Burnout: signs and symptoms explained as NHS and social care staff report excessive stress at emergency level

Experiencing a lot of stress over a period of time can lead to a feeling of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, which is often called burnout

The Health and Social Care Committee has called for immediate action to support exhausted NHS and social care staff who have worked throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

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But what is burnout, what are the signs and symptoms and what can be done to relieve symptoms?

Experiencing a lot of stress over a period of time can lead to a feeling of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, which is often called burnout (Photo: Shutterstock)

Here’s what you need to know.

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What is burnout?

Fitness and wellness guru, and nutrition expert at Welcome to Made, Penny Weston, says that burnout “is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion.”

Ms Weston says burnout is “usually caused by excessive stress over a prolonged period of time as well as feeling overwhelmed and drained.”

She adds that burnout is “becoming increasingly more common and needs to be taken seriously,” with nearly everyone coming through the doors at Made at the moment “suffering from burnout or a related complaint from lockdown.”

“Worryingly, the number of people we are seeing with burnout has tripled,” Ms Weston adds.

The NHS explains that stress is the body's reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure and although in some circumstances it “can be motivating to help us achieve things in our daily life,” too much stress can “affect our mood, our body and our relationships – especially when it feels out of our control. It can make us feel anxious and irritable, and affect our self-esteem.”

Experiencing a lot of stress over a long period of time can also lead to a feeling of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, which is often called burnout.

Emotional trauma expert and founder of Divine Empowerment, Antonia Harman, says that “stress from work or home can easily cause burnout, particularly if you aren’t getting enough shut-eye. The signs can range from exhaustion to disillusionment.”

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What are the signs and symptoms of burnout?

Ms Weston says there are a number of signs that someone is experiencing a burnout, which “tend to be both physical and mental”, and can include headaches, stomach aches, lack of energy, intestinal issues, feeling depressed, exhaustion, cynicism, feeling unable to do your job or to cope, and feeling powerless.

If you are stressed, you may:

- feel overwhelmed

- have racing thoughts or difficulty concentrating

- be irritable

- feel constantly worried, anxious or scared

- feel a lack of self-confidence

- have trouble sleeping or feel tired all the time

- avoid things or people you are having problems with

- be eating more or less than usual

- drink or smoke more than usual

Psychologist Dr Audrey Tang also explains that the following signs can indicate that a person’s wellbeing is suffering. They include:

- not voicing concerns or stopping talking to management despite an “open door” policy

- susceptibility to illness (often because of a depression of the immune system)

- tearfulness

Dr Tang also notes that there are the more subtle signs which may need closer observation, for example, slumping or a slower walk, or a lapse in personal grooming.

Tips and advice for coping with burnout - and where to go for support

Dr Tang says that if you are feeling stressed you should try to avoid using dismissive behaviour to cope, e.g. by telling yourself “I’m fine”.

She says it’s important to acknowledge your feelings and accept that you are not “strange” or “a burden” or “just being silly”.

You can also reach out to your GP if you’re struggling with stress and feeling burnt out.

“It is best to seek help before the point of crisis, or before it gets to the point where it is taken out of your hands because you are no longer able to cope and your body breaks physically or emotionally,” says Dr Tang.

She adds: “When we have ‘burnt out’ it is because the body can no longer resist the high state of tension it has been placed under, and unfortunately if this has led to physical problems such as stomach ulcers or high blood pressure, even the most willing mindset will still need support from medical intervention.”

Ms Harman also advises talking to someone if you have burnout. She says: “A problem shared is a problem halved. Discuss your issues with friends or even a trained counsellor or life coach. Life coaches have stacks of tips to help you prioritise, and problem solve.”

However, if you’re finding it difficult to speak to people about burnout, Dr Tang says a good way to start is to try and find an outlet to express your feelings, which can include:

- journaling

- poetry

- dance

-art

Dr Tang explains that if you do seek help, then there will be other techniques that will be given to you by professionals, but there are a few practical tools which you can also use to complement traditional techniques.

These include:

- Looking after yourself physically - eat, sleep and exercise.

- Making your living environment positive - photos of the people you love or feelings of comfort in the place you like to spend time can help you feel good.

- Reaching outside friends and family. Joining a class or a club you’ve always

wanted to join can allow you to meet like-minded people where you know it will be possible to connect on some topics of conversation.

- Not scheduling back to back meetings

- Ask yourself if it needs to be done in an online meeting room - will a phone call do instead? Online meetings take energy and can cause fatigue.

- Get some offline time - switch off and go outside. Get some time away from the

glare of the screen and take a moment to be informally mindful by listening to the birds, feeling the warmth of the sun and breathing deeply.