More of us are suffering from burnout than ever before, here’s what you can do about it.

A guide to avoiding overwhelm and exhaustion

In an always-on 24/7 world it can be even harder to maintain a work-life balance or find time to relax especially when you're working from home.

Many people find the modern way of working to be more stressful, whilst others find the isolation of working at home to be a big challenge. And the lack of boundaries between work life and home life can make it harder to switch off.

Read on for our guide to avoiding Burnout. It’ll help you spot when it is happening and come up with practical ways to avoid it.

What is Burnout?

Burnout is more than stress. 

It is the state of complete mental, emotional, and sometimes physical exhaustion, brought on by months and even years of taking on more than you can handle.

Symptoms include feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by everything that you have to do, having no enthusiasm or motivation to do anything. 

These symptoms may be invisible to other people, and if they feel familiar, you need to stop and take time off to recover, as burnout won’t go away on its own.

So if you’re trying to do too much and feel your stress levels building up and not going away then it’s time to do something about it.

By doing things to take care of yourself, you’ll avoid tipping over into burnout.

Burnout affects your body and your mind

Burnout can feel like a mental health issue but actually it all starts in your body.

Fight or flight is a well-known stress reaction – which goes back to our life dodging predators on the plains of Africa, when adrenaline flooded our bodies to quickly get us away from them.

We experience similar kinds of stress in today's world, and the same responses happen. When you get very stressed, your digestion shuts down, your adrenaline levels rise and your heart rate increases.

But there is no equivalent of 'getting out of there'. We’re just in it all the time. More stuff comes along until it’s all overwhelming - there is no closure of the stress cycle, which is what we need.

This is when burnout happens: total emotional and physical exhaustion.

How to complete the stress cycle

Because emotional and physical symptoms are so closely linked, it turns out there is a range of things that you can do to complete the stress cycle.

For example, it can be enough to go for a run, a brisk walk or workout at the gym.

Alternatively, creative things such as knitting, reading a book or watching a movie can have the same effect. Anything that takes your mind away creates the reset you need.

Most of us know this – the trouble is we don’t do it!

How to spot when you’re approaching burnout

Clinical psychologist, Dr Emma Hepburn has developed a simple exercise to help you spot burnout based on a picture of a cup.

She explains, “we’ve all got a cup of capacity, the question is: what’s in your cup?”

How to do it: 

  • Draw a picture of a cup
  • Make a list of all the things that you are dealing with that concern you (a bit like Circle of Influence)
  • Have a look at all the things you’ve written down.
  • Then think: How full is your cup?
  • If your cup is close to overflowing - this is where you need to be careful, so what can you let go of and stop doing? 

How you know if your cup is too full
It can be helpful to ask yourself: What do you notice about yourself? How do you behave?

If you pay attention, you may become aware for example that when you have too much on you become forgetful, or you can’t sleep, or you start being snippy with your family.

Maybe you notice something else. The point is that noticing these things will help you realise that your cup is too full.

Knowing your cup is too full means you can do something about it:
• prevention ie making your cup bigger, 

• responding to the discovery that you’re in that state so that you can recover from it

• taking things out of your cup - ie stopping, delegating or letting go.

NB You may need someone to help you!

3 ways to steer clear of burnout

Practical ways to prevent and respond to burnout if you notice it’s happening to you

1. Get enough sleep
The first step is to get enough sleep. How much sleep you need varies with age but in general adults need about 7 hours sleep a night. If you’re not getting that, there are sleep resources on the NHS website and elsewhere that will help. 

Some basic sleep tips: don’t look at your phone late at night, have a consistent night-time routine, and go outside to get some daylight in the morning.You can also try weighted blankets, ear plugs, or eye masks – they can all help.

Do some homework and find out what works for you.

2. Eat the right things
Are you eating properly? When we’re stressed or upset we tend to reach for fatty, carb rich, sugary, comfort food and snacks that make us feel worse in the long run, not the healthy fruit and vegetables that are actually good for us. This creates a vicious cycle. So make sure you eat lunch, have a proper breakfast and try not snack on processed food all day long.

3. Planned joy
It turns out planned joy is really important. This means having something you've planned that you're looking forward to.

Planned joy might be that you’re going to see an old friend, or it might be you’re going to go for a walk, or watch a movie that you really like. It doesn’t matter what it is.

Sometimes I plan to have an ice cream after work on Friday. I’ll decide that at the start of the week and look forward to it all week - looking forward to it is a big part of the medicine. 

Have you got some planned joy in your life?

Try to find ways of making sure you have these things in your life.

If you've found this post helpful and you’d like to take it further have a look at our elearning course on Burnoutit includes more advanced tips and resources that will help you prevent burnout.