Let’s start with a few questions:
- Do you constantly feel exhausted no matter how much sleep you get?
- Do you have a sense that nothing you do will make things any better?
- Do you find that you care less about things that are usually important to you?
If your answer is yes to one or more of these questions then you might be suffering from burnout.
It wouldn’t be surprising either. A study published last year found that 90% of participants reported feeling stressed “most of the time”. This was the case before the pandemic which we know is having a significant impact on us, and only adding to an already stressed and overworked population. If ‘unprecedented’ is the top word of 2020 then ‘burnout’ is definitely in the top 10. It’s even been recognised by the World Health Organisation who have classified burnout syndrome as an “occupational phenomenon”, describing it as “work-stress-induced emotional and physical exhaustion”.
I can say that from my personal experience with burnout, it’s a horrible, debilitating and diminishing phenomenon. It rarely comes on its own, and likes to invite its cruel friends —like anxiety and depression — along to join it. What makes burnout even more worrying is that many of us don’t know that we’re suffering from it, even when we’re close to breaking point. To make matters worse, we’ve developed a toxic workplace culture in the UK where “solidering on” is celebrated, busyness is a status symbol and our self-worth is based on our productivity. This leads us to the reality we live in whereby, when we’re sick, we’re more likely to work through it, with one study suggesting that over 80% of 24 to 35-year-olds don’t take time off when ill. We can only imagine that this is worsened by the recent shift to full-time working from home, where our work and personal boundaries are easily blurred.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Since my most recent experience with burnout earlier this year, which resulted in me being signed off work for a few weeks after a panic attack, I’ve been on a mission to learn more about it, how to identify it and, most of all, how to recover from it. The first step to protecting ourselves or recovering from burnout is to shine a light on the key symptoms, so let’s start there.
The 3 signs of burnout
Throughout my research, there have been 3 symptoms linked to burnout that have come up time and time again, and they are:
- Emotional exhaustion
- Decreased sense of accomplishment
I’ll go through each of these one-by-one to share a bit more about what they are and how they show up from my research and personal experience.
This is described as the “fatigue that comes from caring too much, for too long”. It can feel like we’re perpetually exhausted, no matter how much we rest. This was a huge one for me, and also the one that took the longest to recover from. I felt like I had been exhausted for years. This was surprising to me as I’m actually a pretty good sleeper — I’m usually in bed early (before 10pm) and I can get to sleep easily — but nothing seemed to shift my constant lack of energy.
It’s clear to me now that I hadn’t really understood, or been aware of, the concept of emotional exhaustion. To me, exhaustion was very much a physical thing, something you get from working out too much or burning the candle at both ends. But now, this idea of caring fatigue really resonates with me. I often describe the moment I met my breaking point as like my mind was split into so many tiny pieces that there was nothing left. What I meant by this was that I was juggling way too many things that I cared deeply about, from client work, internal projects and leadership responsibilities, through to exercising, socialising and being a good friend/partner/daughter/[insert other roles and relationships I was juggling]. The result was that I had nothing left to give to any of them.
The really scary thing about this particular symptom is that pretty much every system in our body is affected by our emotions. Emotions aren’t just fluffy, innocuous feelings trapped in our mind — they’re neurological events which means that emotions aren’t just happening in your brain, they’re also playing a role in your entire nervous system. When we get stuck in a long term negative cycle of emotions, like returning to a stressful job everyday, this starts to show up in our physical health, such as weakened blood vessels, digestive problems and even heart disease. This explains why I often felt like I had sore muscles when I was exhausted, even though I hadn’t worked out in weeks.
Decreased sense of accomplishment
This is the feeling that nothing you do makes any difference, or a deep feeling of pointlessness and futility that you can’t seem to overcome.
This can play out as a heightened or constant level of self-doubt. You might feel that you’re losing confidence in your ability to do your job, even though you know what you’re doing or you’ve been doing it for years. You might also feel like you’re working harder and harder, but you still seem to accomplish less that you usually would. In a culture that values productivity so highly, and where so many of us determine our self-worth by how productive we are, if we feel that we’re becoming gradually less productive, this can leave us in a pretty hopeless and dark place. As a result, our self-belief starts to plummet.
