By Ellen Scott

A little bit of stress is normal.

We need a touch of pressure to make us make moves and take action, after all. If we were entirely free of stress about earning money and staying alive, we’d just stay in a pile of bedding on the floor all day, every day.

But there’s a point when healthy stress tips into something damaging.

When stress builds up and tips into burnout, the results can be dangerous. Mental health issues can be triggered, physical health can suffer, and people can be so overworked and overstressed that they have to pause everything they’re doing just to get some balance.

We’re chronic overworkers, though, and tend to keep battling through even when the stress has passed tipping point. It’s vital to be aware of when stress becomes burnout so we know when we need to get urgent help.

Dr Luke Powles, associate clinical director at Bupa UK, tells that burnout is when ‘the pressure you’re under exceeds your ability to cope […] which may cause both mental and physical problems.’

He explains that different people will have different symptoms of burnout — some will respond more physically, while others will experience more of a dip in their mental wellbeing.

But the common signs of burnout he notices are low mood, tiredness, a change in sleeping patterns, getting sick more often (stress weakens the immune system), and gum disease.

Other signs of burnout include a lack of motivation, a feeling of hopelessness, making more mistakes at work and at home, finding yourself unable to stop thinking about work, nausea, and impaired memory.

Signs of burnout:

  • Exhaustion Insomnia Interrupted sleep
  • Getting sick more often
  • Gum disease
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Lack of motivation
  • Low mood
  • Being unable to stop thinking about work
  • Impaired memory
  • Struggling to make decisions
  • Feeling irritable or snapping at people

When stress gets to this point, you need to make changes, sharpish.

The best way to manage stress is prevention, daily self-care, and a healthy working environment, but you’re not alone if stress has built drastically and you can no longer cope. Burnout happens, and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.

The first step in treating burnout is to analyze why it’s happened. Is your work fundamentally stressful and unsatisfying? Is working unpaid overtime pushing you to the brink? Are you taking on too many responsibilities?

It’s tempting to do the equivalent of running away and hiding, quitting your job and refusing to ever go back, but if it’s not the work itself that’s stressful, but certain factors, it’s worth talking to your managers about adjustments they could make.

If you’re experiencing signs of burnout, talk to your GP for mental health support. They should be able to recommend counseling or medication to help you get out of the hole and bring your mood up enough to make changes.

Prioritize self-care, and remember that doesn’t have to mean fancy candles and bubble bath.

Dr Luke Powles' tips for preventing burnout:

Manage your Expectations

It’s important to remember that you’re not invincible and there’ll be times when you can’t do everything you’re asked. By trying to do too many things, you’ll increase your stress levels and your risk of burning out.

Ask for Help

If you’re stressed it can help to talk to someone about how you’re feeling. It’s also a good idea to talk to your boss about your workload if you’re struggling. There are self-referral counseling services that are free to access. You can find more information about these at your GP practice.

Exercise and Meditate

If done on a regular basis, meditative approaches like practicing mindfulness or yoga can really help. While you may not feel like exercising, it can really help boost your mood. Exercise boosts your endorphins, which are your ‘feel good’ hormones. It also helps to bring cortisol levels (stress hormones) down which can impact your mood and energy levels.

Healthy Lifestyle

It’s important to also maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise and enough sleep. While it might be a struggle to fit this in, it can have a big impact if you’re able to get it right.

Self-care is simply looking after yourself. That means feeding yourself well (no skipping your lunch break or working through dinner), getting proper rest, and checking in with your emotions. 

‘If left untreated, burnout can lead to mental illnesses like depression and may aggravate some physical conditions such as asthma and eczema,’ says Dr Powles. ‘It’s important to get help early if you’re struggling with your mental health.’

Don’t try to be a hero, don’t push yourself too hard, and don’t dismiss your mental wellbeing for the sake of your work. If you need to take time off, do so without guilt. If you need to make some adjustments to look after your mental health, talk to your manager without feeling shame.

Stress is natural, but it can be incredibly unhealthy. No one should have to shoulder that burden without support.