How Do You Actually Know If You're Experiencing Burnout?
By Bridget Minamore Posted on 4 Apr 2017
In today’s world of tumultuous politics, growing violence, and rising social tensions, there are few things I feel certain of. The fact that many of the people around me are only just hanging on is now one of them. Ever since I stumbled face first into adulthood, I’ve had a feeling that a lot of people I knew – young, creative, self-sufficient – were struggling, but last week, I got confirmation about just how hard people are finding it. Logging into Facebook, I posted ‘I’m writing an article on burning out. If anyone has any thoughts, send them over’ and then, I waited. Within a couple of days, dozens and dozens of my friends – some close, some not – had sent me almost 5000 words of thoughts and experiences, many of them painful to read. Almost everyone who sent me something was a woman. Responses varied, but they all had one thing in common: burn out was a feeling they were well acquainted with.
What does it actually mean to burn yourself out? Dr Farrah Jarral, GP and Broadcaster, says: ‘burnout is a term used to describe a feeling of exhaustion, both physical and mental, that significantly impairs your quality of life. It can include low mood, irritability and sleep disruption as well as a lack of motivation, frustration, cynicism, and feeling less pleasure in the things you used to enjoy.’ When I spoke to Psychologist and Agony Aunt Dr Petra Boynton, she added ‘We see burnout as a dramatic crisis, which very often it isn’t. It’s more mundane and debilitating over a long period.’ Reading the responses from my friends, it was clear that whilst different people might share physical and mental symptoms, their own views of burning out had a variety of different causes and outcomes.
However for a lot of my friends, burn out was simply work related. One mate told me: ‘I was having mental health problems so my career wasn’t the absolute number one priority in my life, and work didn’t like that, so it spiraled. I started getting migraines, was ill at least once a month and had suicidal thoughts, which came to a head when I just passed out after a particularly stressful day. That’s when I started making plans to quit.’ For another, it was the vicious cycle of trying to succeed that pushed them to the edge: ‘I feel bad and guilty for not being good enough and then take on work – too much work, to the point I burn out and don’t do the work properly. Then I feel bad and it starts all over again.’
It’s clear that people are simply working too hard. Britain works longer hours than most of its European Union neighbors; an average of 42.7 hours a week compared to 41.6 across the EU. While this may not seem like much, even more worryingly is the fact Britain has the highest percentage of part-time workers in Europe (27% compared to an average of 20%), as well as the fastest growing number of self-employed workers. Incomes for the self-employed have also fallen faster in recent years compared to other types of worker. As Tory austerity measures continue to be implemented in the UK, people are working longer hours but have less job security – as well as less access to benefits and state financial help. Traditionally, you are far more likely to be a part-time or self-employed worker the older you get. But as the numbers of younger freelance and part-time workers continue to rise, it’s clear the country is raising a generation of people who will begin and end their careers in a state of precarious employment. When we factor in a housing crisis that means young people often spend most of their income on renting homes they are forced to move on from every year, it’s no wonder so many of us are working ourselves to the bone.
Dr Boynton pointed out how many of the Agony Aunt letters she received revolved around burnout. However, she added, ‘I don’t think it’s a ‘thing’ as in something new. We’ve had to struggle with overwork, stress, ill health and exhaustion for hundreds of years. Perhaps what people find difficult now is the belief they should always be coping, or the incorrect assumption everyone else is doing okay, it’s only you that’s at fault/struggling. That can be difficult to manage, and often stops people seeking help or noting they aren’t alone.’ With society encouraging a culture that venerates overwork, and EU workers’ protections at risk of being rolled back post-Brexit, the future for many of us is not looking good. Even the current political climate of Brexit contributes to burnout: many of my friends who have taken up activism over the past few months admitted they are exhausted but feel like they must ‘do something’, while others say the mental toll of worrying about the possibly precarious immigration status of themselves or their families is making them ill. All of which fuels a need to save more money (ergo, work more) ‘just in case’. Dr Boynton added ‘political changes could mean living with daily microaggressions or outright racism may be enough to bring about burnout anyway, or make people more fearful of seeking help in case others view them negatively – and that in turn affects their security, safety, etc.’
When we continue to factor in this need to work ourselves sick alongside the various intersections of our identities, the reasons why we burn out become even more complex. People from BME or working class backgrounds often need to prove themselves more in the workplace, and so will often push themselves more – the irony being the work of BME and working class people is regularly dismissed or devalued. Austerity measures also hit working class, female, and BME people the hardest and so many are forced to work harder just to survive. Class is key when we look at why people burn out; one friend mentioned moving home after a work-related break down, then added ‘when I say ‘move home’, I meant pay rent to live in my Nan’s spare room’, and another spoke about the pressures of paying her Mum’s bills. One friend even cited her status as a second-generation immigrant: ‘I feel like I have to push through because of this; I’m not ‘soft’ and white like English people. Things don’t get put on [immigrants’] plates.’
