they need, and even expand on and develop new skills.

2. Control and autonomy

A lack of control or autonomy over your work, i.e. what you do, and when and how you do it, can lead to burnout. To avoid this, it’s important to maintain a level of control where you can – this could be as simple as choosing what tasks to get stuck into each day.

3. Recognition and reward

If we aren’t recognised or rewarded for doing a good job, we may start to feel depleted and may even entertain the idea that we’re not doing a good job.

4. Community and relationships

Feeling connected and part of a team that works well together helps people to avoid burnout. When we have this sense of community, we feel supported and engaged with our jobs. However, if tensions are running high or there’s a lack of support, we risk experiencing burnout.

5. Fairness and respect

Being treated fairly at work is important and can help to prevent burnout. If we’re not treated fairly, this injustice can cause us to feel angry and hostile. This negative association can get us down and cause us to experience burnout.

6. Values

If there’s a disconnect between our personal values and the values of the organisation we work for, we may feel compromised. Believing in what we do is an important motivator. And if our values are lost or undermined, we may begin to see work as merely an exchange of time for money, which makes us more likely to experience burnout.

How can I prevent burnout?

Now that we’ve explored the six main areas that contribute to burnout, we can start to look at how you can prevent or manage it. You may have identified areas in that list that are affecting you, but it can take time to address them. Luckily, there are other steps you can take to help reduce the effects of burnout.

Sleep

When we’re overworked, our sleep can be one of the first things to suffer. Perhaps you stay up late or get up early in an attempt to make a dent in your to-do list. However, after just 17 hours awake – for example, if you were to wake up at 5.30am and continue working until 10.30pm – your attention and cognitive control may be almost equivalent to the legal blood alcohol limit for driving.

To help stave off burnout, give yourself permission to get those seven to nine hours of sleep each night. And if you’re having difficulty sleeping, be sure to seek help from a medical professional.

Exercise

Being physically active is one of the best things you can do to improve your physical health, but it also has benefits for your mental health. Large studies have found that people who exercise regularly report fewer days of poor mental health. It also has protective effects against conditions like depression , which can be a long-term consequence of prolonged burnout. But don’t worry if the gym isn’t your thing – there are lots of ways you can add more activity into your life. Try getting active during the ad breaks of your favourite show or slot a 15-minute body weight workout into your day.

Stay connected

Humans are inherently social creatures, so spending time with people you love may help you to relax and unwind. Time with family and friends may be something you lose when you feel stressed and overworked, in favour of more time at the office. But support from loved ones can have a number of benefits on both your physical and mental health.

Get creative

Therapies that use creative techniques – such as art, music, dance or drama – have been shown to reduce stress. One study with a sample of healthy adults found that time spent working on a creative outlet was linked with an increase in positive emotions and a decrease in negative ones. Taking part in these creative activities may also give you something else to focus on outside of work. If you don’t know where to start, try something like daily journaling.

Practise mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on the present moment and being an impartial observer of thoughts and emotions as they pass by. Many studies have linked the practice with improved wellbeing, and it has been shown to reduce burnout scores in healthcare professionals. Just taking a moment to focus on your breathing when you feel stressed could be helpful.


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If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. If you’re covered by your health insurance, you’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

Juliet Hodges
Behaviour Change Adviser at Bupa UK

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