Burnout

We’ve heard the phrase ‘burnout’ a lot more than usual this year, but what is it and how do you know if you have it? This guide helps you understand burnout and suggests ways to cope if you or someone you care about is affected by it. It may be reassuring if you are skeptical about burnout or feel the term is used as a cover to diminish trauma or legitimise abuse.

Burnout is typically linked specifically to workplace stress (including studying), in or outside the home, and on or offline. The WHO using their ICD-11 classification defines it as: “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life”.

Causes and triggers
You may have been told you’re at risk of burnout or showing signs it has already happened to you, or you may be curious as to what causes it. One or more of these factors may lead to burnout and often they may co-exist or interact. Do any apply to you?

  • Having control removed from you and/or wanting more control over your life
  • Lack of instruction, supervision, structure and/or support
  • Limited accessibility and/or low or no provision of accommodations
  • Bullying, negative, shaming and/or belittling work/study environments
  • Highly competitive, pressured and/or disorganised work/study spaces
  • Feeling unappreciated, dissastisfied, bored or unrewarded
  • Lack of praise and limited opportunities for progression
  • Having little or no extra time for hobbies or things you enjoy
  • Being isolated
  • Too many expectations/demands on you
  • A lack of assistance from others (either nobody is available to help, help is refused if you ask for it, or you feel unable to ask)
  • Fear for the future
  • Financial instability
  • Job or housing precarity
  • Being raised to see ‘failure’, ‘giving up’ or ‘letting go’ as negative, irresponsible or wrong; or where perfectionism, overwork and high achievement was normalised and rewarded.

Having noted which of the above apply to you, check if this is a recent issue, whether the different causes and triggers interact, and whether you feel there might be anything you can do about them. It is okay at this point to feel that you cannot change things (that’s a symptom of burnout too). You can return to this list later to identify where you might be able to take action or bring change, with support as required.

Signs and symptoms
People are not always sure what the symptoms of burnout are – nor there severity. Typically burnout presents as a cluster of physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms that may worsen over time or flare up during especially pressured or difficult periods. Use the list below to note which of the following symptoms are both present and troubling you, how long you’ve been experiencing them, and how they manifest themselves.

Emotional

 Behavioural

 Physical

Doubting yourselfFeeling like a failure or defeated

Feelings of helplessness

Numbness or detachment

Loneliness (even with others around you)

Feeling like you cannot escape from your situation or emotions

Loss of interest in life (including things you previously enjoyed)

Reduced satisfaction

Being more cynical, negative and pessimistic (including about opportunities, things you previously felt positively towards, or things that might benefit you)

Feelings of dread or apprehension

Constantly on high alert

Not being able to switch off

Keeping clear of other people (e.g. turning down invitations, avoiding social occasions, or ignoring phone calls)Cancelling events or activities (including ones you previously would have looked forward to/enjoyed)

Avoiding responsibilities and deadlines (including not alerting others about your situation so deadlines and key activities may be missed)

Anger

Irritability and impatience

Taking your frustration out on others

Self-harming

Starting or increasing smoking, alcohol or drug use

Avoiding work, meetings, classes or other events

Procrastination and an inability to make decisions or trust your own choices

Usual standards slip

Low or no motivation

Sleep problems (insomnia, broken sleep, early waking, nightmares)Exhaustion (either due to lack of sleep, or being tired even if you have rested)

More health problems/illnesses than usual

Feeling like you’ve ‘nothing left in the tank’

Appetite changes (food cravings, lack of appetite, overeating)

Joint and muscle pain

Feeling lethargic

Loss of interest in appearance (e.g. washing is too much of an effort, no need to launder or change clothing)

Reduced interest in intimacy

Stomach and bowel problems

Headaches

Nausea

‘Brain fog’ – not being able to concentrate or remember

Having checked the above list note any symptoms that aren’t on it that also concern you. You can use this list if you are seeking professional advice from your union, GP, therapist, or a helpline (see below); or to recognise when symptoms are reducing if you make changes to your work or study spaces while increasing self-care. You could note the symptoms and give them a mark out of ten with ten being the most severe and track over time if they are lessening (noting that if they are not, and you’ve attempted to address them yourself, that it may be time to seek help elsewhere).

