‘Burnout’. A word that is often used.
Some take it seriously, others don’t.
If there are a number of people talking or writing about it, I believe there must be some truth in it…
So what is ‘burnout’, how can people recognise the signs it is rearing its ugly head, how can they avoid it and, if they do experience it, how should they manage it?
It has been evidenced that ‘burnout’ occurs more in one particular group of people than others.
Why is a business owner more likely to experience ‘burnout’ than others? (Source: Harvard Business Review, 10 April 2018)
The notion that a business owner lives and breathes their work is often true, particularly at the start of their journey.
It is new and shiny, exciting and challenging. A business owner might feel they have something to prove (either to themselves or others) so they put all they have into their ‘newborn baby’.
It would be remiss of me to ignore the high number of people employed in corporate positions that feel the effects of burnout.
However, there is less chance they need to reach this point because they often have a team of people around to support them, they have an opportunity to take a ‘proper‘ holiday, time out if they feel unwell or even delegate part of their workload if the feeling of overwhelm begins to present itself.
I confess that being a workaholic seems to be in my DNA.
Whether this is because I always seemed to have to study at school (we had assigned ‘supervised prep time’ in our classrooms until 6:40pm 4 out of the 5 weekdays) for 81/2 years; we also had to earn ‘outings’ by raising money and self-organised fêtes.
It might be hereditary because my Dad worked long hours over 6 days a week.
An alternative explanation is that my first career of 7 years was in hospitality; and the rumour that the industry offers long hours with little pay is true.
Working for a minimum hourly wage attracting 80+ hour weeks over 10 day stretches with double shifts, no holiday pay, the carrot on the stick incentive of earning more on public holidays, no requirement for sick pay (you just weren’t sick, otherwise you would ‘let the team down’).
I was too young to really experience burnout at that time, however, it physically burnt my body and I was advised that I should consider a career change because of it. Now I think about it, the fact that I worked so many hours and unsociable times with little ‘let up’ my body was physically burnt out.
My career path changed and I embarked on qualifying as an Executive Assistant and continued with a new career but still worked long hours, and latterly over 365 days a year around the clock.
I continued this for over 20 years before launching my own Virtual Assistant business in February 2020.
I admit that it took my Dad to pass away, just over a year later, to realise something in my professional life had to change.
I have been working for almost 30 years.
That is a lot of time to pass to realise things are not quite right.
This epiphany did not necessarily hit me because my Dad had passed, it was more that I was beyond exhausted.
It had built up, slowly, over the years - maybe even decades.
Working, commuting, travelling, parenting, the role of each, including as a daughter, changed rapidly.
My Dad and I reflected on life and, we agreed amongst many other matters during his penultimate day with us, that I got my work ethic from him.
I witnessed how he became beyond tired.
Whilst I am so incredibly proud of that he achieved in his career and professional life, I can’t help wishing that I was able to spend more time with him.
If I had my time again, I might have warned him that he needed to look after himself more - so we could have had him here for longer.
It did just ‘click’ (I hear a loud shout of ‘Finally!’ from all who have worked with me in the past) and I decided then to make a conscious effort to avoid burnout as a business owner.
Grand ideas were thought, some implemented, others still need to be (with another slap on the wrist for me for not having done what I promised myself 6 months ago).
Time for me
Diarise time for myself. Actually diarising slots ‘for me’ in the calendar. This might be for exercise, reading, even having a bath!
I have completely failed at this since March - I need to get much better. Urgent work will land on my desk and even if it’s not urgent, I find I choose to prioritise work over my ‘own time’.
I am going to make much more of an effort to rectify this.
Eat well. This doesn’t just mean healthy things. I want to enjoy the things I like and can see just how short that can be. I eat too much cheese and chocolate and I am getting better at reducing both in my diet.
Socialise. I have a few incredible friends and I intend on making more effort with them as well. Because I kept myself as safe as I could during the pandemic, in fear that I would pick something up and not be able to visit my Dad, now that restrictions have eased, I am going to see my friends more.
What is burnout?
Burnout can be described as a feeling of overwhelm that leads to stress that builds and builds and causes mental, physical and emotional exhaustion.
It may be recognised through mental, physical or emotional symptoms and, whilst a person feels they may just feel ‘run down’ or ‘more tired than usual’, these could be tell-tale signs together with more obvious ones such as a feeling of disinterest, stomach upsets or irritability.
The challenge that people face is that the camp is divided.
One group acknowledge and recognise burnout as a real issue, one that can cost businesses time and money, leading to a shift in negative culture that is difficult to shake off.
The other field of people see burnout as an excuse or a weakness in people that ‘just can’t take the pace’. This article is probably not for them.
I count myself fortunate that I recognised I was heading towards burnout before I reached my final destination (despite many ex-colleagues telling me over many years that I did too much, this period of my life was like no other).
The mental effects
Mental fogginess and constant exhaustion creates a feeling of detachment for a person whose stress levels cannot be controlled.
A lack of productivity and interest sets in and the vicious circle begins.
This can lead to memory loss and irritability, amongst many other things, that lead to a frustration by the person experiencing it and the people in their lives.
The emotional effects
When a person’s physical and mental being is not being taken care of, their emotional well-being undoubtedly suffers.
When the emotional state of a person is not sound, it is likely their relationships they have with a variety of people will be affected negatively.
Taking the time for self-care in all three areas provides the respite the body needs to recover, regenerate and strengthen.
A person will be emotionally stronger is their mental health is looked after and cared for.
The physical effects
I am not a scientist or a doctor, however, it has been proven that burnout has negative physical effects to a person.
Premature ageing of the brain, fogginess, constant tiredness, muscle aches, headaches, changing sleep and eating habits are a few of the symptoms that can be experienced.
It is well documented that poor mental health can lead to poor physical health, and vice versa.
Unfortunately, it can become a vicious cycle with a cycle that is difficult to break.
“New business owners have to work long hours to get their business up and running.”
“People that can’t take the stress experience burnout.’
“A holiday or some time off will help.”
“A reduction in hours will avoid burnout.”
“Burnout happens to people that have mental health challenges.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognised burnout as ‘an occupational phenomenon’ in 2019. (Source: World Health Organization)
85% of adults in the UK correctly identified the symptoms of burnout. (Source: YouGov Plc and Mental Health UK)
In March 2020, 46% of UK workers felt ‘more prone to extreme levels of stress’ compared to the year before. (Source: YouGov Plc and Mental Health UK)
Burnout is not a new phenomenon. It was identified in the 1970s by the American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger. (Source: IQWiG (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care)
For the cynics of burnout, it may be with reviewing the many articles and scientific studies that have been published before dismissing it as a temporary issue.
If not addressed, burnout can lead to further mental challenges for a person, disrupting not only their work life but also the relationships they hold in all areas of their life.
Burnout is real for many.
The real question is how it can be identified, determining how it can be managed and quashing it before it causes lasting damage.
Don't become a victim of burnout. You are not alone, I can help support you.