Anyone can experience burnout at work – no matter what industry, background or job title.
It can even take its toll on world leaders.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern admitted just hours ago that she would be resigning next month – citing burnout as the cause.
‘I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple,’ she said in a statement.
Just like we’ve seen with Jacinda, people’s working days have shifted since the pandemic – and for some, this is having a real impact on their stress levels.
In fact, quitting a job because you don’t have ‘enough in the tank’ is more common that you might think – and those who have taken the plunge and done it, putting their own health and wellbeing first, don’t appear to regret it one bit.
This was the case for Bryony Lewis who, after working as a web developer for 10 years, quit her job in March 2022. She says the signs of burnout were subtle at first but, in hindsight, she thinks they were building for years.
Bryony, a 38-year-old from Hampshire, explains: ‘I would feel the dread of the working day ahead every morning and it was a struggle to get out of bed. Targets just seemed to increase year on year and project deadlines were often unattainable.
‘I felt really low and found it hard to fully enjoy anything. I would spend lunch breaks internet shopping or browsing holidays I couldn’t afford in an attempt to give myself something to look forward to. And I suffered frequent tension headaches and migraines brought on by the stress I was holding in my body.
‘I felt like a hamster on a wheel, constantly moving but feeling like I was going nowhere. I counted down the hours and minutes until the end of the day – but then found it hard to be present with my family in the evenings and at weekends as I was constantly on edge, reactive and angry.’
When her company imposed a ‘return to office’ policy following the pandemic, this was the final straw for Bryony – who then decided to quit, in a bid for more flexibility.
Now, 10 months on from making the decision to listen to her body and make this change, Bryony feels like she’s got my life back. She now runs an e-commerce business from home and works flexibly around her children.
‘Looking back, I wish I’d recognised the signs earlier and listened to my body more,’ she continues. ‘I almost mourn those years spent feeling trapped and I think the common narrative that we can just keep constantly pushing to do more in less time is really damaging.
‘I truly believe that by focusing on wellbeing, finding balance and increasing flexibility, then job satisfaction comes as a natural result.’
Merrisha Gordon had a very similar experience of mounting burnout and stress. She worked as a senior manager in the NHS until September 2021 – when she handed in her notice.
‘I had started this career at the age of 22 and thought I would be there until retirement, but I left because I was burnt out and had nothing else to give,’ Merrisha, from the West Midlands, tells Metro.co.uk.
The 44-year-old first starting noticing things change early on in the pandemic, when her work stress started to mount up even more.
She adds: ‘I’m not going to say it became harder working in the NHS – because it’s always been hard – but if you think about the pandemic, things changed overnight.
‘I remember the end of the first week of the pandemic and – having spent the whole week really supporting staff – people were full of anxiety and stress, and wanted guidance. I remember coming into the office and bursting into tears – like everyone else, I had my own family and anxieties at the time.’
Merrisha became increasingly stressed and anxious at work and – as she already had a history of working excessive hours – she knew it was a dangerous path she was heading down.
She adds: ‘I was having to tap into extra resources to try and get through the day – it wasn’t just about getting up and meditating, or writing a gratitude list to try and stay positive, I was actually having to do things like breathing exercises, as I could feel the anxiety in my chest at times.
‘The pandemic was when it changed. I just realised I couldn’t do it anymore and I didn’t want to do it anymore.’
But the decision to resign was carefully-considered – especially as a single parent – but in the end, it was necessary.
Merrisha adds: ‘I had a really good salary, I had a good pension, I had sick pay, I had things like parents leave and I didn’t have huge savings in the bank – so for me to give up all of that security spoke volumes in terms of how I was feeling, as I just knew I couldn’t continue.’
Now Merrisha is self-employed and works with the NHS to provide training and coaching to staff – using her experience to help. She adds that she has no regrets about leaving – stressing it was ‘the best decision’ she’s made.
She adds: ‘Even though working for yourself is a different level of stress, it doesn’t compare in any way to when you are working in a job and you are burnt out and stressed.’
Iain Ross suffered burnout at work in two different roles resulting in him quitting both – but says he felt ‘like an idiot for “letting it happen” a second time.’
Recalling the first time it happened, working as a press office manager, Iain says: ‘The burnout was happening at work but fully affecting me at home, and I started to realise that I was putting a lot of things at risk – mostly my own health and my relationships.
‘I was sleeping on average a maximum of four hours per night. I was constantly ill, my diet was all over the place and combined with chronic stress this was causing me all kinds of digestive issues, too. Add to that headaches, brain fog, constant shortness of breath, physical aches and pains… the list goes on.’
After getting therapy Iain stayed on for a bit longer before deciding to leave. However when he started his ‘dream job’ in 2021, all these familiar signs crept back again.
Iain adds: ‘This terrified me if I’m honest, and I made a very quick decision that it wasn’t going to take over my life again and quit pretty much overnight.
‘The final push for me to quit was during a particularly busy week, we had a team building session and then some drinks afterwards. I was truly at my limit, physically and emotionally. I just didn’t have anything left – any sense of my usual resilience had evaporated.’
Iain adds that he can confidently say leaving this job was the best decision he’s ever made.
‘I realise now that that culture and working lifestyle just isn’t who I am – which means almost any other 9-5 job I went for would have ultimately led to burnout,’ he adds.
‘Some people are really built for that, especially in the PR and marketing world. I can accept now that I’m just not, and that’s totally OK. I now work for myself with a couple of very trusted and lovely PR clients, while I also grow the amount of time I spend teaching yoga.
‘I am genuinely grateful for the experience as it means I can now speak to others from a place of genuine understanding and offer them help and support.’
How to spot the signs of work burnout – and how to address them:
Bex Spiller, the founder of The Anti-Burnout Club, an online wellbeing platform, shares her thoughts.
Signs of burnout approaching:
- Feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.
- Dropping the ball or making mistakes that you wouldn’t have made before.
- A feeling of guilt, shame or a lack of self-esteem.
- Irritability and being quick to temper, which can also seep into home life.
- A lack of motivation or creativity which can make it harder to work.
- Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, or a weakened immune system which can leave you picking up all the office bugs.
- Feeling detached or isolated – especially if you feel as though you don’t want to burden others with your stress and worry.
How to address workplace burnout:
- Communication is key. As Jacinda has proven, there is strength in vulnerability and it’s certainly not weak to admit that you’re burning out. Being open and honest in the workplace is vital to help address the issues that may be causing your burnout. Talk to a manager, HR department or occupational health about the issues you’re facing. You may also find that opening up with other team members will help you feel less alone, too.
- Create a wellness action plan. These are ideal for starting the conversation about your health and wellbeing at work and it’s a good idea to have one, regardless of whether you’re struggling right now or not. You can use this as a personal tool to manage your own wellbeing or as a conversation starter with management (there’s a free Wellness Action Plan guide and template here).
- Leaving work at work. Something that is often easier said than done, especially if you work from home or if your organisation expects you to always be available. If possible, turn off all work notifications once you’ve finished work. If you work from home, try to separate work and living spaces to make it easier to switch off. You don’t need a whole home office, but at least make it clear where work ends and home life begins.
- Saying no. Again, something that is often easier said than done depending on the culture of the company you work for. However, setting boundaries is one of the most important skills to learn when it comes to burnout prevention. If you struggle saying no, try saying “Can I get back to you?” or “Can I let you know when I’ve finished this?” It gives you a pause to consider your answer and whether you can take on that extra work. If you can’t get back to the person and say, “I’m afraid I can’t take on that extra work right now.”
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