With today’s “hustle and grind” culture, 24/7 productivity is advertised as the only way to achieve success, avoid shame, and find happiness. People talk about being constantly busy with a wryly exhausted tinge of pride.
In reality, the universal fear of laziness is playing havoc with our mental health. Whether you’re logging hours of overtime in the office, juggling too many responsibilities, or are living with a chronic mental or physical condition, burnout is becoming an epidemic.
Today, Martin Gallagher talks about burnout, depression, the links between the two, and why you should find help before reaching a crisis point.
After the two years we've just had, writing about depression should be a doddle.
In March 2020, the UK’s government, similar to many other countries in the world, responded to the threat of COVID-19 by plunging us into lockdown. The news alerted us to the new rules in a continuous loop:
Don't go to the office.
Don’t go outside for more than an hour a day.
Don't meet friends or family - even if they're sick.
What followed was a brutal and testing time for us all, and especially those of us suffering from anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. I felt it. My family felt it. We were on our own.
You might be reading this and thinking, "Yep! Me too!"
And you wouldn't be alone. Many people, young and old, have struggled with their mental health over the last year and a half. If you’ve been working through the pandemic, whether as a key worker or at home, you may also find yourself feeling emotionally and physically exhausted.
But overworking, along with environmental changes and added familial responsibilities, can all take their toll. If you’re feeling particularly depressed, lethargic, or cynical, you could also be suffering from something called burnout.
Related: How the Lockdown Affected My Mental Health
What is burnout?
Burnout is a psychological condition that is defined by mental (and sometimes physical) exhaustion.
Plenty of people don't like their jobs. It can be down to office politics or the people you work with or simply because you’re not passionate about the field you’re working in. Though not ideal, this isn't burnout - it's just disliking your job.
Burnout, on the other hand, is both more and less than "dislike". It's feeling empty, emotionally exhausted, and demotivated. Everyone has "off-days", but burnout is a continual feeling of hopelessness and not caring.
Other signs of burnout may include:
- Feeling constantly tired and drained
- Headaches and painful muscles
- Sleeping poorly (too much or too little)
- Lack of motivation
- Cynicism or negativity
- Isolating yourself from others
- Avoiding responsibilities
- Using alcohol or drugs to cope
But, remember, burnout isn't only related to a stressful job. Anything that piles on stress can cause burnout, whether that's a lack of a supportive social circle, a demanding family, or too many responsibilities outside of work without enough help.
Burnout develops over time, affecting everything from your daily routine to work to familial and social commitments. People describe burnout as feeling like they're "wading" through life. They may neglect some habits, like grooming, sleep schedules, and hygiene, and adopt others, such as eating more junk food or drinking more alcohol.
Sounds a lot like depression, doesn't it?
Related: Making it Through a Crisis, One Day at a Time
Burnout isn't the same as laziness
Because of the low productivity that often comes with burnout, bosses and even burnout sufferers are too quick to use the "lazy" label.
Don't confuse burnout with being lazy! Laziness and burnout do share some symptoms, such as:
- Low productivity
- Constantly distracted
- Disliking your job or the task at hand
- Feeling overworked
On the other hand, burnout shows a marked change outlook that affects all parts of life. If your mood has shifted from feeling "stressed but stable" to irritable, anxious, passive-aggressive, or feeling physically ill, that's a sign of burnout.
For example, when you're burned out, daily tasks feel "heavier" and take more time and energy to complete, adding to your overall state of exhaustion. This could be due to not having the capacity to process information as fast as you're used to, leading to a "foggy" brain that has trouble processing anything.
Feeling emotionally drained constantly eats away at your motivation and enthusiasm and drains you physically too. Spending time with friends and loved ones, playing sports, or any social activity can all become too difficult.
When burnout leads to self-destruction
Burnout is a psychological condition that can lead to other mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety disorders.
However, some people are unlikely to talk about their mental health issues until they reach crisis levels. In a 2018 study from Priory, 400 out of the 1000 men surveyed said they'd only seek help if they had thoughts of suicide or self-harm.
Out of that 1000, 32% said their biggest cause of stress was work. A majority also said their mental health had negatively impacted their "work performance, parenting ability and relationships in particular" (priorygroup.com).
Much as burnout is something that develops over time, so is suicidal ideation. Seeking help before it becomes a crisis can help manage suicidal or harmful thoughts. But self-medicating (drinking, taking drugs, or other harmful activities) often worsens burnout or depression symptoms.
In my case, I wouldn't turn to substances, but I would play online games with my friends until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. as a form of escapism. So much of my day was filled with work, I felt I deserved all the free time I could get. Going to bed meant waking up back to go to work, so I “needed” to play games to clear my mind.
I also refused to acknowledge that going to bed at 3 a.m. would make me tired and irritable the next morning. I kept up this self-medicating habit until I crashed.
Self-destruction can look harmless. At the time, I felt like I was clawing back much needed "me time" from the world’s demands. In reality, though, my daily list of demands wasn't going to change. Staying up until 3 a.m. wasn't going to make anything any better.
