We live in the era of, “yes, I can”. We tell ourselves that whatever we want to achieve, if we work hard enough, we can do it. Achieve more, be the best, push to the top, reach your goals, have no limits. Yes, you can! But sometimes all this “yes, I can” results in something very different indeed: a severe case of “no. I really, really can’t”.
And when you really, really can’t, you have probably burned out.
Burnout is a big problem in the UK these days. According to a new YouGov survey commissioned by Virgin in 2015, over half (51%) of full-time UK employees said they have experienced anxiety or burnout in their current job.
Also last year, a survey of more than 2,000 UK GPs by Pulse, found that 50% of them were at high risk of burnout. And in one of the largest studies of burnout among social workers in the UK conducted by Community Care, 73% of the respondents reported levels of emotional exhaustion so high that the lead researcher said it was above the cut-off threshold to be considered at risk of burnout.
So what is burnout? Burnout is not just feeling a bit knackered in the mornings, missing a few deadlines, or an inbox full of emails you forget to reply to. It’s not being a bit moody or having a few broken nights’ sleep. It’s not feeling sad for a few days, or crying when there’s no soya milk in Costa.
Burnout is total system breakdown, after prolonged, unmanageable stress, and emotional fatigue. People suffering from burnout often experience emotional, cognitive and physical exhaustion, and this can have serious physical and mental health related consequences, from which it can take a long time, and a lot of treatment, to recover.
Burnout doesn’t just affect an individual – people with burnout can be irritable, unpredictable, isolated, frustrated, confrontational, irrational and very hard to be with. This can have catastrophic consequences for a family, in the workplace, or for friendships.
Burnout predominantly happens to high performers, and is sometimes described as “overachiever syndrome”. Unfortunately it is these very high-performing individuals who find it hard to accept that they might have burned out – which can make spotting it before it’s too late, very difficult. It costs businesses and individuals millions of pounds a year. More importantly, it costs lives.
Often the only people who don’t recognise burnout are those who are exhibiting all of the symptoms, because highly motivated, driven, high-functioning, ambitious people can have great difficulty believing they are breakable. They think if they just push on, work through the stress, keep up the “yes, I can” they will be OK.
And they will, for a while. Until they’re not.
Ironically, while one of the causes of burnout is overload, what many of us do when we’re reaching burnout is work even more. Because working through it will beat it. Right?
The result is that everything gets exponentially worse, because we are too shattered to do anything properly, let alone the 5 billion things we’ve just started.
According to Ruby Wax, the comedian and therapist, being super-busy overloads us with stress and anxiety.
“Excessive ‘busy-ness’ is usually a sign that all is not well,” she says. “When I’m reaching burnout I start fixing too many dates and writing too many emails. I become so uber-busy that things don’t make sense anymore.”
This is exactly what I do. It’s at the times of the most stress that I go out looking for more work. Exactly at the time I should be cutting back. It feels like desperately trying to put out a fire by throwing ever more petrol on it, in the hope that some of the heat will burn the problem.
I’ve sent emails I can’t remember sending. Had work calls I don’t remember having. Set up meetings with people I can’t ever remember having heard of, or talked to. I can have 20 brilliant ideas a night, and wake up in the morning to an inbox jammed full of emails to myself, outlining these brilliant ideas, all of which need to be started immediately.
So, I start work on them all and all of them fail. And I feel ever worse and worse. I try desperately to grab on to one thing and hold it, and make it work. But of course I can’t, I’m too exhausted.
And the best thing to help burnout is the thing that people suffering from burnout often find hardest to achieve: rest. You need to stop, sleep and recover. Doing this takes time. It takes accepting that you have burnout, and that fighting it won’t help. It takes surrender, and readiness to rest.
It takes realising that you are not a laptop or a robot, you are human. And sometimes, no, you can’t. And that’s OK.