Dealing with burnout: How to recognise and recover

By Jessica Forster

In today’s rise and grind-culture, where we often wear our busy schedules as a badge of honour, burnout has become a common and concerning issue. In 2022, a survey of more than 3,000 participants showed that 88% of people have experienced burnout in the past couple of years. Burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. 

Unfortunately, because of its prevalence, it is often not taken seriously enough. While it’s easy to overlook the early signs, burnout can have serious consequences for your health and wellbeing. As with many things, acknowledging it is the first step towards healing. Recognising burnout can be tricky since it often creeps up slowly, making it challenging to pinpoint when it began and how severe it is. However, understanding the common symptoms and engaging in some honest self-reflection can help you identify them and take action.

Noticing the signs

Burnout takes a toll on your body and your mind. On the physical side of things, you may experience unexplained headaches, stomach aches, or muscle tension. Chronic fatigue, sleep disturbances, and changes in appetite are also common. These physical symptoms are your body’s way of signalling that something is wrong and they should not be ignored. One of the hallmark signs of burnout is emotional exhaustion. You may find yourself feeling constantly drained, irritable, and overwhelmed. Simple tasks that used to bring joy can become emotionally taxing. You might also notice increased cynicism, a loss of enthusiasm, and a growing sense of detachment from your work or personal life. If you’re finding yourself getting tearful at the smallest things or the start of your work day every day is feeling like climbing a mountain, this is not a sign that you’re weak or not working hard enough but instead a sign that you need to be doing less and showing yourself some kindness.

Burnout can fog your mental clarity and cause you to have difficulties with concentration, memory issues and decision making. This can have a serious knock-on effect on many aspects of your life including productivity. This means the common response of “just buckle down and work harder” to get through is only going to make things exponentially worse. It essentially gets you stuck in a loop of doing too much, causing you stress, the stress making it harder to get things down, then having to work even harder to get the same amount done therefore causing more stress. The only way out is to break the cycle.

Another sign that you’re being overloaded is a change in your behaviours and experiences. Burnout will influence your neurochemistry, energy levels and motivation. For a lot of people, this will manifest as withdrawing and isolating from loved ones and using unhealthy coping mechanisms to get through such a difficult time. This is another reason why it can go on for so long without being truly acknowledged because unhealthy coping mechanisms numb the warning signs in the short term and keeping people at arm’s length often makes it harder for them to see that you’re struggling.

Assessing the situation

Burnout is a spectrum and figuring out where you are at involves two key things; honesty and self-compassion. This is not a reflection of your abilities or work ethic, just the internal resources you currently have available to you. It may help to see your energy and resilience in the same way a company sees its revenue; it will fluctuate over time and has to be managed. Sometimes the business is flush and there’s plenty available for operations, investment and growth. Sometimes it’s a difficult quarter or costs are high, so there needs to be some careful budgeting so as not to go into debt. But if you continue overspending while already in debt, you’re going to go bankrupt.

There are a few exercises that I have my clients do for self-reflection and assessment. Firstly make a list of the physical, mental and emotional symptoms of burnout mentioned above. For each, ask yourself if this is something you experience, how often and when was the last time you went a long time without experiencing it. If you find you have been experiencing multiple symptoms frequently or for an extended period then that is not something that will go away on its own. This is your “check engine” light that it’s time you paid attention to.

Next, make a list of the different aspects of your life. This can include work, study, relationships, family, health, finances, etc. and those can be broken down into subcategories, for example, work can be deadlines, meetings, environment, work-life balance, etc. For each of these rate out of 10 the impact you feel they are having on your well-being and then write some of the emotions they are causing. This could look like “deadlines – 9/10 – overwhelmed and discouraged”. It may sound simple, but it can be an effective way to identify the factors having the greatest effect. The higher the score, the more urgently it needs to be addressed.

Masking your struggles in front of others can become such an automatic response that we end up doing the same for ourselves. Denial is a huge part of how burnout thrives long-term, so plastering a smile over the top of it and hoping it goes away will only ever make it harder for you. During your reflections, take your time and be realistic with your answers. The instinct to undermine your experiences may be strong, but it’s time to take off the mask. Some of my clients find the most surprising but helpful result of this exercise is the feelings that arise. Be aware that this can cause unexpected emotional reactions, try to give those feelings the time and space they deserve and treat yourself with gentle compassion throughout the process.

