Burnout: what it is and how to reset

By Geoff Harris

Burnout: the word tends to be associated with overwork, but as we’ve seen during the pandemic and lockdowns, all kinds of stress and dysfunction can cause that awful sense of impending physical and mental collapse.

The word ‘burnout’ was once associated with a full-on nervous breakdown, with all the associated stigma and taboo; something people felt ashamed about, something associated with weakness.

Nowadays, burnout is often associated with work: a boss with unrealistic expectations, targets and deadlines, along with difficult colleagues, office politics, long work hours and belittling management…

In other words, slogging away on the corporate treadmill where ‘enough is never enough’ takes toll over time.

However, the causes of burnout are not just limited to the workplace. Burnout is also frequently caused by break-ups and divorces, abusive relationships, caring for a sick family member or loved one, grief, motherhood and post-natal depression, life as a single parent and so on.

Photo by M.T Elglassier on Unsplash

“Someone once said to me work wasn’t for enjoyment, that people didn’t always enjoy their jobs and it was a way to pay the bills and meet parental responsibility,” says Katrina Evans, a self-employed art model and actor who knows first-hand what burnout feels like.

“We hear so many people in the media telling us to do what we love and the rest falls into place. I wish I had heard this mantra more when I was younger. Instead, I continued for many years in the corporate world, scared to leave and becoming increasingly unhappy.”

Katrina’s story was one of burnout, although she didn’t recognise it at the time. “It felt like I needed to be two people at once, and for the day to be 48 hours as opposed to 24! “

As Katrina explains, however, her burnout came from an accumulation of many things. “I was a single mum, had a string of bad relationships, was living in a small town where I had no close friendships so had little emotional support, was facing a toxic work environment in a role that offered little job satisfaction, not to mention the endless domestic and parental responsibilities, with some sleepless nights thrown in and I had very little time for myself, I was exhausted.”

Katrina describes the feeling of heading downhill at a rapid rate of knots, a typical sign of burnout. But hitting rock bottom also provided an opportunity to change things for the better.

“This was my ‘reset’…… my spiritual awakening. My self-awareness grew, forcing me to be brave and make some drastic changes.”

If, like Katrina, you are on the edge of burnout and need a recovery plan, here are some simple steps that can help to turn things around.

1) Recognise there is a problem and establish where the causes lie. Work, relationships, whatever…

2) Stop or slow down and find some support if you can. If you can’t get support easily, Katrina suggests listening to relevant podcasts. “Some that have helped me feature Bryony Gordon, Fearne Cotton, Russell Brand and Eckhart Tolle, to name a few. Once you start reading and listening, you’ll soon see some parallels with your own experience.”

3) Focus on the basics: sleep, meditation, exercise, healthy eating, adequate hydration, ditching alcohol if necessary, reading, walks in nature…. “Choose a couple of things – little and often,” Katrina advises.

4) Reassess your personal goals and values, and be patient. It can take as long to recover from burnout as it did for the problem to develop.

5) Exercise can be a massive help too. “I find yoga and swimming really beneficial,” adds Katrina. “If your body has gone through burnout, you don’t want anything too extreme, try more gentle exercise that helps you to destress, and be more mindful about the pressures you are dealing with. Or just going out for a walk; this is something Stephen Fry strongly recommends for dealing with anxiety and depression, which are common signs of burnout. He walks ten miles a day, while listening to an audio book.”

Despite all the positive changes she has made to cope with burnout, Katrina still has to be vigilant, however.

“I am still on the go 24/7, juggling various self-employed jobs, being a mum, maintaining domestic duties etc… sometimes I forget myself; I forget to look after me. I haven’t taken the time to do some yoga or go for a long walk, to listen to music or a podcast, to read a book, to ensure I am drinking six glasses of water a day, to rest and get enough sleep or mindfully cook healthy food. It’s a constant checking-in process. Just remember, despite everything else that’s going on around you and all the demands on your time, it’s important to remember that you’re allowed to care about you first!”

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Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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