Spotting the signs of burnout

Written by Zenya Smith13/04/22

Caring for someone can be physically and mentally demanding, and over time – and without the right support could lead to a state of exhaustion, also known as ‘burnout’. Whether you’re caring for a parent, supporting a spouse, or providing care professionally, we’ve covered everything you need to know about ‘burnout syndrome’ in this guide.

What is burnout?

According to the NHS definition, Burnout, or burnout syndrome is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, caused by a prolonged period of stress. People who experience burnout may feel unable to ask for help or find it difficult to step away from the cause of their stress.

If they are able to take a break they may struggle to focus on or enjoy other things.

According to the World Health Organisation the concept of burnout is an ‘occupational phenomenon’, and it’s often referred to as being the direct result of constant exposure to chronic, work-related stress. With the recent cultural shifts in the way we work – with many people working longer hours, and technology making it harder to fully disengage or clock off, professional burnout is becoming a widespread concern.

However, job stress isn’t the only cause of burnout. Unpaid caregivers can be impacted by burnout too. Ensuring a vulnerable person stays safe and healthy is a big responsibility and one that can become even more emotionally complex in certain situations. For example, caring for a close relative or someone with severe dementia may be particularly stressful.

In fact, Mental Health UK found that 73% of people agree that increased caregiving responsibilities, such as looking after elderly parents, could contribute to burnout.

It can affect people at different stages of the care journey, for example – 

  • When you become a carer unexpectedly, and when there is uncertainty around how long you’ll need to provide care for
  • When you are caring for someone alone, or without the support or resources you need
  • When the care you give doesn’t seem to be having an impact on the health or wellbeing of the person you’re looking after
  • When the person receiving care is resistant to your help

Caregiver burnout in numbers

During the national Coronavirus lockdown Carers UK found that on average, unpaid carers were providing an additional 10 hours of unpaid care a week. Unsurprisingly, 55% reported feeling overwhelmed, and were worried about feelings of burnout.

What contributes to burnout?

While a heavy workload is often thought of as the biggest cause of burnout, there are actually a number of things that can contribute to burnout and chronic stress.

In a survey by Mental Health UK, 77% of people said that feeling isolated and alone could contribute to burnout, while 87% felt that poor sleep could be a significant factor. Both of which are likely to affect unpaid caregivers disproportionately.

Some also believe that a lack of accomplishment or appreciation is a factor in burnout, especially when experienced over a prolonged period of time.

Handling job burnout

Professional caregivers can also experience burnout, particularly if they work in a high-stress or fast-paced environment – for example, burnout in hospital employees is fairly common, with the King’s Fund finding that around 50 percent of NHS workers are likely to experience chronic stress.

It can be caused by things like unreasonable time pressure – for example, a domiciliary carer may struggle to complete multiple house visits during their shift or feel that they don’t have enough time to spend with their clients in order to provide the right level of care.

Unfair treatment, last-minute rota changes, or an unmanageable workload may also cause additional stress and lead to a lack of work-life balance – increasing the risk of burnout.

Over time, workplace burnout will likely lead to poorer performance at work. In a caregiving setting, this can be particularly dangerous, so it’s crucial that caregivers feel able to take regular breaks and have a strong support network in place.

How long does it take for burnout to occur?

Burnout occurs when stress accumulates until the body and mind can no longer cope. Everyone’s stress threshold is different, so the period of time it takes for burnout to happen will vary from person to person.

Sometimes, stress can be continuous but moderate – meaning you may not see the warning signs of burnout for a few years. On the other hand, high levels of intense stress may lead to burnout in a matter of weeks.


What are the signs of caregiver burnout?

While every experience will be different, the NHS has outlined some common signs that may indicate burnout is impacting your daily life, these include:

Physical signs

  • Muscle pains and headaches
  • A poor or irregular sleep pattern
  • Feeling tired
  • A lack of concentration
  • Weight gain or weight loss


Mental signs

  • A lack of productivity or inconsistent productivity levels
  • A lack of motivation for things you used to enjoy doing
  • withdrawing from social events or seeing people 
  • A lack of emotion, or feeling negative emotions – such as helplessness or hopelessness
  • A low quality of life

How can caregivers overcome sleep problems?

We asked Channel 4 sleep expert Stephanie Romiszewski about the impact of poor sleep, and how caregivers can break unhealthy sleep cycles.

Can burnout cause fatigue?

In short, yes. Burnout is widely associated with a lack of energy and feelings of exhaustion. 

Caregiver fatigue can leave people feeling unable to cope in their professional and personal lives. They can become withdrawn from friends, family, and work, and may cancel plans and and call in sick to work more often.

