Burnout: three tips on how to avoid it

A journalist asked me recently to comment on the subject of stress and burnout among frontline NHS workers during the pandemic. It got me thinking about burnout more generally.

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. In these uncertain and unsettling times, I’ve seen a huge amount of this in clients I work with. And while key workers have been hit particularly badly, people from just about every other profession have often also suffered.

From what I’ve seen, the pandemic has created a kind of perfect storm for burnout. People are trying to handle an increased workload from their jobs or because they are home-schooling, while also facing great uncertainty and fear of the virus. They are also missing their usual coping strategies and support networks as they are forced inside by lockdowns.

The situation has gone on for more than 12 months and the equation is stark:

Stress + Uncertainty – Support x Time = Burnout

When people first come to me for counselling, they report feeling drained and tired. They say their sleep is poor, they are irritable, or lack motivation. Some are having panic attacks and find everything overwhelming. Often there is also a sense of guilt that they feel this way, and that if they stop to rest they are letting people down, so they “plough on”.

What can we do about it? Here are three things I often talk about with clients.

If you feel burnt out and stressed, something has to give.

Ask yourself what could you say no to or delegate to make a little space for yourself? Could you ask someone to help out with the housework or food shopping? Could you occasionally say no to that person who is demanding a lot of your time? Often this inability to say no for fear of letting people down is quite an ingrained trait that is rooted in the past. It can be helpful to talk through why we feel compelled to put everyone else first, to the detriment of our own health.

Could you build in a little me-time into your day?

What about a bath in the evenings or a run at the weekend? What things have made you feel good and helped you relax in the past, things that you haven’t had the time to do lately? Usually people have plenty of coping strategies already, they just need to make space for them. Often with my clients we work on how to create that space and to not feel guilty about it.

Take your own advice.

My guess is that if a friend came to you saying they were stressed and burnt out, your advice to them would be to get some rest, or to get some support. I doubt very much that you would tell them to just carry on and to stop being so self-indulgent. We need to take a kinder approach with ourselves.

If you feel like you may be on the road to burnout, you are certainly not alone. Lots of workplaces offer free counselling through their occupational health or employee assistance programmes. Ask your manager or HR department about what support is available. A lot of clients I work with come to me in this way, and often six sessions is enough to relieve some of that stress and learn some new ways of avoiding burnout in future.

For more information on burnout and stress there is some helpful information on helpguide.org

Photo credit: S&B Vonlanthen via Unsplash

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