Amongst everyone I spoke to, burning out felt very gendered, too – the few male mates who contacted me specified how difficult it was to admit they were struggling. Comparatively, one female friend told me: ‘I give off the impression that I’m a doer. People find it easier to come to me and ask for labour than they would someone else, and I am easily flattered when it looks like people recognise my effort or ability.’ Another admitted ‘[my burnout is] linked to my social conditioning – like many women I want people to like me, I want to please, I want to be good. Also, like many feminists, I want to be independent, solvent, on top of my game.’ It’s also important to remember that even gender-based violence can compound the stresses of work. One friend divulged, ‘the pressure at work is unbearable. At first I said, ‘just keep going until Christmas’. At Christmas I was sexually harassed at work. In the New Year they started asking me to work well beyond my contracted hours, and recently they started making redundancies. If my mum wasn’t able to talk to me everyday to help me, and I didn’t have a therapist, I would have broken down totally. I’m coping now, but there’s no room for anything to go wrong – in my personal life for example. It’s very lonely.’
The physical consequences of burning out are wide-ranging, and often deeply frustrating. Amongst my friends, people who had experienced burnt out told me about stress-related viruses so bad they could barely walk, collapsing, panic attacks, asthma, fibroids, tonsillitis, anxiety, increased IBS symptoms, parts of their body going numb, and their hair or eyelashes falling out. When I burnt out last year I broke out in hives all over my face and chest, which not only made me feel awful but also made me stay indoors – something that isn’t great for someone who often runs workshops with young people. The domino effect is a frustrating one: you’re burning out so you don’t eat or sleep properly, which leads to health issues and clumsiness, or you’re typing all day, which means your RSI flares up.
For people who already have physical disabilities, burning out can be doubly frustrating, and even more severely detrimental to their health. A freelance friend with a hidden disability told me how difficult it is when people expect you to keep going when you ‘don’t look sick’, and another pointed out the paradox of her disabled status at work: ‘it’s hard as a chronically ill person to say ‘yes I’m symptomatic but safe to work’ and still have agency in my decisions to work. So ironically, burnout often manifests because I’m afraid people will interpret me being ill as being unable to manage myself. Or people judge me getting ill as being less capable – so I push harder to prove I can do my job. Also, there’s the need to be exceptional as a disabled person for people to take you seriously.’
‘Burnout is real and sometimes happens because we don’t stop and ask why people are doing so much,’ a different friend told me. So what are we supposed to do about it? GP Dr Jarral emphasized the importance of seeking medical help early on, and I agree with her. For years I assumed my winter-related exhaustion was just Christmas burnout coupled with Seasonal Affective Disorder, but this winter decided to ask my GP to run some tests. As it turns out I was hugely Vitamin D deficient, and as soon as I started taking supplements, a large chunk of my exhaustion was gone. Dr Jarral added, ‘burnout requires reevaluating your life and priorities. Sometimes some good advice is what’s needed – about setting boundaries, avoiding overwork, learning to say no, and reducing stress.’
Burnout is something more and more of us are battling with, and unfortunately, there aren’t any easy answers about what to do. ‘It would be great if there was a magic, quick fix, for burnout’ Dr Boynton says. ‘Often people are encouraged towards ‘self care’ as a means to address burnout, but it’s repackaged frequently in commercial terms – buy a new lipstick or have a pedicure. This might help, but very often it excludes those who’re struggling financially, or are experiencing burnout because of life situations a bubble bath’s never going to fix. It’s not really what self-care truly means, and it’s not going to help a person who has burnout because the life they’re required to live is unfair and unequal. That is a very different situation, and in that case it’s not about thinking positive or cutting back, but seeking help from other agencies, or asking friends you trust to help you work things out.’ The problem with burning out is that it’s less about you, and more about the structures around you. We are working too hard, too much, and the pressure to keep calm and carry on in the face of a rapidly bleak future is clearly affecting many people in the UK. As cuts continue, work hours increase, the cost of living gets higher, and the political climate more toxic, perhaps all we can hope for is a commitment to look out for one another a little bit more. Ask how people are doing ,offer all the help you can, and invest time and energy into the community immediately around you. All we’ve got is each other, and with the government we’ve got, it looks like that’s the way it’s going to be for a long time.
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Follow Bridget on Twitter @bridgetminamore
This article originally appeared on The Debrief.
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