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It’s the ‘health epidemic of the 21st century’, says the World Health Organisation.
‘I felt like I had the world on my shoulders,’ says Gilles Baudet, a Glasgow-based marketing entrepreneur. ‘No matter how much sleep I got I was always tired. My hands were shaking and I was vomiting when I got up in the morning. Mentally, I was very negative, irritable and extremely short-tempered.’
What Baudet is describing is burnout – or, as Dr Ed Burns, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Roehampton, defines as: ‘an emotional and physical exhaustion… along with having less effective coping mechanisms.’
Baudet experienced his debilitating symptoms at a time in his life when his drive for career success was greater than any concern for his health. Like many people, he reports his experience with burnout as an insidious, creeping condition exacerbated by extreme levels of stress, and pressure to perform.
‘I was working insanely long hours every single week. I unconsciously prioritised my desire to be successful over my health and this went on for years. I wasn’t resting enough, I was taking on too much responsibility. I just wasn’t taking care of myself in any way, shape or form at a time when I really needed to be at the very top of my game.’ This stress compounded to leave him short tempered, negative and irritable with family and colleagues as he struggled to deal with the pressure.
While not currently recognised as a medical diagnosis – burnout is seen as more of a symptom of extreme stress – it’s a very real, and growing, phenomenon. In a report compiled by the Health and Safety Executive, it was discovered that over half a million workers in the UK suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17, and 12.5 million working days were lost as a result over that period – according to the World Economic Forum, burnout costs the global economy £255 billion annually.
According to Dr Burns, one reason for the increased rates of burnout is better recognition of this and other mental health issues, and more people seeking help, which could explain why burnout’s increasingly a term that looms large in our collective psyche. But he also acknowledges a wider societal shift is underway. ‘It’s possible that rates of burnout have increases as our lives become busier and people feel more “stressed” in general on a day-to-day basis.’
This is just what journalist Anne Helen Petersen made the case for in her article ‘How millennials became the burnout generation’. In the piece she points to how a culture of ‘optimising’ time – aka fitting as much as you possibly can into one day – has led millennials (the demographic now aged 22-38) to see efficiency and productivity is their main priorities. We’re all working harder than ever, but with wage stagnation, economic uncertainty and the long shadow of the 2008 recession still hanging over us, not achieving what we set out to achieve. Add to that the performative pressures of social media and the need to be ‘always on’, and you have a potent combination that leads to increased levels of stress, anxiety and, eventually, burnout.
For Baudet, the answer came with transforming his attitude to work, and carving out some non-negotiable time in his week for downtime. ‘The first thing I did was acknowledge that I was struggling and that something had to change,’ he explains. ‘I initially took a few days just to reset and work out how to move forward. I began to rest, meditate, exercise and I made time for the things I love. I started doing crossfit, running marathons and eating better than I’ve ever eaten before. What also made a difference was committing to switching off completely at least one day a week, and not working. Sleep is also so underrated. In business I often hear people gloating about how little sleep they can live off, like it’s a badge of honour, but all you’re really doing is damaging your mental and physical abilities.’Although Baudet didn’t get professional help – ‘I wasn’t sure how seriously people would take such a problem’ – talking to someone else about the problems you’re facing with stress can also be key to making that first step on the road to recovery.
If you recognise some of Baudet’s symptoms in yourself, or you’re worried you’re at risk of it, we asked Dr Burns and the mental health charity Mind for their advice on how to combat burnout.
‘Burnout is not a specific medical diagnosis but it describes an often slow and insidious build-up of symptoms which, if left unrecognised and unmanaged, can lead to other mental health issues,’ explains Dr Burns, who points out the term has been around since the 1970s. ‘The triggers for burnout are likely to be multifactorial and individual. It’s important for people to identify the factors which might make them vulnerable to burnout and try and address these as early as possible.’
These triggers range from everything personality traits like perfectionism or fear of failure, to external factors like changes in your work or home life. ‘It’s worth bearing in mind that the triggers may be events which are perceived as positive life events, such as having a baby or a new job,’ sums up Dr Burns.
‘The signs may be different from one person to the next but, in general, people are initially more tired and disorganised and latterly, grumpier and more distant,’ explains Dr Burns. ‘At work you may experience a lack of concentration, poor productivity, increased irritability, poor timekeeping, difficulty managing responsibilities and becoming emotionally exhausted, and less present.
‘Outside work people might use more alcohol or drugs to help cope with their level of stress, and be irritable, with tensions within relationships. Alongside issues at work and home, someone who is experiencing burnout, or the build up to it, might have a decreased interest in social activities and withdraw from interactions with friends and/or family.’
As Baudet discovered, burnout builds up over time and is typically overlooked, minimised or denied until the consequences are significant. But there are ways to avoid letting your stress levels reach crisis point. ‘Allow yourself to look after your health and wellbeing,’ advises Dr Burns. ‘Ensure you get proper sleep, diet and exercise as well as having time to engage in hobbies, relaxing activities and space to talk to friends and family. Plus, as well as paying close attention to our own personal wellbeing it is important to consider that of our colleagues as well.’
Talking to others or to a professional about your stress is also important, although it can be daunting at first. ‘By keeping issues bottled up, anxiety can get worse. Others can bring new perspectives to a problem and help you talk through possible solutions,’ says Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at mental health charity Mind. ‘Often stress can make us feel very isolated, but by opening up to friends, family or someone you trust, you’ll find you are not alone and it’s likely others have experienced similar feelings.’ Mind has produced a dedicated guide on how to speak to your GP about mental health.
Buckley also recommends learning new skills to better manage the pressure you’re under, whether that’s your work or home life, or both. ‘From time management to improving how you communicate with those you feel are putting unreasonable demands on you, there are plenty of small steps you can take to help alleviate the causes of stress,’ he advises. ‘Also find ways to relax – breathing exercises are a great way of calming yourself down when you are feeling stressed. Making sure you get enough sleep, eat well and doing physical exercise can all work wonders for overall stress levels.’
It may sound simple, but factoring a regime of rest, exercise and self-care into your week could be the best way to prevent you reaching burnout – and in turn buck this worrying modern trend. Working hard is one thing – working yourself to the emotional and physical bone is another. ‘Burnout is horrible and very underrated as a condition,’ says Baudet. ‘Your ambitions convince you to keep going but in truth, your mind and body just aren’t working properly anymore.’