Everyone I have spoken to who burned out said that they did not know it was happening until they ended up either in bed or in the hospital. I may have found this hard to believe, had it not happened to me too.
The people most likely to burn out are Type A perfectionists, high achievers who typically put others before themselves. They are the kind of people who get the job done. The ones who don’t let people down, who are first to volunteer for extra work, committees and PTAs. The combination of being a people pleaser and an achievement junkie is a huge risk factor for burnout among women.
The signs of burnout are not always obvious and often in our busy lives, we become so out of tune with our bodies, that they are easy to miss. We are passionate about our work, emotionally invested in our success and contribution to others and unwilling to stop and take stock of what is happening.
What are the signs and are you or someone close to you at risk?
1. CHRONIC FATIGUE
We all get tired, but this is something different. At first, you may be sleeping all night, yet you still feel a sense of dread when the alarm goes off. The tiredness is bone deep, your muscles ache, you drag yourself around, feeling like you have a combination of flu and jet-lag, yet you berate yourself for feeling the way you feel. You hear yourself say “I can’t understand it, I got 7 hours sleep last night, I shouldn’t be so tired.” Later, you start waking up at 3am, mind racing and even though you could cry with exhaustion, you cannot get back to sleep. You rationalise that everyone is tired these days, you will feel better after your holiday.
2. YOU GET SICK ON HOLIDAY
You are desperate for your fortnight in the sun, but no sooner have you arrived but you come down with something. This is known as leisure sickness. According to Cary Cooper, Professor of organisational psychology at the University of Lancaster, leisure sickness happens because “Your immune system is stimulated by the pressure, so when you have deadlines your body knows you can’t get ill. When you take a break your immune system just thinks – no more pressure. I can get sick now.” You rationalise that aeroplanes are full of germs and everyone gets sick sometimes. You return to work feeling you need another holiday.
3. HORMONAL HELL
You suffer from PMS. You are getting to the stage that you feel like two different people, depending on where you are in your cycle. During the first half , you are just about coping but after mid-cycle every day feels like you are walking through treacle. You are irritable and tearful, and the worst thing to cope with is the sense you have lost yourself. You act in ways that you are ashamed of, you are moody, demanding, unreasonable. You don’t like yourself anymore and this continues until your next period starts. But then, rather than look at what is going on, you are so relieved to feel “normal” again, you forget all about it for the next two weeks until the cycle begins again, each one getting a little worse than the one before. You rationalise that you are getting older, you will see the doctor soon, although you never have time to schedule an appointment. You never consider that it is stress that is having an adverse effect on your endocrine system.
4. LOSS OF LIBIDO
God knows it is not that you don’t love your partner, but between the exhaustion and the unbalanced hormones, when it comes to a choice between a fun time between the sheets and an extra half hour of sleep, sleep wins every time. You rationalise that everyone’s sex life dips after a while and forget the joy, pleasure and stress relief it once provided.
5. INCREASED ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION
You have always liked a glass of wine as much as the next woman, but recently you are starting to worry that the only way to switch off your over-active brain and relax is with alcohol. Wine o’clock is fast becoming your most longed for time of day. Your usual glass with dinner has turned into three and you suspect it is affecting your sleep, your hormones and your productivity. You rationalise that you work hard and don’t they say red wine is good for your heart? You avoid counting how many units you are consuming every week.
6. SEARCHING GOOGLE FOR ARTICLES ON HOW TO INCREASE YOUR PRODUCTIVITY
Here is the truth: you are working more hours than you ever, because you know, although you would never admit it to anyone, that your productivity has plummeted. You trudge through work that once sparked your creativity, struggling for fresh ideas. Work you loved now feels like drudgery. You are starting to forget things, are finding it harder and harder to focus and concentrate. No matter how many hours you work, your to-do list is increasing every day. You rationalise this by telling yourself that all you need are new systems, productivity tools, a book or course to provide motivation and inspiration to get your mojo back.
7. YOU ARE ADDICTED TO BEING BUSY
You find it hard to switch off. Your brain is running at a hundred miles an hour and on the rare occasion you do have time that could be used for relaxation, you are so wired that the downtime fills you with anxiety. You are the woman constantly checking email on her phone, tapping her foot and twiddling her hair impatiently. You regularly take work home at the weekend, always take your laptop on holiday. You have no off-switch and your thoughts are racing faster and faster. You rationalise this by telling yourself you have important work to do and a Sunday morning watching your son play football is a waste of time, when you could be getting a jump on the week ahead.
8. YOU FEEL GUILTY ALL THE TIME
You believed that women could have it all , but you were not prepared for the guilt. You feel guilty that during the week, you see only see your kids for a couple of hours before they go to bed, you miss too many of those football matches, you never get to the afternoon meetings at school. You feel guilty around your partner, because, among other things, No 4! You feel guilty at work, because you are not doing as a good a job as you once did and there are times when, no, you don’t want to go on the team building weekend in the Cotswolds! You feel split in two, you are not excelling in any area of your life and that bothers you. You are used to doing everything well. You haven’t seen the inside of a gym for years, your girlfriends have stopped asking you to meet for lunch because you never go, you work so hard to pay for a house you are rarely in. You often wonder if it all the years of study, the climb up the corporate ladder was worth it. You feel as if you have everything you said you wanted, you feel guilty for not being happy about it. You rationalise this by telling yourself guilt is the price you pay for your success and you are being an excellent role model for your daughter. You fail to see the irony in this.
9. YOU HAVE GIVEN UP EVERYTHING YOU ONCE ENJOYED IN FAVOUR OF WORK
You used to love spending hours over a meal with your partner, sometimes you even enjoyed cooking the meal! You loved your weekly yoga class, the occasional shopping trip, concert or weekend away. You used to have hobbies, played the piano, played a sport, knitted, read the latest novels, loved French movies, loved a manicure or a walk in the countryside. But now, given the choice between any of these and getting more work done, you choose work every time. You rationalise that this is only until you catch up, until things calm down, then you will get back to working on your work-life balance, even though the very words fill you with rage.
10. YOUR FANTASY LIFE
You spend more and more time fantasising about a different life. You imagine setting up a bakery in a quiet village somewhere, you wonder what it would be like to work on the Estee Lauder counter in a department store. You wonder how hard it could be to renovate an old house in France and set up a B and B. You read about how other women got out of the rat race and changed their lives for the better. You read about a woman who walked away from her entire life and became a waitress and it secretly thrills you. You rationalise this as harmless fun. You would never actually do any of them. You don’t stop to consider that your fantasies might be signalling real dissatisfaction with your current life and are a call from your subconscious mind to notice what is going on and begin to make changes.
Are you experiencing any of these thoughts or behaviours?
The one thing I know for sure is that once you are on the road to burnout, it will not go away by itself. You cannot use your usual strategy of trying harder to improve things. Burnout, for me, was the first thing in my life, when trying harder actually made things worse.
COMING UP: 10 things to consider to avert burnout.