CHAMPS Consulting - burnout - blog post


How to spot signs of burnout, even when working from home

Burnout is increasingly common, probably not surprising given the year we have all had! You’ve likely seen many articles mentioning it which is great in terms of awareness.  But if you’re anything like me when I’m feeling overloaded, it is just one more thing to read when all I want to do is take a nap or disengage my brain with some meaningless telly.  As is this blog post for you – I can see the irony!!

Trying to maintain a healthy balance throughout the pandemic has been completely and utterly exhausting. I’m often emotional, occasionally irritable, and the thought of yet another Zoom call sometimes feels like it’s enough to tip me over the edge. I simply just cannot be bothered but when it comes to it, I plaster on a smile, garner some energy into my voice and pretend I’m all over it.

I doubt I am alone. Masked behind closed doors and behind smiles over Zoom, burnout can be hard to spot, particularly when your employees are working from home.

Add in the fact that people working from home are less likely to take a sick day and you’ve got the risk of higher presenteeism, and people pushing themselves further beyond their emotional, physical and mental capacity. The result? Burnout.

It’s now thought that up to 22% of us have experienced job-related burnout, with a slightly higher prevalence in men. This means that as many as 12 million people have experienced burnout, and there are concerns that the fallout of the pandemic is set to skyrocket these figures. 

If those numbers don’t make you think it’s time to prioritise burnout, maybe the rest of the thoughts and facts in this article will..

What is Burnout?

Burnout is what happens when we reach our limits; physically, mentally, and emotionally. This is caused by excessive or prolonged stress. It’s really important to emphasise that burnout is not stress itself, but a direct consequence of it. And to point out that stress doesn’t always feel like stress – it is the sheer relentless monotony of keeping going that can build up just as much as a ton of stress being dumped from on high at one point in time.

If you’re familiar with the stress (or burden) bucket, then you’ll also know that burnout results from the occurrence of lots of little stressors, pressures, demand and worries. If these fill up our bucket faster than we’re able to empty it with effective coping mechanisms, our stress levels will overflow resulting in burnout or worse – mental health crisis.

Coined by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s, burnout describes a severe stress condition that differs from ordinary fatigue – it completely saps your energy, making you unable to meet constant demands. With or without the pandemic, burnout can make you feel emotionally drained and unable to function, and has the capacity to lower our motivation and make us feel helpless, hopeless, and resentful.

While I’d love to tell you otherwise, burnout doesn’t go away on its own. If it’s left untreated, it can lead to serious physical and psychological illnesses like depression, heart disease, and diabetes. I’m not saying this to instill a sense of fear, I’m saying this to highlight that severity of burnout. This is why it’s absolutely crucial to try and get to grips with preventative measures early on before things spiral out of control.

The problem with Burnout

The problem with burnout is that it happens far too often. I’ve seen loved ones, colleagues, and even myself fall into burnout over the years, and it’s definitely no picnic.

I know many of us could argue that our ever-connected society is likely to result in more burnout than before. This intense, ‘always on’ culture means that people feel more pressure than ever to be productive, be online, be hustling outside of work, and basically be available 24/7. But the simple fact is that humans aren’t able to sustain this, no matter how hard we might try.

I have to really discipline myself to not check my emails outside of work, and set clear boundaries between my work life and home life. It’s a balancing act that I don’t always get right, and I have to continually bring my awareness to situations, scenarios and experiences that have the capacity to increase the likelihood of stress. Sometimes it is only the fear of going there again which motivates me to stop.  If you’ve never been there, it is easy to think it will never impact you personally. It could.  Absolutely it could.

Regardless, if you are a leader or manager in your workplace, if you find yourself also struggling to set clear work boundaries, it is likely that your team may also be experiencing the same problem. So role modelling is vital.

If we’re ever going to get on top of burnout, we need to look more directly at our workplace culture, which can have a detrimental effect on our stress levels. 

According to a 2020 global report, the main cause of employee burnout is due to poor workplace culture, not the type or amount of work we undertake. Toxic workplace culture has been found to increase moderate to severe burnout by 157 per cent, with the UK coming in second only to Japan when it comes to global workforce burnout.

Workplace culture also closely interlinks with pressures of presenteeism; we can feel that we have to work even when we’re unable to perform our duties at full capacity due to illness or mental and physical distress. 

What makes things more complicated is that presenteeism isn’t easy to spot; you know when someone doesn’t show up for work, but you often can’t tell when, or how much, an illness or a medical condition is affecting someone’s performance. This can be even harder to spot as we move towards a hybrid working model, when out of sight can easily become out of mind.

We may look perfectly fine from the outside, but people don’t truly see how we feel. If we have perfectionist tendencies, or find it difficult to admit to ourselves and others that we’re struggling (known as internalisation), the more likely we are to feel complete mental and physical exhaustion. 

Who can experience burnout

Absolutely anyone can experience burnout, regardless of seniority. Whether you’re an entry level employee or a Managing Director, burnout is a real and growing threat in our increasingly fast-paced world.

It’s important to remember that there is absolutely no shame in admitting that you’re struggling- it’s nothing to feel guilty about, and it hasn’t occurred because of any weakness on your behalf. Burnout is a by-product of our busy lives, and we need to listen to our bodies and minds when they show signs of stress. In my experience, personally and as a leadership coach, ignoring the signs often results in our bodies making the decision for us – leading to an illness or condition that simply means we have to stop.  RIght then and there.

