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How to manage burnout

A lady’s head resting on top of a laptop, in anguish

When we don’t deal with our stressors, our stress turns chronic. This is known as burnout, and it’s becoming more and more common.

Burnout can affect our physical and mental wellbeing, sometimes with long-term consequences. It can happen to anyone at any time. It’s not a weakness, but a sign that you’ve been pushing yourself past your limits for too long.

We’ve teamed up with caba, the independent charity helping the ICAEW community thrive, to offer advice on burnout and how to deal with it.

What are the signs of burnout?

Burnout can sometimes creep up on us without any warning. But if we don’t know the signs, we may dismiss them as something else, or ignore them completely. Here’s how to spot the signs of burnout in yourself and the people around you.

Symptoms can include:

Brain fog

This is when your brain is overwhelmed and you start to find it harder to find the right word, or remember things, or understand instructions, or even complete basic tasks. It can often feel like you’re moving through treacle, or the world is muffled around you. Everyone experiences this slightly differently, but you know something just isn’t quite right.

Joint pain

You might not expect stress to physically affect you, as it’s a mental condition isn’t it? Well no, our brains interpret physical and emotional pain in the same place – the amygdala. This means that prolonged emotional pain can lead to physical pain, too.

You may feel sharp, shooting pains, or a constant ache throughout your body. It could also manifest as pulsing or coursing pain, pins and needles, or weak muscles.

Over time, if left untreated, this can lead to chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia.

Digestive problems

Another physical reaction to burnout can be in your gut. Our digestive system can be heavily affected by our body’s fight or flight response. Issues such as diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), nausea, and indigestion are some of the ways stress can affect our digestive systems.

Fatigue and low energy

It’s no wonder that you’ll be feeling tired and worn out if you’re burned out. You may struggle to do day to day tasks, or just can’t be bothered any more, with anything.

Excessive sleep

And if you are fatigued and have no energy, it’s no surprise that you will want to sleep more. Sadly sleeping more might not solve the problem - it can actually make it worse.

No motivation

All of the above can lead to having absolutely no “oomph” to get going or do anything. Tasks may feel futile, and you wonder why you’re bothering at all.

Changes in your mood

The decreased energy and lack of sleep that comes with burnout can mean we operate with a shorter fuse and become easily irritated. You may also start to feel detached from everything around you. Things that you used to enjoy may no longer appeal, and you may start to lose interest in even basic activities, such as caring about yourself and others around you.

Inability to switch off

Twenty-first century life already makes it hard to switch off. The difference when it comes to burnout is that you may find you worry about work, or whatever else is causing you stress, even when doing fun activities like family days out.

It’s a challenge to get your brain to focus and be in the moment because it’s always worrying about what could happen, or anticipating the next threat.

Feeling overwhelmed

When you hit a certain point, you may find that you feel overwhelmed, even if there isn’t much going on. You may have a lighter workload than usual, but feel like you don’t have enough time to get everything done because you don’t have the same energy that you usually do. Even the smallest task may feel impossible when you’re experiencing burnout.

Coping techniques and managing burnout

A small amount of stress is normal, burnout is not. It’s important to manage stress carefully so it doesn’t overwhelm you, and you can continue to function at work, at home, and in everyday life.

Know your limits

If you have an unrealistically heavy workload, admitting you can't do it all is the first step towards regaining control of the situation. If you have too much work on right now, chances are your to-do list will be even longer tomorrow.

Try to take control of the situation. One of the most important ways to do that is to get used to saying 'no' or 'not right now' to anyone who keeps piling work on you.

Or at least to make sure they have more realistic expectations of you. If you don't, the quality of your work, and ability to stick to deadlines, could suffer. You may also find exhaustion affects your physical health.

Saying 'no' occasionally is much easier than having to deal with what happens when you say 'yes' all the time.

Priorities

If your to-do list is too long, you need to prioritise the most important tasks. And accept you can’t do everything - you’re not a superhero.

Assess your task list and work out what needs to be done right now, what can wait, and what doesn’t need to be done in the near future.

Use the Franklin-Covey method of prioritising to split your work into accessible tasks. So mark each task like this:

A: Urgent and important

B: Important but not urgent

C: Urgent but not important

D: Neither urgent nor important

One task at a time

Multitasking is often seen as a great skill, but it can be completely overwhelming, especially if you have lots of A tasks that need your attention. You may actually not perform your best on all of the tasks, and actually underperform on the important ones. And it can mean that you take longer to complete the tasks than you actually intended.

Decide on the best order to complete tasks which fall into the same priority category. Do the most important task first and only move on to the next one when you’ve finished.

Bad habits have to stop

We all have them - the little things we do that distract us for a few minutes, or waste a little bit of time every day - chatting a little too long with a coworker, checking junk mail, reading an extra blog. All of these seemingly inconsequential little moments can really add up, and can also be a sign that you’re putting off starting work on a task.

Identify all your time-wasting habits by writing down everything you do during your working day for a week. You'll soon see how much more time you could devote to realising your deadlines if you cut out, or changed, those small habits.

Deadlines

Deadlines are often the biggest cause of stress in the workplace because they’re seen as set in stone. If you’re working towards an unachievable deadline, you have nothing to lose by asking your manager or employer to consider extending it.

If the deadline can’t be moved, ask for more resources, or alter the task to make it more achievable. If nothing else, you’ll have made your position on the unattainable deadline clear.

When you accept a deadline, your employer or manager will expect you to stick to it. So instead of trying to impress them by attempting to achieve the impossible, manage their expectations by being more realistic.

Look after yourself

Don’t let your work overwhelm you. Take regular breaks, but don’t overdo them. And don’t work through breaks - you need a little time away from your screen to help you feel refreshed and more focused. 20 minutes is recommended.

If you can, find a quiet space to sit, close your eyes, clear your mind, and focus on your breathing. It’s amazing how relaxing this can be, even in a short amount of time.

And if you’re still weighed down by impossible deadlines and tasks, ask for help. Your employer or manager may not even realise how much pressure you’re under, so don’t feel like you have to suffer in silence.

Talking to your manager about your challenges isn’t admitting defeat, and can be far more beneficial than pretending everything’s fine when it isn’t.

Final thoughts

If stress and burnout are taking over, ask for help. If your manager can help, great, but you may also feel you need to talk to your GP or other healthcare professionals. Looking after yourself is more important than the next deadline.

This blog is a joint collaboration between Kaplan and caba. caba is the charity that supports ACA students, past and present ICAEW members and their close family dependents.