How to cope with burnout

Neuroscientist Dr Lynda Shaw has some advice for those facing burnout amid all the uncertainty and turbulence of the last months.

crazy kids stressed mum


During these unprecedented times, more and more people are feeling overwhelmed, with women in particular taking most of the brunt of working from home whilst simultaneously juggling the children.

A recent survey in Canada found that younger men and women aged between 20-35, and 55 years and over, are particularly susceptible to feelings of burnout. But anyone, including teenagers, can feel burnout.

Burnout can be caused by periods of additional anxiety or pressure, difficulty separating work and personal life or a work/life balance that is out of kilter. Working too long hours, spreading yourself too thin, and especially at the moment, facing pressures of an uncertain jobs market, meaning we may feel we have to do even more to stand out, will all contribute. Feeling burnout can influence every aspect of your life, from your work to relationships to your physical and mental health, and can leave you feeling like you have very little left to give.

The neuroscience

Think of stress like a set of scales; on one side are real or imagined pressures and, on the other, is how we cope with those pressures. If those scales tip because the pressure is more than we can cope with then we become overwhelmed in the longer term.

There are two biological pathways that mediate our stress response. The Sympathetic-Adrena-medullar (SAM) axis is the first pathway to respond and is very quick. The sympathetic nervous system activates the adrenal medulla to release adrenaline and noradrenalin so our heart rate increases, blood pressure goes up and we get a boost of energy and, consequently, our ‘fight or flight’ response is activated. This is tolerable in the short term and we recover once the perceived threat has passed.

The second biological reaction to stress involves the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis which is slower to respond and is triggered via signals from the hypothalamus and pituitary release of cortisol from the adrenal glands. We need the right amount of cortisol to survive and it enhances our brain’s use of glucose as fuel or energy and also helps us repair tissue, but cortisol can become toxic if allowed to continue for long. Persistent exposure and overreaction to these stress systems can be detrimental to our health.

We need the Parasympathetic Nervous System (rest and digest) to take over from the Sympathetic Nervous System (fight or flight) to feel calm, but still alert enough to function well. The Parasympathetic Nervous System takes over to calm everything down and our blood pressure, respiratory and heart rates slow.

How to deal with burnout in the first instance

1. Know when things are severely out of balance... Accept that there are sometimes periods of short-term stress, especially when you have to put in longer hours at work or have to deal with a certain situation, but it becomes detrimental when it is dominates your life over a longer period.

2. Identify the signals early… Signs of burnout include fatigue, irritability, sleepless nights despite feelings of exhaustion, anxiety and physiological changes in your body like raised blood pressure.

3. Talk to someone about how you feel… If you feel nervous about telling your work that you need a break or changes to be implemented, then talk to a close colleague, friend or family member first. Having a chat with someone who knows you well might offer you reassurance or another way at looking at things.

4. Prioritise sleep to improve your concentration, memory and decision-making and your overall physical and mental health. Look closely at your ‘sleep hygiene’ and limit caffeine after midday, avoid screen time in the one to two hours before bedtime and have regular bed and getting up times.

5. Disconnect to recharge… To prevent chronic stress, you need to take some time to recharge and disconnect from work completely so when you take time out, make sure you really are off including holidays, your evenings and weekends. Block out some time for hobbies and seeing family and friends to help your physical, mental and emotional well-being. The brain is more efficient when it has produced a cocktail of ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters so prioritising pleasant pursuits in your spare time means you will be far more productive during your working day.

Going forwards – how to make changes at work for the better

6. Employers must step up…A responsible and good employer won’t let their employees get ground down or have a mentality of employee disposability because, apart from protecting the welfare of their employees, avoiding burnout means better productivity, creativity and a low turnover of employees.

7. There’s no shame in asking for help… Admitting you need help at work (or any time) can be really hard as you may feel like your competency will be called into question. Maybe there aren’t enough hours in the day to do what is being asked of you, or the work is simply beyond your scope and experience. If this is the case ask for a meeting with your boss and set out exactly what it is you need support with. Showing you need training in some areas can help to build trust, create networks and strengthen relationships between you and your team.

8. Collaborate with workmates to spread the load… and keep your manager in the loop about what you are doing so they know you are being proactive. Being collaborative and working as a collective is an important skill, and if they are ever in your boat, they know they will be able to call on you too.

9. Establish boundaries… Create clear boundaries and stick to them, such as not checking your emails once you’ve clocked off and having agreed working hours. Turn off phone notifications you don’t need and don’t accept phone calls if it isn’t a good time.

10. Plan your day… Prioritise urgent tasks and be realistic about how long a task or project could take and factor in breaks. Know your most productive time of day so you do the most important or tricky tasks when you are at your best. Don’t try to multitask. Focus on one thing at a time and give it your full attention.

11. Avoid distractions…  Interruptions, false starts and procrastination cloud our perception of how much time we actually spend productively. Avoid disruptions. Stress-related brain fog is definitely a thing because when stressed, your brain struggles to process things as it normally would.

12. Sometimes you just need to take 10…If you are feeling stressed, know when to take time out to allow your mind time to recover and recuperate. Try going outside for a short walk to allow your mind to reset. Build regular short breaks into your every day work.

*Dr Lynda Shaw is a neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist.

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