Who is more likely to be affected by burnout?
All of us can be affected by burnout, but we are more likely to struggle if we are in one or more of the following groups:

  • Neurodivergent, chronically sick and disabled people who do not have any or enough accommodations at home, work or place of study; and who may also be aware of restricted or limited opportunities elsewhere.
  • People who are minoritized within their place of work or study, country or community (especially those living with the trauma of racism; or affected by sexism or LGBTQ-phobia, or any intersections of these).
  • Those facing financial hardship (who may remain in stressful situations for fear of losing income).
  • Those who don’t just feel trapped but ARE trapped by family expectations, carer responsibilities or domestic abuse.
  • Anyone who is being given unrealistic or unfair demands from work and/or home who is not in a position to negotiate (e.g. a PhD student who fears if they request time off or to slow down their grant may be at risk).
  • Those working in pressurised environments with high levels of responsibility and little/no outside assistance/cover and no clear end/exit point (e.g. disaster, conflict and humanitarian work; aid relief; teaching high risk pupils; or a clinician in a rural practice).
  • Those with a history of abuse and/or confidence issues who may fear seeking help or struggle to make decisions or take action to care for themselves.
  • Those whose past experience with work, education, the legal system, health or social care has been damaging, exploitative or harmful; making it difficult to trust.
  • Anyone who has been raised to view work, grades or higher wages as a sign of ‘success’ and/or to place more value on external rewards and recognition.
  • Those working, studying or living with one or more people that are highly driven and competitive who may not be collegiate or supportive yet set unrealistic expectations and demands.

If you are in a high pressured, unpredictable, competitive and unstable situation where you feel you have little agency, or where realistically that is the case (including when your agency has been limited or removed) burnout may be both an inevitable and entirely understandable response. Often burnout is presented as a form of character failure, that you care too much, are too driven, or poor at maintaining boundaries. When in fact you may be doing your best to manage but other people or wider societal pressures and structures make it impossible for you to live, study or work safely and effectively in an empowered manner. It may help you to recognise that the signs of burnout are real and valid, and you can take steps to address them, but that may include recognising where situations and circumstances are the cause of your issues (as opposed to your reactions to them). Equally if your situation is generally supportive but you are driving yourself too hard, you can take steps to address your attitudes, behaviours, work and study patterns.

The impact of the Pandemic
Covid-19 has added a new dimension to burnout, with more people reporting it, particularly within health and social care, education and emergency services; and more acutely as the year has progressed.  Alongside the causes above, burnout has been caused or worsened by:

  • A fear of getting sick/being sick.
  • Lack of clarity from some governments/states over the management of Covid-19.
  • Rapid shift in working practices from offline to online (including ‘zoom fatigue’, online surveillance and unreasonable management expectations with little/no support).
  • Having to learn many new skills quickly with little or no training or provision of equipment.
  • Working from home, when home is not a workplace and the division between work/study and home is lost.
  • Home schooling.
  • Competition over resources (e.g. who gets to use the laptop).
  • Carer responsibilities (for older or sick family members, or neighbours).
  • Job insecurity and/or pay cuts.
  • Bereavement (including loved ones dying from Covid-19).
  • Living with Long Covid.
  • Longer working hours.
  • Reduced opportunities for hobbies, socialising, and rest/relaxation.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Noise, lack of privacy and/or neighbourhood disputes.

The pandemic has created a perfect storm of circumstances where burnout can thrive. There are no longer delineated work hours. Overwork and competition has been rewarded in many areas (including workplaces but also in online social spaces with people sharing their creative and inspiring responses to the pandemic and lockdown in ways that may leave us feeling inadequate, bitter or exhausted).   Confusing and chaotic situations, with multiple and often conflicting demands and numerous complaints have been the experience for many during Covid-19. Moreover workplaces, schools and colleges have not recognised the significant social, economic and political upheavals that have been going on, instead pushing for overwork and assuming that those working from home can do so ‘easily’. Rather than pandemic-appropriate adjustments and an acceptance of everyone’s diverse needs and increasing accommodations; the response has been to push everyone to work or study harder, faster and for longer.