Recovering and recharging

Once burnout has been recognised, the next step is to prioritise your healing. Burnout is not a life sentence and it is completely doable to get back to your old self and thrive. However, it needs to be an active and intentional choice to work on this.

This doesn’t need to be a solo battle, call in some reinforcements. There is nothing shameful or embarrassing about experiencing burnout. It can do wonders to start a dialogue with those in your personal and professional life. Given how common it is, there’s a high chance that you’ll have very similar experiences reflected back to you.

Firstly, you can choose friends and family that you feel the most comfortable with and ask for their support. This could be as an accountability partner that helps ensure you’re sticking to your recovery goals and not continuing to overwork yourself. It also helps to have someone who encourages you to spend more time on the things that bring you joy. Sometimes when burnout takes away your energy and motivation, loved ones interpret this as disinterest in spending time with them. It can be great for both sides if you make them aware that you want to hang out, but occasionally you might need some encouragement and persistence.

Next, you may want to try to discuss with employers or managers where you’re currently at with your burnout and what assistance can be provided in the workplace for support. This could include reviewing working hours, deadlines or regular check-ins. The exercise mentioned above for identifying your greatest stressors can be a great guide for the areas of your responsibilities that could benefit from changes and accommodations.

Another key role of staying on track with recovery is setting boundaries. Unfortunately, a lot of people at many points in their lives have been fed the message that saying “no” makes them rude, unhelpful or unlikeable. In reality, the ability to firmly set boundaries is an incredibly healthy and admirable skill. Part of the healing process involves cutting back on the things that caused you the excessive stress. Once you’ve decided on how to implement those changes and made people aware of them, it’s up to them whether they respect and honour that. Your choice is whether to tolerate those that don’t. For example, let’s say your workload is at capacity for the hours you are contracted for but your colleague continues to put more on your plate despite you having expressed your limits clearly. If you accept this as “just one more time”, then that enables their disrespect and ensures they will continue to push your boundaries until you are at breaking point. It can take time and be an uncomfortable adjustment, but being helpful should never come at the expense of your health. Furthermore, those that don’t understand that, don’t deserve your help in the first place.

Finally and possibly most importantly, remember that self-care is not a luxury; it’s an absolute necessity for maintaining good mental health. This doesn’t mean your struggles will be solved by a couple of bubble baths and a cup of tea. Self-care doesn’t have to look like it does on Instagram for it to work. It’s about finding what brings you enough peace to recharge your batteries and then making it a non-negotiable part of your routine. So yes, that may include baths and tea. Or it could be reading, journaling, meditation, nature, learning, art, music, socialising, exercise or anything that replenishes you instead of draining you. Allow yourself time to explore and feel; be present in the moment without your to-do list weighing over you. Treat resting and recharging with as much if not more importance as the other responsibilities in your life that you give so much of your energy to. Not only will you feel better, but all those other aspects of your life will benefit from it too.

Remember that burnout isn’t a character failing, it can happen to anyone at any point in their life. It’s okay to ask for help, take a step back, and make your wellbeing a top priority. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a mental health professional for support. You can also consider reassessing your goals and priorities. Are they aligned with your values and what truly matters to you? Sometimes, burnout is a sign that you’ve been chasing someone else’s definition of success. Whether that’s the case or not, sometimes the greatest strength comes from rest and recuperation.

About the author

Jessica Forster is a Holistic Health & Wellness Specialist and Founder of Empowered Health Education. As a licensed yoga teacher with qualifications ranging across nutrition, physical training, mental health and hormone management, Jessica works with her clients to map out and execute a balanced health plan that addresses the full picture. She is dedicated to empowering individuals to take control of their own well-being through education, support and personalised guidance. She specialises in providing a practical, realistic and compassionate approach to health, with an emphasis on understanding and supporting the different needs of an individual, instead of a one-size-fits-all mindset.

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