A question that’s often been put to me in recent months is
How has the pandemic affected people’s sleep? Has it made it worse?
The answer seems to be that for some, their sleep has improved. They’ve had more time to exercise, have fun with the kids and enjoy family mealtimes. For others however it’s a different story. They’ve been impacted by work and financial uncertainty, the stress of home-schooling and worries about the health and wellbeing of loved ones.
Many people don’t have to spend time on the daily commute but it seems that this has led to longer working hours rather than an increase in leisure time. A recent survey¹ showed that since homeworking became the norm in the UK, the average worker is putting in up to an extra two and a half hours per day. Although they may start later in the morning there’s a greater tendency to work through without proper breaks and people are logging back onto their computers late in the evening.
Work/home blur has become a significant problem for many.
Together with the isolation from team members, a lack of social life and the welcome distractions that friends, family and hobbies provide, this collectively spells bad news for our wellbeing, health and productivity.
These conditions are ripe for burnout, a condition that arises when the high stress situation that you’ve been trying to manage becomes intolerable.
You reach the point of complete exhaustion – physically, emotionally and psychologically.
Burnout is a term that you’ll have heard more than a few times during your working life.
But burnout is often misunderstood. It’s a term that can be used inappropriately. It can be a bit like saying you have ‘flu when in fact you have a nasty cold. In truth anyone who has gone through burnout knows there is a huge difference in the way it makes you feel.
Burnout happens when you’re operating in high stress conditions to the extent that you completely run out of gas. This can happen in a matter of weeks and months or it can take years.
Until this most distressing point of collapse, you’ve been relying on the adrenalin-fuelled fight-flight response to push through. But you can only sustain this for so long. Eventually you run out of road and you collapse. Instead of attempting to confront the struggle you turn away, exhausted, beaten.
The exhaustion that signals burnout cannot be cured by a long weekend away and good rest. No amount of sleep can cure this type of exhaustion.
What exactly is burnout?
The term burnout was first used in the 1970s but it was only in 2019 that it was recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an “occupational phenomenon”. WHO define burnout as –
a syndrome that arises from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
This recognition was long overdue. At last burnout could no longer be dismissed as a personal weakness or fault of an individual. A duty of care was firmly placed on workplaces to address burnout at an individual and organisational level. This is important for the economy too; stress, depression and anxiety accounted for over half of work absences in 2019/20² and costs British businesses an estimated £35 billion per annum³.
The WHO definition refers to burnout specifically as a workplace condition. This is a helpful demarcation (to a point) because in diagnosing burnout it’s important not to overlook depression and other mental health illnesses. Although burnout and depression share some symptoms and the former can lead to the latter, they’re very different conditions with different treatment pathways.
But of course, when we consider common human experience, burnout can and does arise from factors outside of work or the interplay of work and personal stressors.
Burnout is not a simply a result of an excessive workload; it can arise from a complex interaction of a number of factors. The trigger event may in fact be the straw that breaks the camel’s back rather than the root cause.
Working in an environment where you are unable to be true to your values and ethics can be incredibly stressful, even if you are super-efficient at managing your workload.
Relationship breakdown, caring for elderly parents or children with disabilities, financial uncertainty can also create an environment of excessive stress that the individual is eventually unable, for whatever reason, to ‘successfully manage’.
This certainly was my burnout experience.
At the start of my working life as a newly qualified teacher I received several job offers. I turned down the option of a relatively ‘cushy’ number, working in a small private girls’ school and chose instead a position in a large inner-city comprehensive. This choice was based on my personal values plus a desire to prove myself. I wanted to be a teacher who could work with tough kids!
At the same time, my husband also changed job. Unfortunately this was in another part of the country. This meant that we started our married lives living separately, with an 80 mile commute each Friday night. But hey, we were young and had a modern relationship in which we were both free to pursue our careers!
Before long the combination of work and personal stressors started to take its toll. I was desperately lonely and unhappy in my new life and found my first teaching post incredibly stressful. Back then my coping strategies weren’t well developed. Instead of reaching out for support, I suppressed my misgivings and struggled on…
Until one day I just couldn’t get out of bed. And in or around bed was where I stayed for many weeks. I spent hours asleep, unable to rouse myself. It felt as if all I could do was watch life go by from the sidelines.
I was signed off work with ‘mental exhaustion’ rather than burnout. (Back then terms such as ‘nervous breakdown’ were more commonly used). I felt completely lost. I had no idea what was happening to me. I was frightened and ashamed. I didn’t talk to my boss about it even though he was a decent guy. Back then there also weren’t the support systems in place to facilitate that type of conversation.
In time I’m happy to say I made a full recovery and returned to teaching. But it was not an experience I’d ever want to repeat. Yet sadly some people do experience burnout more than once in their lives.
What exactly causes burnout?
As we’ve seen, burnout arises when you’ve been under excessive stress for a period of time and you’ve reached your limit of coping. It can take years to develop or it can arrive much more quickly.