Related: I Reduced My Working Hours to Protect My Mental Health
Burnout happens, even when you know the signs
I have three kids and, writing this, I realise I go through burnout a lot.
My eldest is very aware of his emotions and mental state, describing how his brain feels when he's anxious. This happened, unprompted, during the COVID-19 crisis in 2020, as he didn't have a social circle of his own.
I am so proud of my son for articulating his thoughts and feelings at such a young age. Still, being a key pillar of his emotional support system can take its toll. At the same time, I'm raising two younger children, supporting my wife through her degree, and writing a PhD thesis. All that pressure is like a precariously balanced house of cards that'll fold in on itself when I least expect it.
I feel emotionally hollow.
Sometimes, I haven’t got the energy my family needs or deserves because I want to hide away and sleep. Most of the time, I don't say how I feel because I don't want it to look like I'm reacting to the kids being hyperactive that day.
Masking my thoughts and feelings adds to my mood changes, and I become irritable and hard to be around until I speak up and say what I need. That could be rest or simply a chance to vent and let off some steam in a controlled, productive way. Either significantly helps with my mood.
Related: Parenting with Depression and Anxiety
The link between burnout and depression
Though it seems like depression and burnout may be two sides of the same coin, psychologists are divided on how much they overlap.
For a start, though burnout and depression share many similar traits, burnout isn’t classified as an official medical condition - even though many psychiatrists recognise it as an illness.
However, the lack of an independent diagnosis does not say that burnout is "made up" or that people exaggerate their symptoms. In fact, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), the key differences between burnout and depression are the causes and resulting patterns of both conditions.
For example, burnout is caused by constant stress and difficulty managing some parts of life, like excessive job expectations (but not always). Once burnout raises its ugly head, a clear pattern or set of phases tend to follow. Many experts flag up to 12 stages of burnout, but I have summarised them down to three.
1. Overworking. You may suddenly find it hard to switch off from work. All the activities you previously enjoyed, like reading or an exercise class, suddenly fall by the wayside.
2. Feeling indifferent. After a prolonged burst of energy, commitment begins to wane. You may find yourself disappointed by life’s routine, listless, and emotionally dulled.
3. Despair or hopelessness. Burnout reduces motivation, which reduces the ability to perform to a high standard. You may feel bored, lethargic, and unable to cope with daily activities or demands.
As you can see, phases two and three are similar to some signs and symptoms of depression. However, depression doesn’t need a cause or context, whereas burnout has a clearly definable reason.
That said, burnout and depression are still closely linked, and one often gets mistaken for another. In a 2014 study from the Journal of Clinical Psychology, 1,400 teachers were assessed for burnout. When researchers assessed the teachers with burnout for depression, 86% met the criteria for a depression diagnosis (MJCP).
So, what’s the consensus? Some psychologists think that, while burnout and depression are separate issues, they work on a continuum. Unresolved burnout, for example, may lead to depression. Likewise, a history of depression may lead to more frequent bouts of burnout.
It’s like a snake eating its own tail. If you suspect depression, burnout, or both are imminent, you must find the right support before the situation gets worse.
Related: 6 Things to Do When You Have a Mental Health Setback
Open up to friends and family
Opening up to friends and family helps them understand - but it'll help you find clarity too. With burnout and depression, our thoughts are often jumbled and don't make sense, no matter how much we believe they do. Talking through our emotions can help us sort facts from fiction or help us clear our heads.
You'll find, as you talk, that some people in your network may be less supportive than others. That's okay - don't be disheartened. Support is a two-way street, and patience is needed on both sides. Both depression and burnout are difficult to understand, even after you've explained the symptoms.
So, if any loved ones shy away from you, let them come back in their own time. They may be frightened of another bombshell or not know what to do. Slowly, help them learn. The ones that care the most will try hardest to understand.
Related: 6 Ways to Support Your Depressed Partner
Reach out for professional help
Sometimes, what really helps is an outside perspective from a professional counsellor or service. They can help with some issues "too close to home" to share with your loved ones. Or, if you haven't worked your way up to telling your family, they can guide you through the opening-up process.
The first port of call is usually your general practitioner or GP. Your GP should be able to recommend a wide variety of services to suit your needs.
If you're not ready to talk to your doctor just yet, several websites keep your anonymity. Services like The Samaritans, the NHS's Hub of Hope, and Kooth offer safe and anonymous support services.
Whatever you choose, it can be exhausting figuring out what is best for you. You may need to try different methods until you find the right one.
It took years to find counselling and medication that suited me, but the correct help is worth the uncomfortable process.
Related: Finding Support to Manage Depression at Work
You can go down many avenues for burnout and depression support, be it professional, peer-led support, or even your network of family and friends.
After the events of the last two years, millions of people with mental health issues will need to hear how important it is to seek out help. We need to normalise speaking out about our mental health and the importance of talking about it.
I hope you're all well and, please, take care.
NPS-IE-NP-00337 February 2022