A Guide to Burnout: Chronic Fatigue & Exhaustion

We all have stressful days. But when stress, concerns and intense work pressures go untreated, it can very quickly result in burnout and its associated fatigue and exhaustion.

In fact, 595,000 people in the UK suffered from workplace stress in 2018 while online searches for terms around burnout and its symptoms were up 24% in 2020 compared to the previous year. A recent study showed that the average professional experiences burnout by the age of 32, while 60% of Gen Z workers say they’re already feeling worn down by our contemporary ‘always on’ work culture. It would seem that burnout is more common than you might have first thought.

But what exactly is burnout? What are the main symptoms and signs of burnout? And what’s the best treatment for job related stress? The below guide should answer all your questions.

What is Burnout?

You might think of it as a fairly new phenomenon or the product of our always-on modern day culture, but the term burnout is actually believed to have been coined in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to describe the extreme stress condition that can lead to severe physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. 

While it isn’t classed as a medical condition, The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises it as an occupational phenomenon. Specific to working life, it’s “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and it is characterised by feelings of complete exhaustion, negativity and reduced efficiency. 

Put simply, it’s when the pressures and stresses of normal working life become too much for you to handle and you simply can’t cope anymore. You could suffer from chronic fatigue or have major emotional exhaustion. You might feel totally disengaged from the job in hand, have major Sunday blues thinking about heading into the office the next day or struggle to get through the working day without feeling totally stressed out and unable to concentrate. The feeling of reaching breaking point isn’t purely emotional or psychological, burnout can manifest in more physical ways too.

Furthermore, even though it isn’t considered medical, if left untreated or you decide to simply ‘soldier on’ through the stress, it can lead to much more serious conditions like depression.

Burnout Symptoms

While the causes of burnout will vary depending on each person’s individual work situation, tasks and goals, there are a list of common symptoms that can be considered signs of burnout or symptoms of exhaustion. If you think you might be burnt out, ask yourself if any of the below apply to you.

You’ve become negative or overly critical 

At the point of total emotional exhaustion, it can be hard to muster up even an ounce of positivity. Those experiencing burnout tend to become more pessimistic than usual and become even more critical about their work situation. Problem is, negative thoughts fester and multiply, which in turn, can make the burnout even more severe. 

You have extreme fatigue 

Chronic fatigue is one of the more physical symptoms of burnout. Even if you manage to get sleep at night, while you’re awake, cortisol levels are high and your body spends so much time in its high alert mode that you never feel truly rested.

You lack concentration and productivity 

At the point of burnout, it can be tricky to concentrate on the task in hand, which means productivity might slip. Furthermore, if you’ve reached burnout because you have too many tasks on your plate, it can be hard to focus long enough to get even the smallest thing done as your mind is constantly pondering the rest of your to-do list.

You lack job satisfaction 

This goes hand in hand with the increase in negativity; because you’re feeling so down about things, you struggle to appreciate the small wins or positive moments. Furthermore, as you’re no longer enjoying the work you do, satisfaction is at an all time low.

You have trouble sleeping 

Another physical symptom of burnout is having trouble sleeping, largely because your mind is working overtime thinking about all the tasks you have to complete. It’s a catch-22: the lack of sleep makes you even less productive during work hours.

You forget to take care of yourself

When faced with a lot of work pressure, ‘self-care’ can very easily slide down your list of priorities. That might mean you forget to eat meals or lean on fast food as a quick fill. You might also skip showers and other personal care rituals.

You avoid socialising 

You might cancel on meals out, skip drinks with friends or ignore incoming phone calls from family. This might be because you feel too busy to fit them in, or because you can’t muster the energy or inclination to speak to others.

The Five Stages of Burnout

Inspired by Winona State University’s burnout study, stress-management training provider Calmer has mapped out the five key stages of burnout. These are: 

  • Stage one: Honeymoon – Whenever we start a new job or take on a new responsibility, this can often come hand-in-hand with high job satisfaction and feelings of creativity and energy: we’re excited to try something new. But as you start to experience the stresses that come with the new venture or task, now’s the time to implement positive coping strategies to help us stay in this honeymoon phase for far longer.
  • Stage two: Onset of stress – This is when you start to notice that some days feel particularly stressful which causes your once-strong optimism to fade.
  • Stage three: Chronic stress – This is when you start to feel stressed far more regularly and exhaustion starts to seep in.
  • Stage four: Burnout – This is when burnout itself starts to kick in and it becomes increasingly difficult to cope. You might also start to notice other symptoms like headaches, self-neglect, pessimism and social isolation.
  • Stage five: Habitual burnout – This is when the habits of burnout have become so normal and embedded into your daily life that you develop ongoing and long term emotional, psychological or physical issues. 

Chronic Fatigue

While chronic fatigue syndrome is a separate recognised medical condition in its own right, the feelings of ongoing, unshakeable fatigue and exhaustion are common amongst those experiencing burnout. Not only might you feel physically tired and sluggish, but you might feel mentally tired too, struggling to concentrate, focus or remember certain things. 

The more modern phenomenon of Zoom fatigue is worth mentioning too. A product of the work-from-home culture forced by the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re spending more time sitting in front of a video call than ever before, which are tiring for a whole host of reasons, including having to look at your own face for long periods of time as well as demanding an increased cognitive load. 

Emotional Exhaustion

One of the main symptoms of job related stress and burnout is the feeling of emotional exhaustion. With stress at an all time high, it leaves you with very little brain power so you can easily feel mentally exhausted and unable to cope and you may notice your mood flips much more freely than ever before. 

How to Prevent Burnout

Like most things, prevention is better than cure when it comes to dealing with burnout. However, preventing burnout isn’t always easy, especially if work pressures are mounting. The key? Aim for as much life balance as you can. 

Exercise can be a helpful stress-reliever and eating a balanced diet can keep your mood buoyant. You should also do your best to get a good night’s sleep: avoiding late night technology use, scheduling a set bedtime and creating the perfect sleep environment are all tips offered by the Sleep Foundation

Furthermore, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Speak to your workplace about the stresses you face to nip them in the bud early on and seek support and comfort from loved ones. 

How to Recover From Burnout

The first stage of burnout recovery is resolving the issues that led to the burnout in the first place. That means seeking support from your manager to reset your workload, gain extra help and ensure you are clear on where your priority should lie. You should also work to build boundaries between your work and personal life, scheduling regular daily, weekly and monthly breaks away from the task in hand. Plus, exercise, eating a healthy diet and setting aside adequate time for rest and relaxation is vital.

Burnout can feel fairly traumatic, so it’s also a good idea to take a step back and take some time off work to calm and nurture the body and mind. Meditation and mindfulness practices can be excellent treatments for stress, and seeking professional help, counselling or guidance can help you build the resilience to face your work life once more.

How a Wellness Retreat Can Aid Your Burnout Recovery

First and foremost, wellness retreats like the one here at New Life Portugal give you a bit of breathing space. They allow you to escape the pressures of everyday life and truly switch off in beautiful surroundings amongst supportive and like minded people. 

Furthemore, we have a roster of trained professionals on hand who are able to provide the counselling and coaching needed to help you make better sense of your experiences with burnout and aid you in dealing with stress. Our wellbeing retreats also place a massive focus on mindful living and building emotional, physical and spiritual resilience which means all our guests leave armed with the tools needed to better cope with the stresses of life once back home.
For more information about our retreat offering, head here.

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