All burnouts are generally united by a common theme; prolonged and intense exposure to high stress environments and situations. But there are actually different types of burnout depending on our experiences. While career burnout is the most common, compassion and carer burnout fatigue can also create severe emotional stress, which takes its toll on our health, relationships, and state of mind.

Our personality types can also play a part in our burnout susceptibility. If you often need to be in control or continually seek perfectionism (hands up who’s with me?!), it increases our chances of burnout, as what we’re aiming for is ultimately unsustainable. If we happen to fall into what we call a ‘Type A’ personality, i.e. competitive, time-focused and self-critical, we’re more likely to experience burnout as a consequence. 

The 12 stages of burnout

According to Freudenberger and North’s Scientific American article, there are 12 stages of burnout:

  1. Excessive drive and ambition- demonstrating your worth obsessively. This tends to hit the most diligent employees, and those who readily accept responsibility
  2. Pushing yourself to work harder- an inability to switch off
  3. Neglecting your own needs- erratic sleeping, disrupted eating patterns, and lack of social interaction
  4. Displacement of conflicts- problems are often dismissed, and we may feel threatened, panicky, and anxious
  5. No time for non-work-related needs- our values become skewed, friends and family are dismissed, and hobbies seen as irrelevant- work is our only focus
  6. Denial of emerging issues- we feel a tendency to perceive colleagues and collaborators as stupid, lazy, demanding, or undisciplined. We also experience cynicism and aggression; problems are viewed as a result of time pressure and work, not because of our life changes
  7. Withdrawal- social lives become small or practically non-existent
  8. Behavioural changes- changes in behaviour become obvious to our friends and family
  9. Depersonalisation- we don’t see ourselves or others as valuable, and no longer perceive our own needs
  10. Inner emptiness- a feeling of emptiness inside. To try and overcome this, we indulge in activities such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs. Activities are often exaggerated
  11. Depression- feeling lost and unsure, or exhausted. Our future feels bleak and dark
  12. Burnout Syndrome- this can include total mental and physical collapse, which is the point that we need medical attention.

When we push our creativity and productivity to the limit, we can easily find ourselves teetering on the brink of burnout. There’s a fine line between being in the zone and falling down the very slippery slope of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion.

How can you spot the signs of burnout

If you’re looking to spot signs of burnout more easily, the first step is to develop the self-awareness to identify when you or your colleagues aren’t coping as well as you could be. 

The signs of burnout can be physical, emotional and behavioural, such as exhaustion, isolation, irritability, increased illness, or a feeling of being run down, as well as escape fantasies that focus on finding a way to break free from a stressful situation – I am particularly guilty of this one and one of my telltale signs is almost compulsive reading of crime/thriller books for hours on end as I try and escape my reality.

I’d recommend regularly checking in with your employees and colleagues to make sure that your team is healthy, happy, and productive. 

While a lot of this will be down to external factors outside of work, think about what you can do as a leader to open up conversations with your team and how to make things better. Could a colleague benefit from some help with a task or a project? Can their duties be streamlined to help them feel less overwhelmed? Can you implement healthy work boundaries from the top-down?

This is something that we take seriously here at CHAMPS, and our services tailored for leaders and managers enable you to foster psychologically safe workplaces where you can empower yourself and your team. By talking about our mental health more openly, the more we can improve company culture, destigmatise mental health and cultivate wellbeing for all.

What to do if you, or your employees, are burnt out?

Speaking from experience, I know that burnouts can be incredibly debilitating. But they can be combatted and treated effectively if the right kind of support is in place; the trick is to nip things in the bud before our stresses take hold.

 As a leader, you have the power to facilitate this by supporting your team members. This can be done in numerous ways including, but not limited to, reducing workload expectations, extending deadlines, or hiring additional staff as and when you can.

It’s also helpful to provide some external professional mental health support to yourself and your team. Our My Mental Wealth CHAMPion training is aimed at all employees, and works as an opportunity for everyone to upskill their mental health awareness, as well as focusing on preventative measures to reduce the likelihood of mental health crisis.

Regardless of what kind of support you go for, it’s essential that managers and team leaders receive adequate training so that they can effectively reduce burnout within their teams. Whether this is in the form of a one-off workshop or continued coaching, there are plenty of options available at CHAMPS which demonstrate the power of vulnerability and compassion within leadership.

If you’re a manager, junior or director, make sure you reach out and ask for help if you’re dealing with burnout. It can be really difficult to admit we’re struggling, especially if we’re facing so many pressures, but things will continue to spiral if you don’t open up. By voicing how you feel to a friend or a colleague, you take a solid step towards changing the situation for the better.

And as a manager, leader, or employer, make sure that you create a safe space for your team to come forward in discussing the pressures and challenges they are facing. 

Burnout: Closing Thoughts

The important thing to remember is that burnout is entirely preventable. As we’ve now seen levels of burnout grown exponentially, it’s crucial for us to get into the habit of actively looking for signs of burnout, and reduce the likelihood of employees suffering mental and physical exhaustion. This can be achieved effectively with mental health training and support; for those experiencing burnout, and for those supporting others with the condition.

I know that a lot of this article might seem a little doom and gloom, but half the battle of tackling burnout comes from opening up honest conversations about it. We all have mental health, and we all face our own unique set of obstacles in our lives. But by investing time and effort into the wellbeing of ourselves and our teams, the more likely we are to be healthy, productive, burnout-free.

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