Burnout happens because you’re overwhelmed and exhausted. You’ve said yes to everything and taken on too much. But if you never say no, what is your yes worth?
Charlotte Dawkins is 52. She gets out of bed early every morning, having slept badly, and is tired before she even starts. She cries silently as she makes tea, overwhelmed by the fact that she forgot to get milk yesterday, and opts for black coffee instead. Heading to the office where she runs a business she set up full of excitement nearly eight years ago, she looks normal on the outside but is zombie-like internally. She smiles at people but feels like they’re behind a foggy wall she cannot pass through, their voices distant.
She tries half-heartedly to make some kind of job list in order to prioritise her tasks, but struggles to remember what she’s even supposed to be doing. Getting some kind of selection together, she picks the job at the top of the list, taking a deep breath and trying to feel positive.
But once she is sitting in front of her laptop, she cannot think, cannot form words, stares at the screen. She is paralysed, ineffective. She scrolls endlessly through Facebook, completely unable to do anything. And she knows she will be like this all day. She will complete barely half of what she is capable of; probably even less than that. And she will go home feeling tired, and guilty, and useless, and worried that she is jeopardising her business.
Once home, she’ll order food because she’s too tired to cook, eat some of it straight from the containers, and fall asleep on the sofa, finally dragging herself to bed in the middle of the night where insomnia takes hold and she stares at her phone half the night. She doesn’t go out any more. She can’t.
Charlotte is burnt out. The long years working ridiculous hours, the constant levels of stress she has dealt with, and her inability to manage her time better, have finally all culminated in her body and brain simply refusing to function any more.
Chronic stress is rampant. We are expected – and often expect ourselves – to perform well, live longer, do more
Chronic stress is rampant. Not just amongst those working endless, stressful jobs or running businesses, but in young people, older workers, those caring for others, even grandparents. Our lives are fast, frantic and full of stimulus. We are expected – and expect ourselves – to perform well, live longer, do more. All this can lead to burnout, depression, and health problems.
When we’re under stress, our bodies perceive it as a threat, and this means the hormones we helpfully have to keep us alive and trigger our fight-or-flight responses – adrenaline and cortisol – are constantly busy doing what they do. These hormones should normally turn on, and then off again when danger has passed. But constant stress means our bodies are literally primed, all the time, for a battle with danger.
Peter has been caring for his wife ever since her stroke. He loves her fiercely, and wants to care for her himself, shielding her from indignity and the offers of care from health service strangers. At 67 he’s on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week – to help lift her and move her, to rub her sore limbs, to help her with the bathroom, even to wash her hair.
To stay sane he keeps his part time job and it’s an escape for him, but he is constantly on the buzz, and often has to bring work home. He cannot sit still, he is always busy. His eyes flick around the room constantly and he has trouble focusing. He can’t sleep properly, his ears on elastic, listening in case she wakes, like a parent with a newborn. But he likes to keep busy because it is a distraction from the crashing sadness of his life. He can’t concentrate, doesn’t hear half of what people tell him, and forgets things. Peter is also burnt out, and it’s starting to affect his health. Burnout isn’t always about being flat and broken; burnout can be manic too.
WHAT IS BURNOUT AND HOW CAN I STOP IT?
Burnout comes when you’ve been in that adrenal/cortisol stress response for too long. Burnout is also often called adrenal fatigue, just for that reason. There are a number of ways to manage stress and burnout – and getting to it before it becomes chronic is vital, so look for the signs.
- Are you tired?
- Struggling to concentrate?
- Feeling overwhelmed?
- Anxious, restless, whirling brain, insomnia?
- How are your eating habits?
- Do you feel agoraphobic or unable to cope?
Any or all of these might be worth checking in on.
To help fix it, eating healthy whole foods is top of the list; avoiding sugar spikes and crashes makes a huge difference to your overall health and functionality. And water – is there anything that drinking a ton of water doesn’t improve? The basic foundation of life, it helps your body function better and flushes out toxins. Go get a glass, right now.
And whilst we’re on drinking, do less caffeine. Yes, obviously it keeps you ticking over, gives you a boost. But why do you need that boost? Every time you drink coffee, you’re asking your body and mind to give up yet more of its reserves. Plus, insomnia.
Also look into doing stuff that brings those stress levels down. Yoga or meditation, reading a book, having a walk, just breathing properly. All these things help…
The biggest thing you can do for yourself is learn to say no
But the biggest thing you can do for yourself is learn to say no. Say no to anything that isn’t vital at work. Say no to social activity if actually what you need to do is relax and unwind. Say no to people asking you for stuff, or worthy causes that require your time and emotional support. Say no to giving up your weekends, and say no to overtime. Say no to demanding friends and vampires! Just. Say. No.
Learning how to protect yourself from stress and overwhelming situations and workloads is absolutely fundamental to your own health. But doing it with a positive thrust is the bit that makes a difference. So no politely but firmly, and with love, not anger.
A bit like Marie Kondo advises keeping stuff only if it brings you joy, try applying some of that thinking to your life. Life is a journey, not a destination – take a long hard look at what you’re doing, and ask yourself; “Do I want this?” If the answer is yes, great! Go for it, and find ways of improving your downtime to cope. If the answer is “Hell no, I’m killing myself trying to do this stuff,” then you need to start saying no more.
Top tips for saying no
Keep it simple
If you want to say no, be firm and direct. Instead of trying to put distance between yourself and the request by saying maybe, or later, just be clear. “Thanks for thinking of me, but I can’t do it now.” Don’t apologise, you don’t have to. Be kind, but firm.
If you’re really not sure…
Don’t just say yes in a fluster. Take a deep breath and count to five before answering! Give yourself some breathing space by asking for time to consider, and then really looking at whether you can add this to your list.
Saying no to your children is OK
Whether they’re still at home or grown up and nagging you for babysitting duties, it’s hard to remember who’s boss here. You do NOT have to say yes to everything your kids ask of you and sometimes standing your ground and setting boundaries is vital to their own development. It’s normal to be unpopular from time to time – it’s part of the ‘aren’t you lucky’ parent bundle.
Compromise can save your bacon
Particularly good with the kids actually, but generally a good way to reduce your yesness. Look at your options, maybe offer to split, or do part. Particularly if it’s something like a work project you’d love but which would push your hours into the stratosphere. Maybe you don’t have to do it all?
Keep it friendly
Saying no to people, particularly if you generally say yes, can stop people in their tracks and you may even find they take the refusal as a personal rejection. Get on top of that by being clear. “I think what you’re doing is amazing, but I can’t help right now,” or “I’d love to work with you, but I’m afraid it’s impossible at the moment.”
Be true to yourself
We’re back to that ‘does it bring you joy’ thing here. Know what you really want, and try to stay on track. Pause before saying yes, and think. Do you really want this?