For me, this looked like becoming easily overwhelmed by tasks that I’d usually breeze through easily. It’s like my brain could not compute the simplest of tasks anymore. My job is very collaborative which is something that I love about it but, when I was at peak burnout, I found myself increasingly nervous about collaborating due to the risk that my lack of ability would be “found out”.
This is a dangerous place to be as it’s an perfect breeding ground for shame. Followers of Brené Brown — the acclaimed author, speaker and research professor whose spent two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame — will know all about the threat of shame. Brené describes shame as the painful experience of believing we’re flawed, which leads us to believe that we aren’t worthy or that we’re simply not good enough. The reason shame is so dangerous is that it causes us to shrink, be silent, disconnect and disengage. As humans, we are built for connection and, without it, we start to lose ourselves. This is a slippery slope towards much more devastating conditions such as anxiety, depression and addiction.
The final sign is the sense that we’re losing who we are. It’s often described as an increase in cynacism and a decrease in empathy, caring and compassion. This can manifest itself as a growing feeling of detachment towards your usual personality and self. We might find ourselves saying all too often, “I’m just not feeling myself today.” This is a perfectly natural feeling when it’s felt from time to time, but if it lasts over days, weeks and months then this is something to dig into.
In our day-to-day, depersonalisation often shows up as no longer finding joy in the things that we love. For example, you might usually be someone who enjoys working with people, but now you find yourself feeling irritated and angry towards them. I’m nodding my head enthusiastically as I type this — this was me all over. I’m a pretty sociable person, I love hanging out with friends and colleagues, having a laugh and getting to know people better. This is certainly not the case when I’m burnt out. In fact, it’s the last thing I want to do. To put it bluntly, every interaction was an effort and an inconvenience. One of my core values is empathy and this, to me, includes compassion and kindness. I try to cultivate these values in my everyday life but, when I was burnt out, it’s safe to say that these went out the window!
The scary thing about this one is that it can happen so gradually and subtly over time that we don’t even realise it’s happening, or that it’s being caused by our environment. We can start to embody our personality change and believe this is really who we are now, and there’s nothing we can do to change it. For what it’s worth, we can change it. It is never too late to re-find ourselves and emerge out of the darkness as our true, whole selves. More on that in the next section…
From burnout to brightness
As I mentioned before, the first step to recovering from burnout is developing self- awareness from your ability to notice the signs of burnout and spot them in yourself.
Let’s now move on from doom and gloom of what it feels like to have burnout and onto how we can tell it to do one. The good news is that the strategies we need to recover from burnout are actually pretty simple. However, the bad news is that if you were hoping for some crazy, magical revelation that you haven’t heard before then you’re going to be disappointed. That’s not to say that the strategies are easy, if they were then we’d all be doing them and I wouldn’t be writing this blog right now. Just because something is simple to understand doesn’t mean that it’s easy to put into practice.
From my experience, I believe that there are 5 “cures” for burnout. These are what have been most impactful for me and they are:
- Sleep and rest
- Calm and stillness
- Healthy boundaries
- Time in nature
- Purpose and meaning
As I did in the last section, I’ll go through each of these one-by-one and share a bit more about why I believe each one is so impactful.
Sleep and rest
If you saw this and rolled your eyes then, believe me, I’m with you. It sounds so obvious that it’s almost patronising. I get it. But the truth is the truth — and that is that we are a chronically sleep-deprived nation. Few of us prioritise getting 7–8 hours sleep like our life depends on it (which studies show that it does, with one suggesting that if you’re sleeping for less than seven hours a night, you’re doing yourself a disservice as grave as that of smoking). And even when we’re so exhausted that we can barely keep our eyes open, we find that we still struggle to get to sleep due to our minds buzzing with to-do lists, stress and anxiety. So I understand that it’s not as simple as, “just sleep more”.
The slower pace of life that this years lockdown forced upon us helped me to understand how sleep-deprived I was, and what rest really meant. It hasn’t been easy and I would estimate that it’s taken me upward of 3 months of practicing good sleep hygiene to finally get my energy back.
