Mental Health

If we know burnout is bad, why can’t we stop?

Overworked, overstressed and overtired, burnout is rife in today’s society. And even though we know it’s affecting our day-to-day lives, we still struggle to switch off, to the detriment of our health and wellbeing.

If we know burnout is bad, why can’t we stop?
Niellah Arboine
Daniella Batsheva

I get stress hiccups. In fact, stress is one of the main triggers for hiccups according to the NHS. It’s sort of a jokey tidbit that I accidentally tell everyone when I start a new job (and at this point, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy). Then about six months down the line, when I’m furiously hiccuping behind my computer, nervous eyes dart over at me from across the office.

The first time I recall it happening was during my A-Levels. My art teacher, with her draconian methods of teaching, stood behind me in an empty classroom, while I painted with tears rolling down my cheeks letting out small hiccups. 'This isn’t art therapy,' she’d taunt on probably day five of my 10-hour exam. An accumulation of a lack of sleep, constant revision, and pressure from family and teachers that these exams would decide the trajectory of the rest of my life, led to a full-stress meltdown. I hiccupped for a week.

While the ‘let's get this bread’ hustle culture of the last few years has stopped being so glamorised, the realities of work stress are still very much here, and it feels like it might be getting worse.

We’re in a cost of living crisis, people can’t afford to heat up their homes, house prices have skyrocketed, and with the average cost of a home in London now coming in at ​​£520,000 (meaning that I’ll probably have to work until retirement to buy a cupboard-sized flat), sometimes it feels like we have no choice but to work even harder and longer to simply survive. But what are the impacts of stress on our mental health, and can we even get off this rat race rollercoaster?

For Zara*, who works in the public sector in London, it was the pandemic that caused a “complete breakdown of my personal and work life”, and she soon realised work stress was getting on top of her – she was burning out. “On the whole I worked in my bedroom, meaning a complete lack of boundaries between my personal and professional life.”

It’s something Floss Knight, psychotherapist and CEO of UK Therapy Guide can attest to. “The pandemic and the shift to many people working from home has had a tangible impact on people's ability to leave work worries at work,” she explains. “Many people work from home so the lines between work and home life are increasingly blurred.”

After a year of intense stress, Zara’s heart rate was above average and she developed digestive problems culminating in chronic stomach pains. “After quite a few tests including an endoscopy, my doctor diagnosed me as most likely having gastritis and IBS, brought on by work-related stress.”

While Zara says she’s found a “healthier balance of productivity and wellbeing” in her new role, she hasn’t changed sectors and still experiences some work stress. “Living in a digital and capitalist culture with algorithms trolling your every online shopping purchase, it's really difficult to deconstruct your ability to consume and earning potential in a way that's probably healthy.”

Things get trickier when your sense of self becomes intertwined in your work and career. “Linking self-worth to productivity can be a very dangerous cycle, as it promotes feelings of guilt when the very human need to rest comes to the forefront,” says Floss.

It’s a feeling that artist and creative Daniel* can relate to. He initially studied medicine and soon realised the long hours required were taking too much of a toll on his mental health and he was burning out. “We live in a society where working hard and not resting is lauded, where going in when you’re ill and working through stress and sadness are congratulated,” he says, adding that he believes this way of life is linked to “capitalist ideals”.

”Your value as a person is not defined by your work output,” Floss notes. “Your employment is just one small part of your identity and if you are struggling with productivity, it has no bearing on whether you are 'worthy' of anything.”

Sometimes I think I’d be better off living up a tree somewhere, but until then I have to remind myself that productivity doesn’t define any of us, and in fact it’s an ableist way of thinking, and if we take it one step further, ableism is rooted in capitalism. Were humans really plopped on this planet to answer emails, intake data for hours on end, and worry about the morning commute? What if your disability or mental health disorder prevents you from working, does that mean you’re not worthy? Surely we are more than how useful we are.

*names have been changed

Floss’s tips for reducing stress at work

1. Set clear boundaries and communicate your availability with colleagues. For example, if you work 9-5, let them know you are not contactable on evenings unless there are emergencies. This means you can enjoy your evenings without checking your emails or phone.

2. Take breaks. It’s so important to take small breaks throughout the day, and use your annual leave allowance throughout the year. We aren't machines, we need downtime to restore our depleted emotional, mental, and physical reserves.

3. Remember that you can only ever do your best, and you can only ever try and change your personal present. You cannot control others and you cannot change what has happened in the past. All you can do is try your best right now.

4. Take time to breathe, it has such a huge effect on your spiking cortisol levels. Try going outside for a walk, it can really help you see things from a new perspective.

5. Talk to someone if you are struggling, whether that's a manager, HR representative, friend, family member or a mental health professional. It can be very useful to externalise how you are feeling and get support. This is especially important if you are finding your stress is becoming unmanageable – in this instance, please try and speak to a trained mental health expert.

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