The charity Mental Health UK says a ‘worrying’ number of people are taking time off work due to poor mental health. Are we at risk of becoming burnt out? 

A recent YouGov survey of 2,060 adults (including 1,132 workers) found that over a third (35%) experienced high levels of pressure at work in the last year. 20% of the adults surveyed also reported that they had needed time off due to stress. 

In response to the findings, the chief executive of the charity Mental Health UK, Brian Dow, warned that the UK was “rapidly becoming a burnt-out nation.” The causes of poor workplace mental health are complex. Uncertainty about the cost of living, pressures on public services, the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and the impact of climate change are just some of the reasons Brian suggests behind workplace absence. 

Although attitudes and understanding of mental health and work have changed, particularly in the last few years, the YouGov poll revealed that over a third of people weren’t comfortable voicing their concerns about pressure and stress to their managers. This can further contribute to a vicious cycle of stress, anxiety and “feelings of hopelessness,” notes Dow. With almost half (49%) of workers suggesting that their employers didn’t have a strategy in place to spot the signs of chronic stress, Mental Health UK is calling for the Government to help create healthier workplaces and put more support in place to support staff. 

Speaking about their ‘back to work’ plan, a spokesperson told The Guardian that the initiative would help “hundreds of thousands including those with long-term health conditions to break down barriers to work” and “make sure businesses offer the best possible health support to their staff.”

How can we recognise the signs of burnout, and what support is available whilst you wait for NHS support

Understanding burnout 

Burnout is the state of complete mental, physical and emotional exhaustion, usually brought on by stress. It is not a recognised mental health condition in itself but, rather, a syndrome or a collection of signs and symptoms. The key to preventing burnout is to recognise the signs early on so that you can address the underlying causes. If burnout goes ignored, it can cause more harm to your mental and physical health, leading to a snowball effect. 

Recognising the signs of burnout 

Some of the common signs of burnout include:

  • feeling drained 
  • feeling unable to cope 
  • difficulty sleeping 
  • feeling sad, anxious, angry or irritable 
  • losing interest in hobbies or work that you previously enjoyed  
  • turning to coping mechanisms such as drugs or alcohol 
  • difficulty concentrating

If you recognise any of these signs in yourself or someone you know, you may be experiencing burnout. It’s really important to seek support so that you can recover. 

Coping with burnout 

Talk to your manager or GP

If you’ve reached burnout, you may need to take some time off work to allow space to recover effectively. If you feel able, talk to a manager about taking some time off. Remember, your health and wellbeing come first. You can also get a sick note from a GP, if you have been off for more than seven consecutive days due to work-related stress. 

Maintain boundaries 

It can be easy to feel like you need to say ‘yes’ to everything that’s asked of you at work, especially if you have people-pleasing tendencies. Try to say yes to the projects you know are realistically achievable and, remember, it’s OK to say ‘no’ to protect your mental health and prevent over-working. And, if you initially agree to something, but realise you can no longer meet expectations, it’s also OK to go back to that person and retract your ‘yes.’ It’s likely that your colleague or manager will be perfectly understanding of your workload and you can work together to agree on a deadline that suits you both. 

Sometimes, priorities take over. If this is the case, speak to your line manager about what tasks are most important, and which can wait. This can help you organise your workload in a way that means you’re not going to over-subscribe yourself. 

Top tip: Phrases such as “Can I get back to you?” or “That doesn’t work for me” can help maintain boundaries, by giving you the space to find a time or solution that does work for you. 

On the topic of boundaries, try to finish work on time. When we’re feeling stressed, it can be easy to fall into the trap of overworking, thinking we’re being more productive. Often, this can actually lead to a lack of productivity in the long term, as overworking can mean we become too burnt-out to carry out any task. 

Take annual leave 

This one might sound obvious, but taking annual leave is an important way to prevent burnout, by resting and recharging our batteries. You don’t have to save annual leave for big holidays, either. Taking a day or two to simply rest is just as valid. 

Establish healthy sleep patterns 

Sleep hygiene has been talked about more and more in recent years and for good reason. Getting good quality sleep plays an important part in preventing and recovering from burnout. Try our 5 steps for healthy sleep hygiene

Seek professional support 

If you feel that struggling to cope with symptoms of burnout, you may benefit from seeking some professional support. Counselling provides a space to work through your feelings and coping strategies in an environment free from judgement. 

If you’re looking for guidance on ways to set boundaries and establish healthy habits at work, coaching can also support you. Wokring with a coach, you can reflect on the root causes of your burnout, implement strategies moving forward and learn how to tune into your own awareness, so that you can recognise burnout early on. 

Learn more about burnout from Mental Health UK’s burnout report.