Urgent work deadlines, family demands, the spinning of countless plates – and a feeling that everything could come crashing down at any moment. Let’s face it, most working women have been there at some point. The ‘juggle’ can feel never-ending, yet as women, we do our best to carry on. But what happens when carrying on becomes impossible?

Sadly, an unprecedented number of people are struggling with their mental health, and the specific condition of burnout is also on the rise. We recently surveyed C-suite level female managers and executives in the UK, earning £75,000 or more, and found that 49% of them have suffered burnout, often experiencing panic attacks and physical symptoms such as heart palpitations and headaches. Around one in six (16%) of those have taken up to three months off work as a result.

We also found that female execs are much more likely than their male colleagues to suffer with work-related stress (78% vs. 58%).

What is burnout?

Burnout is defined as a state of chronic physical and emotional fatigue, leading to feelings of detachment, demotivation, depression and anxiety.

Burnout often occurs when work stresses and deadlines aren’t balanced with feelings of reward and recognition. It can be a potential issue for anyone whose work-life balance is off-kilter.

Many women have reached the top of their game at work, and have family commitments too. They’ve been told they can ‘have it all’, and on the surface, it looks like they’ve succeeded – they’ve got the impressive career and the picture-perfect home life.

Yet they’re carrying a huge ‘mental load’ and managing an incredibly high level of responsibility, which isn’t sustainable without support – and often the support isn’t there.

So while everything might look great on the outside, women are often really struggling internally. And of course, everyone is different, but we find that outwardly successful individuals may seek ‘coping’ mechanisms instead – self-medicating mental health conditions with alcohol and drugs is very common.

When a person is suffering burnout, they are usually at a point where they are no longer able to function in an efficient way in their personal and professional lives. And if left untreated, burnout can have a catastrophic impact – leading to serious mental and physical ill-health, relationship problems and loss of employment. It’s vital that sufferers look at the source of the problem and take practical steps to make permanent changes.

The good news is that treatment – and full recovery – is possible.

How can I tell if I’m suffering from burnout?

There’s usually no defining moment when a person is ‘hit’ with burnout, yet the human body often flashes many warning signals, so it’s important to try and listen to what your body is telling you. Signs of burnout often include:

1 Chronic exhaustion

Distinct from ordinary feelings of tiredness, exhaustion from burnout doesn’t go away after a period of rest. Starting to lose motivation to work, or thinking, “what’s the point?”, can be serious indicators of professional burnout.

2 Changes in mood

Burnout sufferers may notice themselves arguing with friends, family and colleagues more often. Note this is not about having a bad day, or even a bad week. It’s a persistent quality that develops as stress accumulates.

3 Decreased effectiveness at work

Unsurprisingly, feelings of exhaustion and mood changes often have a negative impact on performance, creativity and judgement at work. As professional burnout intensifies, cognitive efficiency also deteriorates.

4 Physical symptoms

A lot of people will experience unexplainable aches and pains. Other common symptoms include loss of appetite and insomnia.

A short test to assess if you may be experiencing burnout is available here: https://thedawnrehab.com/blog/burnout-syndrome-test/

How should burnout be treated?

Burnout is best treated in the long term by avoiding the problem of overwork – which I understand seems far easier said than done when deadlines are mounting, and you can’t see a way out.

It can be helpful to explore the source of any negative feelings towards work – for example, being weighed down by responsibility and the need to constantly ‘perform’, feeling misaligned with company values, or that your workload is simply too great to be dealt with in the hours you have available. Talking to your manager may result in some issues being resolved.

And to take control over your day-to-day routine, the following four ways are relatively simple steps you can incorporate to try and reduce feelings of burnout, and be in a better position to reduce its impact on your professional and personal life:

1 Self-care: Focus on the things you can do to take better care of yourself each day – e.g., eating a balanced diet, drinking lots of water and exercising regularly.

2 Sleep hygiene: Sleep is such an important time for the body to heal and repair. When feeling stressed, you may go to bed late and not get enough sleep. Try to set up a sleep regime that gives you at least eight hours each night. 

3 Step out of your comfort zone: Studies have shown that by doing something new, chemicals are released in the brain that ease stress. It doesn’t have to be something scary or wildly out of your comfort zone. It could be as simple as sitting in the garden with your eyes closed and letting your other senses tune in to the environment around you. Or maybe trying a new food or listening to different music.

4 Enjoy yourself: If you have a favourite pastime that you have been neglecting due to work commitments, get back into it. Maybe it’s a sport that you like to play, a friend that makes you laugh, or the act of building something with your hands. Any activity that brings you enjoyment should be brought back into your weekly routine. This will help ease your resentment towards your job.

For severe burnout cases, a combined approach incorporating effective, psychological therapy, alongside wellness activities, can often help achieve recovery much more quickly.

So many of us go after the familiar definition of ‘success’ – yet pushing harder and harder is only likely to have negative consequences, and burning ourselves out to try and achieve it is definitely not ‘success’. We’re human. We can’t do everything. And that’s OK.

Helen Wells
Helen Wells
Clinical Director at The Dawn | + posts

Helen Wells is clinical director at The Dawn. Helen is a certified trauma professional and a member of the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (Pacfa). At The Dawn, Helen is responsible for ensuring both its clinical programme and clients’ treatment strategies are aligned with The Dawn’s clinical philosophy - which includes a Trauma Informed Care (TIC) approach.