When you are under pressure whether that’s at work, at home or both, you naturally step up a gear to meet the challenge. You work longer hours, take fewer breaks, sleep less, give up hobbies and social activities so you can push through.
If this is a short term effort, then usually no harm is done. You complete the project, return to sensible working patterns, take a few days’ break and recover.
The problem comes when instead of taking your foot off the gas, you press harder. You may be piling the demands on yourself or maybe it’s someone higher up the chain. There’s no time to recover. In time you find yourself running on empty.
Physically your health begins to suffer – headaches, migraines, stomach pains, skin complaints start to feature. On a psychological level, you start to question if you can cope.
Instead of knowing that you can continue to rise to the challenge, you begin to believe that the demands placed upon you exceed your capacity to cope.
This is THE tipping point for burnout.
Your perception of the situation has shifted significantly from
This is tough but I can handle it to
This is tough and I’m no longer coping
This is a very dark place. Your anxiety levels soar as you desperately try to hang on but at the same time you’ve a sense that nothing you do will make a difference.
If you don’t take action now and you continue to push on, you’re getting perilously close to burnout.
It’s hard to see any positives to burnout at this stage – although those who go through it and come out the other side stronger and clearer about what’s important to them will often say that it was a catalyst for good.
Burnout is however Nature’s way of protecting you from a complete physical and emotional meltdown. It’s her way of forcing you to a complete STOP. This is sometimes necessary because burnout can creep up on you. The effort you have to make to stay afloat each day becomes your norm. In these circumstances it can be incredibly difficult to take a step back and step off the hamster wheel of stress.
What are the signs of burnout?
When you are approaching, or in burnout, you’ll notice three main distinguishing features:
1. You feel completely depleted or exhausted
This is the kind of exhaustion that isn’t fixed by a good night’s sleep or a holiday. It eats into your very bones. You have no mental, emotional or physical energy. Even holding a conversation can feel an effort.
2. You feel somehow detached from life and work. This may be accompanied by a new (for you) negativity or cynicism about your work, your colleagues and your boss. You feel numb. Instead of feeling the adrenalin that used to fuel the fight, you feel nothing. You can no longer rise to the challenge. In fact you go the other way, you no longer care.
3. You doubt your abilities. This is when the rot really sets in. You feel that the quality of your work is beginning to slip. You know you’re not coping. You can’t understand it. This isn’t you! You used to be able to do XYZ and now you’re unable to. Your confidence evaporates and your self-esteem drains away, fuelling an ever growing panic that others will notice your failing. Mood swings, angry or tearful outbursts surprise you – and those around you.
The truth is that when you’re in a state of complete exhaustion, the things you used to do are now beyond your current capacity.
This was certainly Jim’s experience. He described how as an acting headteacher of a large comprehensive school, his already heavy workload became impossible when he took on a major curriculum initiative. Already working long hours with frequent evening meetings, he started working at weekends to try to keep on top. The more he worked the less he seemed to achieve. As he said:
I knew I wasn’t working effectively but my only strategy was to keep on pushing, when really I needed a complete break. The more effort I made, the less I achieved. The less I achieved, the more anxious I felt about being seen to fail.
The anxiety kept me awake at night and the exhaustion just kept on mounting until I just couldn’t go on any more. I went to my GP who prescribed medication to bring down my frighteningly high blood pressure and I collapsed at home for several weeks.
People on the path to burnout will often do anything to prevent others from spotting it. You work longer hours and at weekends to keep up the impression that you’re coping. You might turn to excessive caffeine, alcohol or other drugs. I’ve known otherwise honest people start to tell lies in order to cover up their mistakes or failure to deliver projects on time.
In many workplaces experiencing stress and burnout is still regarded as a personal weakness. Things are slowly changing but even if your workplace is relatively supportive it can still be very hard to admit it, even to yourself. After all you’re a highly competent and self-reliant professional. Others look up to you and rely on you. You used to be able to perform at an incredibly high level so what on earth’s happening to you?
This feels a very distressing, lonely place.
The impact of excessive stress and burnout on your health, happiness and work performance is huge. It spreads into every area of your life, affecting your emotional and physical wellbeing in many ways.
So how do these three defining characteristics of burnout affect you at work and at home?
Here are 13 danger signs:
- You find it hard to concentrate at work for any length of time. You often find yourself scaring at your screen in a daze
- You make more errors and are more accident-prone
- You become indecisive and avoid making decisions because you no longer trust your judgment. Others notice your procrastination and are puzzled and frustrated by it
- You become forgetful, no longer able to remember names, key facts and figures, yet further eroding your confidence and self-esteem
- You become less organised, forgetting or late for appointments
- Your sense of humour and perspective disappear. You’re easily irritated and prone to angry outbursts at work or at home.