How to tell if you’re experiencing burnout
You may already have known you are burnt out before you read this post.  Alternatively you might now recognise the signs and symptoms listed above.  If you are not sure you could keep a diary, noting any of the signs and symptoms listed above or other reactions that concern you, including what worsens or alleviates symptoms.  It may be other people have raised concerns about things you are or are not doing. That could include workplace interventions (e.g. being asked to resit a course, or facing a disciplinary procedure).  Or you being unable to function as usual, or becoming physically and/or mentally unwell. You might not be able to stop crying, or your relationships have broken down.

How to help yourself
Create or make use of a support network – family, friends, co workers/colleagues, students. There is advice on how to do this in Being Well In Academia.

See your doctor to either get signed off work/study (if appropriate) and/or to seek treatment for physical and/or mental health problems that have been caused or worsened by burnout. You can use your list of symptoms above to help, and there are instructions on how to talk to a doctor or therapist about your worries in Chapter 2 of Being Well In Academia.

Take time off – this includes either self-certificating or being signed off work, or taking annual leave. Remember to take all annual leave you are entitled to, noting if you are in a workplace where time off or leave taking is discouraged (in which case, join a union or seek legal advice).

Focus on positive things – this may be a challenge if you are feeling unresponsive, demotivated, exhausted and negate (see symptoms above). It may be some things you do are not especially enjoyable, at least at first. For example a relaxing bath isn’t pleasant because your mind is drifting back to work. Try creating a list of things you previously enjoyed or know you ordinarily would like and do them, noting if they lift your mood albeit slightly, or that you were unable to enjoy them because of other reactions. This can help you explain your reactions to either healthcare staff or workplace support. You may find it gets easier over time and that smaller positives may be more effective early on. If you try something that is really causing you distress (e.g. you go to a party but feel completely overwhelmed) it is okay to note that you tried, and to do something different on another occasion rather than push yourself to do something that is distressing you (and potentially add to or worsen your burnout symptoms).

Set boundaries – this includes enforcing time away from work, no screen time, not checking emails, saying no, and having a realistic approach to what is feasible at work or study. If your place of work or study is supportive you can do this yourself, potentially with training (see below). If your workplace pushes at your boundaries or ignores them completely then you need support from your union, professional network or sympathetic colleagues in or outside your organisation.

Create a better work/study and life balance – this extends from boundary setting to include having positive things you enjoy outside of work/study so you can set time when you will not be working or studying (or thinking about those things). Instead having space to focus on other things you enjoy or need to do. This may be particularly helpful if overwork in one area (paid for employment/study) causes other areas to become chaotic or burdensome (e.g. housework, laundry) meaning you feel exhausted and uncomfortable everywhere.  You may find it helps to get friends/family to assist you to sort one area (e.g. a house-cleaning session) so you can enjoy your time off without yet more chores appearing on your never-ending list.

Seek and accept training and supervision – this is both to help you work/study more safely, ethically and effectively, and also to note if others are exploiting or harming you. You may be burnt out because nobody trained you to use a particular tool or technique, but training would ensure you feel confident and can get on with your job/course. Or you could be be struggling as you are unsure how to manage your time, prioritise jobs, or respond to all the requests made on your time. Training and supervision could help you know when to delegate, maintain your boundaries, and prioritise tasks (again noting where workplace exploitation is the issue rather than a lack of skills you might acquire).

Get backup – as mentioned, if you’re burnt out due to poor management, bullying, toxic working situations or having to work/study with those who themselves are struggling with burnout (and passing that onto you) a union, mentors, Third Party Monitors, HR, grad school/PGR programme may be able to offer advice, support and allyship.  You may discover you are not alone and collectively you and colleagues may feel better able to challenge unreasonable, unfair or unsafe working practices.

Gather evidence – if you’re being bullied, expected to work/study in unreasonable ways, or lack supervision and accommodations you’re entitled to. You can use this with your backup system (there is more on how to do this in Chapters 2, 3 and 5 of Being Well In Academia).

