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Habitual burnout: What to do when ‘stressed’ becomes your ‘normal’

habitual stress
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When a 2021 poll[1] asked UK adults to identify the symptoms of burnout, an impressive — or perhaps worrying — 85% were able to correctly identify them. Small wonder, as accelerated change in the world of work, coupled with worrying global events, has forced employees to adapt to new ways of working, causing the Google search term ‘symptoms of stress’ to jump by 5000% from 2019.

Back in 2019, 'burnout' was recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an ‘occupational phenomenon’, the definition later updated to directly reference ‘chronic workplace stress that is not successfully managed’. However, by 2020, the three-quarters of UK workers who reported suffering with burnout according to a report by Asana didn’t need to read about their symptoms to know something was wrong in their equilibrium. The pandemic has given many of us an insight into chronic stress — or sustained stress over a long period — that we might not have previously had, and highlighted the dangers of burnout like never before.

For many, stress, whether as a result of the pandemic or just our everyday working lives, waxes and wanes. But when stress is experienced in prolonged and increasingly intense ways it can eventually lead to burnout. And when this experience becomes ‘the norm’ it becomes what Winona State University (WSU) called ‘enmeshed’ in its study on burnout intensity, adapted from seminal work done by Herbert Freudenberger, who coined the term ‘burnout’ in 1980. So, how can you pull back from this ‘habitual burnout’ — to find equilibrium again?

 

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Stages of burnout – where are you?

The physical and mental exhaustion, ennui and behavioural changes such as irritation and withdrawal that typify early to mid-stage burnout are still unusual enough to feel ‘other to normal life’ — and therefore set alarm bells ringing. However, if you’ve ignored the warning signs, these altered states can begin to intensify without you even realising until they take over as the ‘lived experience’.

According to Mental Health UK, 46% of UK workers feel ‘more prone to extreme levels of stress’ in 2021 compared with 2020 — with women reporting the greatest levels of psychological pressure. This has been ascribed to factors such as juggling work and domestic responsibilities, the stress associated with non-diverse work environments, isolation and job insecurity, particularly in the pandemic (a McKinsey report estimated that female job loss rates were 1.8 percent higher than men’s globally due to COVID-19[2]), as well as psychological factors such as a tendency to internalise negative feelings and people-pleasing.

And while the symptoms of burnout can differ from person to person, according to mental health and wellbeing training organisation Calmer, they follow a trajectory. The onset of stress can be characterised by symptoms such as anxiety, fatigue and irritability). When more frequent and intense stress gives rise to chronic stress you may start to see symptoms such as aggression, denial, apathy, exhaustion and cynicism. When burnout sets in, all negative symptoms become critical and the ability to cope is impaired. The final culmination is habitual burnout — the point at which stress is so endemic in your life that you are unable to distinguish it from ‘normal life’ and are likely to experience a significant ongoing mental, physical or emotional problem as a result.

 

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Burnout Breakpoint

Ignore the signs of burnout at any stage in the cycle, and they can begin to compound to cause further harm to your physical and mental health in the future. Understanding where you are on the burnout continuum and staying vigilant and respectful of your wellbeing and any signs of distress are the keys to keeping burnout in check. Crucially, it also means you are more able to backtrack quickly if things have escalated before you reach an extreme situation.

Burnout and the end-of-the-line habitual burnout do not go away on their own and proactivity is necessary to start to move away from it. It may be that you are in burnout, tipping into habitual burnout — or you may be in habitual burnout already, in which case identifying it as the actual problem itself may be harder. However, the level of distress and states of depression or overwhelm that you experience daily in trying to meet your obligations are clear indicators that you’re operating at endurance levels.

Realising that living in this state is not normal and that you could feel better than you do is the first step to being able to do something about it. The WSU study noted that it is always possible to take action to strengthen your coping skills and move back through the stages. For some, that may initially include reaching out for professional or medical help to address physical or mental health concerns, and talking with your line manager about what is happening and looking at ways in which they can support your recovery — including reducing stress at work, redefining your role, redistributing responsibilities, changing working patterns to be more flexible or giving you time off if needed.

 

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Reflecting

Health and wellbeing is a holistic state, with a powerful feedback loop between body and mind, so make sure you are covering all the foundational bases — regular gentle exercise, fresh food (to avoid overwhelming yourself with more things to do, gradually introduce a bit more with each of your meals), good sleep (try to lie down and rest even if your sleep is disrupted by your stress. The everywoman sleep masterclass has tips on improving your night-time routine), proper hydration and regular deep breathing to oxygenate your system.

But addressing the underlying issues that have led you to this point is key to the recovery process. Again, professional help may be useful in helping to unpick patterns and behaviour such as perfectionism, anxiety or lack of boundaries and prompt the questions you need to answer to move forward and give yourself greater resilience so as not to repeat this cycle at a later date.

Personal reflection on work practices and environments, both specific to your organisation and your general outlook regarding your career can provide valuable information that can help you rebuild your working life in a way that is more aligned with you and your needs. In a 2020 study[3], 38 percent of women in the UK reported that politics within the workplace resulted in them experiencing work-related stress while 34 percent of women said it was caused or exacerbated by a lack of communication.

Other common stressors include lack of resources, high workloads, job security concerns, unclear expectations or difficult colleagues, all of which require honest conversations, the development of strong boundaries and an understanding of how to balance your needs with those of the business. Personal development tools such as the workbooks and webinars in the everywoman Network, professional coaching and mentoring can help you to forge healthier working patterns and new perspectives around these areas and boost your resilience.

Finally, give yourself time to recover. Coming back from habitual burnout isn’t something that you can rush, and the process may take weeks, months or even years and require a radical rethink around how you approach your work, career, life balance, interpersonal relationships and ambition. It may even mean taking a new job, if your current role cannot or will not flex in areas that are important to your wellbeing.

Ultimately, it is about understanding that working hard does not mean overworking — and that the key to unlocking your potential lies in respecting yourself and your wellbeing as the most important resource you have.

 

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Five practical hacks to de-escalate work stress

Keep your home or office workspace tidy. A recent study by University College London showed that people’s stress and anxiety levels automatically rise when faced with a messy work environment.

Get out into nature. University of Edinburgh[4] research showed that people’s stress levels are directly related to the amount of green space in their area — researchers found a corresponding decline in participants’ stress levels for every 1% increase in green space.

Get moving. Boost endorphins with gentle exercise during the working day. And try a standing desk – one study found that those using standing desks reported less stress and fatigue than those who remained sedentary all day, with 87% reporting increased energy.

Learn to meditate. Taking even ten minutes a day to meditate can boost clarity, reduce anxiety and help create valuable perspective — apps such as Headspace can give you guidance on how to start.

Set digital boundaries. The ‘always-on’ digital culture can prevent us from vital decompression, eating up evenings and weekends. Set clear expectations as to when you’re available online and use the out-of-office rigorously to underline this boundary.

Set expectations A major contributor to work stress is lack of clarity around what is expected of you, your deliverables and timelines. A proactive conversation with your line manager should clear up any grey areas and reduce the anxiety of trying to second-guess.

 

Signs of habitual burnout

  • Chronic mental fatigue
  • Chronic physical fatigue
  • Depression
  • Chronic sadness
  • Social isolation
  • Behavioural changes
  • Physical symptoms such as chronic headaches, stomach aches or bowel problems
  • Complete neglect of personal needs
 

[1] https://mentalhealth-uk.org/burnout/

[2] https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/covid-19-and-gender-equality-countering-the-regressive-effects

[3] https://www.statista.com/statistics/1134456/causes-of-work-related-stress-in-the-uk-2020-by-gender/

[4] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169204611003665