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The Science Behind Why We Get Burnout

Burning out is one of the major reasons for employees taking time off sick, we spoke to experts about the science behind burnout, and how you can keep yourself from running on empty

Stress, exhaustion and burnout sometimes feel like inevitable side effects of modern life. When we're all so busy working, playing, and burning the candle at both ends, how is anyone ever meant to avoid the occasional bout of feeling totally and utterly worn out?

Burning out is one of the major reasons for employees taking time off sick, and it can have a huge impact on all areas of your life, affecting your work, your social life, and your mental and physical health. We spoke to the experts about the science behind burnout, and how you can keep yourself from running on empty.

Dr Alexandra Phelan is an NHS GP and Online Doctor with, and says burnout is simply: 'your body's way of telling you that you need a break.' Symptoms to look out for, she says, include 'extreme tiredness, feeling irritable, finding things you normally enjoy less pleasurable, frequent bouts of ill health, and depression or anxiety.'

Typically, burnout is caused by prolonged periods of overwork and stress, without a proper break or holiday to let your body recharge. 'People who play hard and work hard are particularly prone to burnout and that can often be an issue for people attempting to establish themselves in a career,' Alex says. 'You are amazing but you're not superhuman.'

This was the case for 26-year-old Jade, who burned out while working with her partner in his fast-growing business. 'I lost sight of any balance, as I became consumed by one element of my life. I was working long hours, stopped exercising, had a poor diet, and no interest in socialising outside of work hours,' she says.

Too many of us are guilty of brushing off these periods as a 'normal' part of working life, but Alex warns that extreme tiredness can have a significant impact on our health. 'If your body and mind do not have sufficient time to switch off and relax, there is an increased risk of succumbing to minor ailments and infections such as colds and cold sores,' she says.

'Your body needs to be healthy and well maintained in order to function effectively and fight infection. People approaching burnout are often physically and mentally tired, and may not be eating healthily. These are all factors that increase the potential for mental and physical health problems.'

Likewise, she explains, long-term stress can increase your risk of high blood pressure, substance misuse, and having an accident. 24-year-old Rosie* first realised she needed help when the increased stress of an unexpected promotion at work led to her having a panic attack while driving.

'The promotion was flattering, but it was so much more work and responsibility. I had a lot of stressful projects at work and I got to a point where I just crumbled! I felt like I couldn’t juggle it all, especially having to do a lot of work outside of working hours,' she says.

'One day I was driving home and realised I was having a panic attack because I'd been thinking about work. As I drive quite far, and on 70mph roads, I realised I needed to go and see my doctor, because it could have been serious if I'd not been able to keep control of the car. It was only once I'd made the decision to go and see her that I really realised I hadn't been eating, sleeping, or relaxing properly at all for weeks.'

For 23-year-old mental health campaigner Tamanna, her busy schedule of campaigning, volunteering, and travelling across the country to deliver workshops, makes her susceptible to regular periods of burnout. 'I end up becoming prone to illness and viral infections, forgetfulness, anger, chronic fatigue, headaches, feeling sick, poor concentration, insomnia, and an increase in my depression and anxiety,' she says.

It's a grim picture that's all too familiar for many of us, but burnout shouldn't be an inevitable part of working life. Chartered psychologist, yoga teacher, and wellbeing coach Suzy Reading says self-care is a really crucial way to tackle and prevent feelings of burnout.

'The key is to find acts of nourishment that take little time, energy or expense and creating daily rituals around them, or taking micro-moments to recharge - like sitting at your desk and doing some shoulder rolls, or popping on some scented hand cream and relishing the fragrance,' she says.

'It helps you to cope and recover when you're burnt out, and provides a protective buffer against future stresses. We will still experience stress but it is less likely to knock us for six,' Suzy adds.

When it comes to your career, it may sound easier said than done, but maintaining a positive work-life balance and taking time out for yourself really can make all the difference. 'Take a break, relax, and ensure that you make the most of your time away from the 9 to 5,' recommends Dr Alex. 'Some level of exercise is healthy but think carefully about whether you're overdoing it. Your body will tell you when you're overdoing things so listen out for the warning signs.'

Tamanna says she tries to avoid burnout by taking a day, weekend or week off whenever she can, as well as taking breaks from social media, and getting outside in the sunshine and fresh air if she's been stuck indoors for too long.

Of course, having a strong support network both at and away from work is also really important, and Dr Alex says responsible employers should be able to recognise the warning signs. After being signed off with stress for two weeks, Rosie says her boss's understanding has eased the pressure of going back to work.

'She's been really supportive and taken away some of my responsibilities. I'm having weekly meetings with my boss, taking it one step at a time, and trying to stay calm to make sure it doesn't happen again,' Rosie says.

For Jade though, the solution was a total career change. 'I needed to reboot and took a month off work, before deciding that I needed to make big changes,' she explains. 'I now work as a creative freelancer, utilising a wide variety of my skills. The flexibility and variation in my day-to-day life now means I'm constantly meeting new people, and I feel like I am leading a much more fulfilling life.'

She also took up regular yoga, as part of what she describes as a much more balanced lifestyle. To tackle burnout, Suzy recommends stretches that focus on breathing and relaxation. 'Try simple yoga poses like a lying down twist, child's pose, or lying with your legs up the wall or over the sofa. The prayer salute is particularly helpful," she suggests. 'Allowing your breath four phases of inhalation, pause, exhalation, pause, is also very soothing and can be done anywhere,' Suzy adds.

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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.