Caregivers may also experience something called ‘Compassion fatigue‘. It’s a term to describe the physical and emotional exhaustion that can come from looking after someone else.

Looking after someone who is constantly in pain or uncomfortable, or has experienced emotional trauma or mental health problems can be overwhelming. Even though you want to help, you may feel powerless even when trying your hardest.

The most common signs of compassion fatigue include a loss of empathy and feeling numb to the world around you. It can also change your sleep pattern and appetite, and leave feeling detached from the person you are caring for.

What can burnout lead to?

For informal caregivers and professional carers, burnout can not only impact their own quality of life, but have a major impact on the lives of the people they are caring for too.

Because of the impact it has on your concentration and energy levels, Burnout can reduce the speed and way in which you react in an emergency. It could make you more dependent on caffeine or even alcohol, which is likely to cause a lack of clarity and harm your ability to make decisions. And, it can influence how you feel about the person you’re looking after too – for example, you may find yourself becoming more impatient or irritated by them.

Burnout is caused by continuous stressors which create a vicious cycle of negative emotions. Over time, this may lead to lower self-esteem and lack of confidence. In extreme cases, people may experience some post-traumatic stress (PTSD) type symptoms too, such as nightmares or anxiety.

Can you fully recover from burnout?

Despite the name, burnout isn’t permanent and with the right treatment and support, people can make a full recovery. For most people, recovery can take upwards of a year and involves creating mental distance from the source of stress. For caregivers, this may mean getting someone to share or take over the caring responsibilities, or creating a healthier schedule with more opportunities to take time away. 

Where to find support for caregiver stress and burnout

Creating healthier daily habits that support your overall health & wellness, and reduce your level of stress can help minimise the risk of experiencing full-scale burnout. The NHS suggest the following – 

Talk to someone about how you’re feeling 

This could be a family member, friend, colleague, or a health care professional such as your GP – whoever you feel most comfortable opening up to. Simply getting it off your chest may help relieve some of the pressure you’re feeling. 

Sometimes it can help to speak to a stranger or someone who is completely neutral to the situation and doesn’t know any of the people involved. You may wish to try a free helpline like The Samaritans or Carers UK. You may choose to give talking therapy a go too. The quickest route will often be finding a private therapist, and while this isn’t free, many therapists offer concessions, or a free 15-20 minute chat initially to see if it feels right for you. 

Be more active 

Physical health is really closely linked to mental health, so getting your body moving is important. Being active can help you use up any nervous energy you may be experiencing, and can help release feel-good chemicals in the brain. Doctors believe that even as little as 20 minutes of movement a day can be beneficial. 

While this could mean getting off the bus a stop early and walking more, or climbing the stairs a few times a day – exercise should be enjoyable too. Try to schedule some mini – workouts that you actually enjoy. This could be following a short aerobics video or dance tutorial on YouTube, or a short walk around the block while listening to your favourite podcast. 

Exercise can of course help you feel more tired too, which may, in turn, help you to build better sleep habits.

Plan ahead

If a particular day or event is likely to cause stress, try and plan ahead. Create a to-do list, plan your journey (and an alternative route) if you’re travelling, and don’t be afraid to ask others for support or backup if you need it.

Support with caregiving tasks 

Seeking support with your caring responsibilities isn’t always easy, but there are initiatives out there that can help ease some of the strain –particularly if cost is a worry.

Carer’s allowance, attendance allowance, and local authority funding are just some forms of government support you may be eligible for. Together, these kinds of payments can really add up and help cover the financial cost of things like respite care – giving you a complete break from caring for a few days or a couple of weeks throughout the year.

If you’re an unpaid carer, some UK-based organisations such as The Respite Association offer a limited number of free or discounted holidays. These initiatives provide dedicated relaxation time away from the person they’re caring for, and alongside other caregivers who understand what they’re going through. 

If you’re looking to factor in some help and time away during the day then your local Age UK day centre, community centre, or dementia memory cafe may be able to help. They offer a range of stimulating classes, arts and crafts sessions, and social activities for older people to enjoy for a few hours a week – all under the supervision of trained staff. This could provide you with a few additional hours in which to take daily breaks from being a primary caregiver. 

Lastly, building friendships with people who understand what it’s like to care for others may make a big difference too. Carers UK’s online forum is a great place to share experiences, ask questions or simply let off some steam when you’re feeling overwhelmed. 

Recovery from burnout can take time and effort. However it’s important to remember that recovery can not only drastically improve your quality of life, but that of the person you’re caring for too.

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