For me, good sleep hygiene includes:
- Giving myself at least an 8 hour sleep opportunity every night
- Getting into bed around 9pm so that I’m in bed longer to meet the above
- Reading in bed for 30–45 minutes with a dimming night light
- Avoiding screens and blue lights at least an hour before I go to bed
- Drinking chamomile or calming tea in the evening
- Using a sunrise light rather than a sound alarm to wake me up so that I wake naturally
- Using a sleep tracker (I have a Fitbit) to track my sleep quality and see what works for me
In terms of rest, I’ve benefited a hell of a lot this year from embracing my introverted side and allowing myself to not always be busy doing, socialising or producing. I’ve learnt the beauty and peace of being still, of allowing myself to be quiet and actually enjoy relaxing. In the past, rest and relaxation was a foreign concept for me. I think it’s fair to say that I felt significantly unrelaxed when I wasn’t being productive with my time, whether that was during the work week or at the weekends. I was perpetually busy. Hence my burnout. Obviously I haven’t had much choice but to chill the fff out but I now see that protecting time in my schedule to relax, nap, read, have a bath or just not be on the go all the time is an absolute must.
Calm and stillness
On a related note, practicing calm and stillness is about managing anxiety and emotional reactivity. I’ve learnt that it is massively linked to mindfulness. I used to believe that mindfulness was synonymous to meditation. They were basically the same thing in my mind. What I know now is that mindfulness is actually about having perspective and is the way in which we manage our emotions and impulses. Meditation is one way to do this but it’s not the only way.
What’s worked for me is journalling and regular self-reflection. I’m quite a reflective person anyway but making this a more intentional practice has been incredibly powerful for me. Every Sunday, I make time to reflect on the week that has passed, considering what went well, what didn’t and why. I then think about the week ahead and set myself small, specific goals and consider what I need to do to make this happen and what might get in my way. It’s a quiet moment that I spend with myself every week. It’s not about giving myself a hard time for things I haven’t done. It’s acknowledging, questioning and looking forward. I’ve also got into more general journalling, using guided journalling books like ‘5 Minutes to a Mindful You’ and ‘The 6-Minute Diary’ which prove that even 5 minutes of calm and stillness each day can have a big and positive impact.
Here we have another alien concept for me — you are probably noticing some themes here about the person I once was. When I talk about boundaries, I’m referring to little rules that we put in place, internally or openly, that protect our energy and wellbeing. For example, when we’re contactable, when we need alone time or even who we’re friends with.
I now believe that boundaries are so important, so much so that I think we should be taught about them from an early age and through school. Even so, I’ve found that setting boundaries isn’t easy, and sticking to them is even harder. Often they involve saying no to people, sometimes those we love, and that can be tough. But the upside of having boundaries is not only do they protect our wellbeing, but they also improve our relationships and interactions, as we’re essentially sharing more of ourselves and how we best operate.
These are the boundaries that I’ve developed this year that are most important to me:
- I’m strict about when I start and finish work so that I have time to myself before and after work.
- I don’t have any work apps (such as Outlook and Slack) downloaded on my phone so I’m only contactable when I’m “online” which basically means when I’m on my work laptop.
- I block out “focus time” in my work calendar which is time where I can get into a flow state without distractions, and I protect this time like it’s a client meeting.
- I always take a lunch break for at least an hour.
- I no longer book social meet-ups in the closest available gap in my calendar, I spread them out so that I always have time to relax each week.
You’ll notice that a lot of mine are work-related and that’s because my stressors were heavily linked to my job, but boundaries don’t have to be work related. They could be with friends, family, romantic partners, hobbies, communities, or any other aspect pf your life that you feel needs them.
Time in nature
It’s well known that spending time in nature and making time to be outside in green space can benefit our mental wellbeing. It might be hundreds of years since we were living our best hunter-gatherer lives but our need for connection with nature hasn’t waned even as we’ve become more and more disconnected from it. Being in nature is basically in our DNA.
