Burnout and women: how to protect yourself from burning out

There is a crisis in the workplace and it’s something that should concern every single one of us. Women are burning out in record numbers – and often having to leave their job because of it. As the boundaries between our work and home lives dissolve, and the responsibilities heaped on women’s shoulders multiply, burnout amongst women is more rife than ever. The mantra of “just crack on” has led to us cracking. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to protect ourselves.

How to recognise women’s burnout

To address burnout, we first have to acknowledge that we’re on the road to it. The funny thing about burnout is that we’re familiar with the word…but we often don’t recognise it when it happens to us.

Women who are champion multitaskers are particularly affected. Relentlessly catering for kids’ needs, being the emotional support for everyone in the family, dealing with a mountain of admin, caring for aging (and possibly infirm) parents, the never-ending rounds of food shopping/cooking/housework…and that’s before we even get started on the stress of work responsibilities.

It’s easy to overlook the signs of burnout because it doesn’t just announce itself one day, like chicken pox. Instead, it slowly creeps up on you over time. It’s important, though, to be on the alert for warning signs, so that we can prevent it from becoming a full-scale breakdown.

Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Feeling like you just can’t ever get on top of things – no matter what you do.
  • Struggling to sleep.
  • Having difficultly focusing at work/making mistakes.
  • Feeling exhausted.
  • Suffering from heart palpitations, shortness of breath, headaches or backache.
  • Loss of appetite; digestive or skin issues.
  • Feeling anxious, apathetic or depressed.
  • Low energy.
  • A lack of joy, even at happy occasions.
  • Being irritable and short-tempered.

When I suffered burnout – and was blind to it

Back in the days when I was juggling an impossibly stressful job with looking after a baby and a three-year-old who seemed to take it in turns to be ill, I turned into a walking wreck.

I was desperate to be the consummate professional I’d always been – but, grappling with chronic sleep deprivation, I was falling apart at the seams. My weight plummeted, I had a constant knot of fear in my stomach and I was struck by all manner of weird ailments. I was so busy trying to cling onto my job that I didn’t recognize the burnout that was affecting every facet of my life.

These days, I’m a lot more aware of what my body is trying to tell me. Whereas I used to plaster over the cracks, slap on more make-up, fake a rictus smile and get on with the job, I now recognise when I’m perilously overstretched – and I take action.

I’m far calmer, happier and more focused now at 52 than I was at 32. Back then, I was attempting to do the impossible and was wrecking my health in the process. My mindset around my own self-care is now radically different from how it used to be. I now make sure to put my own wellbeing to the top of my list.

Here are some of the things I now do regularly as part of my self-care toolkit:

I start the day with a morning routine that doesn’t launch me into the fight or flight mode that I used to be in the moment I woke up. (For ideas on positive ways to start your morning, sign up for my 7-Day Morning Routine Toolkit.)
I now have much better respect for the boundaries of my energy and am more choosy about what I commit myself to – and what I say no to. I recognise that if I take energy out of my bank, I then need to put some energy back in!
I schedule me-time into my diary – whether it’s going for a walk with a friend or doing a weekly yoga, pottery or dance class.

Talk to someone

If you’re struggling with the stressors you’re juggling and finding that they’re affecting your home life, impacting on your sleep or making you feel anxious or ill, I urge you to talk to someone.

Don’t try and bottle it up. Please reach out to a colleague who you trust and be honest with them. You’ll very likely find them to be far more understanding than you might have expected.

Draw up your boundaries

You only have a finite amount of time and energy and headspace. You are not Superwoman. You are a human being and you can only do so much. Think about where you need to draw the lines around your energy. Articulate those boundaries clearly – and make sure that they’re respected. That might mean telling your boss that you’re not available in the evenings to reply to emails. Or it might mean sitting down with your partner and having a frank conversation around which household jobs you’re able to do – and which ones you need to delegate for your own sanity and your own health.

Put your own self-care first!

Yes, I know that this flies in the face of what you may have been brainwashed to believe – but self-care is NOT an indulgence. It’s essential and it’s our right. Focus on building little pockets of self-care into your day and your week: times where you set work aside and do something for yourself. We’re simply not designed to be on all the time. Every one of us requires off-times to function properly. It’s not a lot to ask.

(If you’d like some support in looking after yourself, I invite you to join my Freshly Minted membership, where I’ll gently guide you to adopt the self-care habits that will transform your wellbeing.)

Women’s burnout is rampant and we need to insulate ourselves from it. The world needs women who are fully resourced – not hanging on for dear life. To hear more on women and burnout, have a listen to this episode of my Midlife Illuminated podcast: “Women and burnout – why we can’t go on like this”.

Suzy x

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