- You take out your stress on others – the ‘kicking the cat’ syndrome. You feel terrible about doing this but don’t seem able to stop
- You can no longer lend an empathetic ear to colleagues or family. You’re increasingly consumed by feelings of cynicism and negativity. Your team notices that you no longer support them as you used to
- You just can’t be bothered with anything anymore. Your sense of purpose, energy and engagement for any task has evaporated
- You withdraw, avoiding conversation and social activities
- You become less physically well with frequent minor illnesses such as colds, skin flare-ups and digestive problems
- The smallest of tasks seems too much – collecting the kids, shopping, even cooking a simple meal
- You can’t switch off. It’s impossible to relax and sleep. In the mornings you have to drag yourself out of bed.
The impact of all this mental, physical and emotional misery spreads way beyond you to your colleagues, friends and family.
As New York designer Frank Chimero puts it in his excellent article on re-imagining the status quo to combat achievement culture –
Fatigue happens to your body but burnout exhausts your soul.
In summary, you feel as if you’re existing in an ever tightening circle that’s closing in on you, squeezing the very life out of you. Yet you can’t find a way to break out.
Until you hit burnout, when you are forced to a complete stop.
A client of mine, a highly successful partner in an international law firm, described the day his burnout came to a head, resulting in four months off work:
I couldn’t cope with these particularly difficult clients. I kept losing my temper. I dreaded the meetings.
My brain was like a fog and I felt like a zombie. I couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t work until one day I just broke down in tears in the office.
Burnout can happen to anyone, to even the most successful, most highly performing people who love their work. In fact the personal qualities – the passion, the creativity, the drive – that lie behind your success have a flip side. These same qualities, left to run unbridled, make you more vulnerable to burnout.
Even the most resilient person has their breaking point.
The importance of sound sleep in preventing burnout
As we’ve seen, burnout creeps up on you.
Read a selection of burnout stories and you’ll hear time and time again how part of the burnout journey is ignoring the warning signs. When you’re already feeling overwhelmed by work and life, the last thing you want is to acknowledge the little voice in your head that’s saying “Are you sure you’re OK?”
One of the warning signs of burnout is that you can’t turn off your brain and relax into sleep. Stress and sleep make very poor bed-fellows. When you’re in fight-flight, wired-tired instead of sleepy-tired when you get into bed, sound sleep will not and cannot arrive.
Before long, chronic sleep deprivation is part of the mix, exacerbating and accelerating your burnout. We know that sleep deprivation in and of itself can lead to health problems, for example high blood pressure, cognitive difficulties such as memory lapses and increased errors and make you far more likely to over-react in difficult situations. It also makes you far more vulnerable to stress.
Lack of sleep makes a tough situation even tougher.
Your work days are occupied with the struggle to keep afloat and now your nights have turned into an extension of day, providing hours of darkness in which to continue the endlessly circling thoughts of worry and anxiety…
Sleep is a fundamental element of your health and wellbeing that can protect you from treading the path to burnout, whatever the root causes. All too often sleep is at the very bottom of our to-do lists. Yet we know that rest and sleep are just as important for your productivity as the hours you put in at your desk.
Working in a high stress environment, day in day out, with inadequate respite makes you more vulnerable to burnout.
Yet as in so many other spheres of wellbeing and performance, sleep has been overlooked. A 2020 research paper⁴ that examined the role of sleep in burnout amongst medical doctors puts this in a nutshell:
While some risk factors for physician burnout may vary between men and women, insufficient sleep is a critical risk factor for burnout that has been grossly overlooked…
Interventions to promote healthy sleep may reduce the susceptibility to burnout.
Other research has come to similar conclusions.
Yet sleep has long been, in my words, the Cinderella of Good Health, overlooked in workplace wellbeing assessments. On an individual level, we’ve been all too hasty to embrace the opportunities that a 24/7 culture offers and to believe that we can skimp on sleep, at least during the week. Yet sleep isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s an essential pillar of our health and wellbeing. Studies show that there are significant health impacts after just a few sleep deprived nights. A long weekend lie-in can’t compensate for the damage that chronic sleep deprivation causes.
A healthy seven hours a night can make all the difference between getting through a challenging time or going under.
How do I protect my sleep in challenging times?
Good sleep is a 24/7 habit. As you already know, it’s not something that you can switch on at will (not healthily anyway).
Your night time is a reflection of your day. So if you’re struggling with stress it’s important to adopt a twin approach – addressing the root causes of the stress whilst at the same time, keeping your sleep on track. Even if everything around you is difficult you can still adopt healthy 24/7 practices and approaches that enable you to draw a line under the day, unwind from wired-tired to sleepy tired and enjoy refreshing sleep. This creates a virtuous circle as regular healthy sleep will rebuild your capacity to cope, whatever the day brings.
If you’d like to learn how to rebuild and maintain a healthy sleep habit, the first step is to book a complimentary Sleep Analysis Call. Simply click here to choose a time to suit you.
I’d love to support you to stay healthy, happy and productive, whatever challenges lie ahead.