Recognise what you are good at – if you are feeling exhausted, unappreciated or otherwise negative it is difficult to appreciate what you do well. If you’re overworking you may lack the time and space to reflect on all you achieve. Keep a dairy, noting what you’ve done and breaking down tasks. For example today you’ve done several Zoom or Teams calls, but this time last year you’d never heard of Zoom or Teams or delivered a class online or a live lecture or meeting – what have you learned, rapidly, to make this happen? How can you praise yourself for this? This may work better if you’re feeling more rested, don’t let it be caught up in other burnout activities (e.g. if you’re overworking and then add a breakdown of your day to that list).

Ask for help – that may be for bullying, for training and workplace rights (see above), or your mental or physical health. There is a list of sources of care and how to ask for assistance in Chapters 3, 5 and 6 in Being Well In Academia.

Delegate – if you’re exhausted and overwhelmed at work it is okay to refuse to do tasks that are not relevant to you, and to avoid taking on more (noting this is a symptom of burnout).  If information to help other people do their work/studying is available elsewhere you can signpost to it rather than explaining to everyone who asks what to do. If there are jobs many people could do but it’s currently only you doing them, share those. And if you are working in a high pressured space you may want to work collectively to identify what tasks are priorities and who should do them, recognising also what may be let go of. Where possible cut corners without cutting standards (e.g. if someone has created a series of online tools, lectures or resources you could use in your own work/studying, use those rather than making your own). If you are exhausted at work and home you may find things to make your living space easier helps to – whether that’s hiring a cleaner, getting help from family with chores (so it isn’t just you), letting things that don’t matter go (for example you don’t have to have a show home), using ready meals or take-aways, or anything that lets you drop some responsibilities on a temporary or permanent basis.

Distract yourself – if you are obsessing and overthinking, finding things to take your mind off it can be a big help, whether that’s losing yourself in a movie, book or piece of music; enjoying a hobby; or having something that is not work-related to focus on.  There are many ideas to try in Chapter 7 of Being Well In Academia.

Learn to calm – if you are exhausted or overwhelmed it is hard to switch off and you may have to practice relaxation and calming techniques.

Turn off social media – if you’re always available to get email, receive work-related updates, or simply endless bad news you will not alleviate burnout. Having time away from social media, either at specific times of the day or when you know it will make you feel worse, is a good idea. As is limiting your social media settings to screen out toxic content, people and keywords.  You can find out more on this in Chapter 7 of Being Well In Academia.

Nourish yourself – how would you care for a friend who was struggling with burnout? My guess is you’d encourage them to sleep, eat, rest, bathe and do kind things for themselves (see above). Could you treat yourself as well as you would a friend?  If you would find this difficult there is more information on how to manage it in Chapters 3, 6 and 7 in Being Well In Academia.

Exercise – it may be gentle stretches or regular classes or playing sport. However it works for you, exercise can help your physical and mental health and be a useful distraction (see above). There are ideas on how to energise for all abilities here and you can get more ideas for gentle exercise in Chapter 7 of Being Well In Academia.

If you are working online take regular breaks where you stretch, drink water, have a comfort break and eat meals. This can help avoid online fatigue and also keep track on how many hours you are working or studying for.

You may find some of the above works better for you, and that different approaches help with different symptoms of burnout. If your workplace is the main cause of your burnout, having tried the above, you may decide to use the strength you’ve gained from these interventions to help you seek another job. One that isn’t making you unsafe or unwell.

One response to Burnout

  1. Alyssa Alcorn

    An issue you haven’t mentioned but may wish to add is that of visa/immigration costs and rules. That can be another way for people to be “trapped” in toxic jobs or courses of study that sponsor their own–or their whole family’s –visas. Depending on your exact circumstances, it may also mean that you are *not allowed* to take time out from a course of study, reduce hours, or take other actions that could help your wellness. You may have to decide between persevering in your current circumstances, or changing your life plans (if you can afford to return to a home country, re-apply for a visa for another job, etc.).

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