I’ve found that when I make time to go for a walk in nature in the morning, I have a better day after that. I feel calmer and more reflective, rather than anxious or reactive. It’s a combination of breathing fresh air, feeling sun or wind on my skin, and taking a moment to see the expanse before me that being outside allows. Especially now that we’re in our homes for such prolonged periods, it can feel like we’re trapped inside many boxes. I live in a 2-bedroom flat in London which really does feel like a small box sometimes with few options to go to. I then spend my working day in another, even smaller box which is my laptop screen. My daily outside time is an escape from the boxes, and a time for me to check in with myself and the world around me.
Purpose and meaning
This last one might seem a little strange but it’s a biggie. For me, purpose is about doing things for a reason that is higher than materialistic gain. It’s a reason to get up in the morning and what helps us to go to sleep at night feeling grateful and fulfilled. However, when we lose our sense of purpose and meaning in our lives, it can send us into some really dark and uncertain places. We need our purpose to show us the light and bring us back to what’s important.
This is even more important now as we’ve seen our normal life pulled from beneath our feet. We all need a sense of purpose to keep us going and to help us to see that there is still something worthwhile, evenwhen the noise of normality goes quiet. When I reflect back on my experience with burnout, I think that part of what led me to overwork was because I didn’t know what I was striving for. So I would work myself harder and harder, while burdened by perfectionism, in a desperate pursuit for meaning. The problem was that it never felt good enough.
It’s been a big year for me in terms of “finding myself” (yes, I’m cringing too) and what’s important for me. Now that I’m clear on this, I feel much more at ease. I’m able to prioritise how I spend my time with clarity and confidence. It’s made it easier for me to say no to things that don’t align to my purpose and values. I have something to come back to when I feel that something isn’t right and question what might be conflicting with what I believe to make me feel this way
To get closer to my purpose, I started by asking myself these 3 questions:
- What gets me up in the morning?
- When do I feel that I add the most value?
- What do I want to be remembered for?
I also used an adapted version of the ikigai framework to help me narrow in further which you can see below:
If you’re wondering what my purpose is, I’d say that it’s always evolving but what I’ve settled on for now is this:
To live authentically, to make difference and to inspire people, and have fun while I’m at it.
If you’ve gotten this far then thank you so much for taking the time to read my story. I hope that you found something useful or comforting in it. I decided to write this blog from a place of love, kindness and vulnerability. Having been through the pain of burnout and come out the other end, I want to help others to do the same. The amount of friends, family and colleagues that I see who are clearly struggling themselves is deeply concerning. It’s something that keeps me up at night. I so strongly believe that we should be talking about stress, mental health and wellbeing everyday, and that these things shouldn’t be shrouded in secrecy when so many of us are struggling. I also believe that it’s important for people like me, those that appear confident, successful and like they have it all together, to share our stories of mental health too. Because as we know very well, what you see on outside or on social media isn’t all that it seems.
If you have any thoughts, suggestions and stories to share related to this, please do feel free to reach out. I’d love to hear from you.
- The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown
- Daring Greatly, Brené Brown
- Lost Connections, Johann Hari
- Rushing Woman’s Syndrome, Dr Libby Weaver
- Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker
About the author
Nat is a strategic designer, with hands-on experience leading projects across all stages of the design lifecycle with a range of clients including Insights, Amnesty International, DVSA, Fidelity, HSBC, ITV and Pizza Hut.
Nat prides herself on her adaptability, helping her clients to bring clarity and narrow in on the right vision, strategies and cultures for their future. As a dedicated advocate for equality, diversity and inclusion, she understands how to bring diverse teams together to create productive and creative spaces where innovation can thrive.
Nat started her career in digital banking before joining SPARCK in 2016, shortly after it had launched. During her time there, she helped to shape and grow the company into a mature organisation, most notably by building and embedding a high performing, innovative and inclusive culture. As a dedicated people leader, Nat has proven her ability to motivate people to an aligned mission and build an effective culture where people grow and excel.
Nat now helps purpose-driven companies to design their vision, strategies and cultures to help them grow their impact in the world.