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What really is Burnout and why is it such a big issue in today’s society?

As we approach the “most wonderful time of the year” a lot of people are only just managing to make it to the break, desperate to be able to take a break from their screens, demands of the workplace and to try and switch off. The stress of work can leave people feeling “burnt out”, but what does that really mean?

As we approach the “most wonderful time of the year” a lot of people are only just managing to make it to the break, desperate to be able to take a break from their screens, demands of the workplace and to try and switch off. The stress of work can leave people feeling “burnt out”, but what does that really mean?

What is burnout?
Burnout isn’t simply a case of being overwhelmed with the demands of life, but is in fact an occupational phenomenon and not classified as a medical condition. Defined as a “chronic state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged or excessive stress”.

“Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.” [1]

It is a relatively recent concept, first identified by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the late 1970s.[2] However, burnout has become increasingly common in recent years, with estimates suggesting that up to 75% of employees experience burnout at some point in their careers.[3]

There are a number of reasons why burnout has become such a big issue in society today. One of those reasons is that the modern workplace is increasingly demanding and competitive. Employees are often expected to work long hours, juggle multiple responsibilities, and meet unrealistic deadlines. This can lead to feelings of overwhelm, cynicism, and detachment.

Burnout results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, with reported symptoms including headaches, aches and pain, sleep issues, fatigue, muscle tension, concentration difficulties, anxiety, low mood or emotional numbness, reduced productivity, lack of purpose or motivation, increased cynicism, feeling detached and absenteeism.[4]

When asked for her opinion on the rising cases of burnout, Beverly Knops, Executive manager and Specialist Occupational Therapist at Vitality360 said, “I believe there has been an increase in cases of burnout at least, in part, due to the more demanding work days with less time for a private life. With the individuals who come to us, they often present with exhaustion, reduced confidence in their abilities and a detachment from work. They are often at a loss of where to go next. Our team of experts help individuals spot the warning signs and make changes to improve their personal wellbeing, reducing the risk or burnout and potential absence from work. Together we come up with ideas to optimise their health in the long term.”

Why is burnout a concern?
People are facing more intense working days than ever, with less time for their private lives and an increased risk of burnout, according to research by the TUC.[5]

For both individuals and for organisations burnout is a growing concern. Burnout negatively impacts an individual’s physical and mental health, potentially leading to increased stress, anxiety and other long-term health issues. As you can imagine, within a workplace this can significantly affect productivity and performance. With diminished productivity, creativity and the overall quality of work performed by an individual, over time, this will adversely impact an organisation’s performance and success. [6]

Burnout often contributes to higher staff attrition, with individual employees seeking better work environments. High levels of burnout can harm an organisation’s reputation, making it less attractive to potential employees and customers.

What to watch out for?
Look around you right now, how close are you to your mobile phone? How many of you have your work emails pinging in your inbox 24/7? How many of you are guilty of just taking a “quick-look” out of official working hours just to try and make the rest of your week go smoothly? Guilty as charged?

The rise of technology; we are now constantly connected to work, even when we are not at the office. This blurring of boundaries between work and personal life can make it difficult to relax and recharge.

In addition, the current economic climate isn’t helping. With many people feeling insecure about their jobs and their finances, individuals are less likely to speak up and “rock the boat” at work when this growing list of concerns just continues to grow. Decreased workforces, unmanageable workloads and unreasonable time pressures, not being treated well at work, lack of communication and support, lack of role clarity and feeling unappreciated… any of this sound familiar?

With three out of five working people (61%) saying they felt exhausted at the end of the working day, (from a study polling more than 2,000 working people in England and Wales) [7]you wouldn’t be alone if this resonates with you.

So, what should we be doing?
As an individual, make sure you know what to look for:

  • Learn to recognise and identify the source of your stress: Once you know what is causing your stress, you can start to develop strategies to manage it. This may involve talking to your manager about your workload, setting boundaries between work and personal life, or learning how to say no to additional commitments.
  • Develop a work life balance; however that looks for you, write it down, make a plan, stick to it.
  • Take breaks: Schedule regular breaks throughout the day to relax and recharge. This could involve taking a short walk, listening to music, or simply closing your eyes and taking deep breaths.
  • Prioritise self-care and exercise the body and mind; exercise is always a winner, go for a brisk walk with the dog, take a dip in your local pool, dance around your living room, whatever it is, get your body moving. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week.
  • Whilst prioritising self-care make sure you get enough sleep; this means aiming for 7-8 hours of sleep per night. When you are well-rested, you will be better able to cope with stress and function at your best.
  • Eat a healthy diet; eating nutritious foods can help to improve your energy levels and reduce stress. Avoid processed foods, sugary drinks, and excessive caffeine.
  • Maintain a support network; a problem shared is a problem halved, talking is important, make sure you have a support network both inside and outside of work.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek help; professionals like the experts at Vitality360 can be a great starting point if you find you need a bit of advice. They can help you to develop coping mechanisms and develop a plan to get back on track.

Burnout is a serious issue that can have a significant impact on your personal and professional life. By taking steps to manage stress and prioritise your well-being, you can prevent burnout and live a healthier, happier life. Now, time to go and enjoy that “most wonderful time of the year” – please look after yourselves in the process.

[1] World Health Organisation (WHO) definition of Burnout

[2] Freduenberger.Herbert J. Research

[3] The State of the Global Workplace Gallup

[4] World Health Organisation; Burnout as occupational phenomenon

[5] The TUC work intensification report

[6] The NcKinsey Health Institute: Employee health moving beyond burnout

[7] The TUC work Intensification Report

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