Burnout Can Halt A Career In Its Tracks – Here’s How To Spot If Stress Has Become Toxic And What To Do If It Has

Properly channelled, stress can actually be good for you. That morning-kick of the stress hormone cortisol can give you real drive, where mere ambition falls short. But when the stress factors pile up, you are no longer able to clear your daily ‘buffer’ and this leads to chronic stress, which gradually exhausts you physically and mentally. Burnouts are not usually sudden – they creep up on you but by the time you realise you can already be in a mindset where not only are you unable to perform professionally, but you don’t care either.

It’s not a happy place to be, and according to Britain’s Health And Safety Executive, a terrifying 23% of full time workers admitted to feeling burnt out all of the time. 15.4 million working days were lost last year in the UK alone from work-related stress and anxiety. The main culprit seems to be high workloads, which causes 44% of stress and depression at work.

In the USA only 40% of employees say they know what is expected of them, which can often lead to people taking on too many tasks, or working too much overtime. And if you’re leading a startup then the risks of burnout can be even higher, because you have to put your all into it. So, how can you spot the danger signs in your everyday working experience before they lead to a burnout and its associated serious mental health problems, like depression? Read on to find out…

How To Spot The Signs Of Burnout:

1. You Feel Anxious And Isolated
An early-warning sign of burnout can be a general feeling of anxiety and worry, as well as pessimism. This can lead to problems both at work and in your personal life, and can go hand in hand with becoming more isolated: not wanting to go to lunch with colleagues, for instance, or avoiding face to face interactions by coming into work early, or leaving late.

‘Chronic stress can sap your ability to get things done, even if you work harder’

2. Your To Do List Isn’t Getting Shorter
Ever feel like your To Do List has morphed into a bottomless pit? You may be working even more hours than before but somehow your productivity has flatlined and you just can’t climb out from under the pile. Chronic stress can sap your ability to get things done, even if you try, and this often follows being over-engaged in a problem. ‘Over-engagement is a symptom of high-stress levels. Going to sleep and waking up thinking about a problem or a deadline is a perfect example of over-engagement,’ says Lucinda Pullinger, Global Head of HR at The Instant Group.

The science is simple – overstimulate your sympathetic nervous system through stress and your parasympathetic nervous system will be unable to recover properly at night, when you sleep. Once exhaustion from over-engagement sets in, then you can end up doing the opposite, losing your ability to focus and disengaging. ‘When you start to disengage with your work or personal problems – by ignoring or avoiding them – burnout warning bells should start ringing,’ adds Pullinger.

3. Deadlines Start To Make You Feel Helpless
The normal stress response to a crunch week, or looming deadline, is to feel a sense of urgency and throw yourself into a hyperactive quest to finish the task – but if your crunch points are perpetual, then this quickly becomes unsustainable. ‘Burnout is characterised by helplessness and hopelessness; the belief that nothing you do is going to have any effect on your situation or drive any real change,’ says Pullinger. You are likely to ask yourself: “What’s the point?”

4. Your Emotions Are Becoming Blunted
We’ve all seen the effects of being stressed out in our colleagues. A team can absorb only so much stress until someone freaks out, unable to control their emotions and becoming angry or upset. This is a natural safety valve, but if chronic stress sets in then what happens next is less visible, but can be much more damaging: your emotional response starts to shut down. ‘With blunted emotions, you may feel that you do not have the energy to react emotionally to situations, or that you are unable to feel excited or worried at all,’ reports Pullinger.

‘It’s vitally important to learn to create a mental divide between work and your life outside it’

What To Do About It:

1. List Your Problems To Take Back Control
Rather than sticking your head in the sand and letting your problems run over you, confront them by making a list. ‘It’s easy to ignore or downplay other issues in your life that may be contributing to your burnout. Make a list of all things you worry about daily, including the things you feel that you have no power to change,’ recommends Pullinger. Once you’ve got them down, rate them in importance so you know which to tackle first.

2. Find Some Support
Talking about a problem can be the first step to a solution. If you’re not comfortable talking to a co-worker or boss, then find a good listener or a professional to hear you out and help you to address the causes of your burnout. There’s no shame in asking for help.

3. Create Some Boundaries
RSNG knows of teams who exchange messages late on Sunday evenings to set the schedule for their Mondays. Not only is this likely to generate low-level anxiety, as one week ends with no idea how the next will begin, but it’s also a classic case of work stress bleeding unnecessarily into downtime. Pullinger agrees: ‘It’s vitally important to learn to create a mental divide between work and your life outside it, as it’s extremely unhealthy and unproductive to be thinking about work during ‘off time’.’

4. Take A Break
Once you spot the signs of an approaching burnout, you’ll be doing nobody any favours by doubling down and attempting to battle through it. Instead, work out when you can take a break and book some time off for a mental reset. ‘In some cases, merely having some time away from work helps to re-evaluate your priorities and enables you to get to the root of your stresses. If you’re worried about using up all your annual leave, strategically book leave to optimise your time off,’ recommends Pullinger. Just a few days of annual leave can create long weekends and exploit public holidays for extended breaks.

5. Remix Your Working Week
Whether you’re leading a startup, or working for an employer, it’s your responsibility to find a life-work balance that is sustainable for you. Fortunately, the trends are working in your favour as more businesses are becoming aware of the productivity benefits of being more agile, using remote working and having flexible working hours, in order to reduce commuting.

Take advantage of the trends to work in a way that maximises your productivity, while allowing time for a fulfilling life outside of work, says Pullinger: ‘Take a few minutes each day to acknowledge your anxieties for what they are; irrational and exaggerated, and prioritise things like spending time with friends and family and outdoor activities.’

WHAT NEXT? Hear more about how burnouts work by someone who has been through one, with Fédéric Meuwly’s Ted Talk.

Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations – always seek professional help if you are exhibiting clinical symptoms.

Lucinda Pullinger is Global Head of HR at The Instant Group. Founded in 1999, The Instant Group is a workspace innovation company that rethinks workspace on behalf of its clients injecting flexibility, reducing cost and driving enterprise performance.

Follow the writer on Instagram @The_Adventure_Fella