Spotting the signs of burnout

While incredibly rewarding, caring for someone can be physically and mentally demanding too, and over time – and without the right support could lead to ‘burnout’. Whether you’re caring for a parent yourself, are supporting a spouse, or provide care professionally, we’ve covered everything you need to know about ‘Burnout syndrome’ in this guide. 

preventing burnout a guide for caregivers from Elder

What is burnout?

Burnout, or burnout syndrome is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, caused by a prolonged period of stress. People who experience burnout often feel unable to ask for help, or struggle to step away from the cause of their stress. 

If they are able to take a break, they’ll likely find it difficult to focus on or enjoy other things. 

According to the World Health Organisation the concept of burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’, and it’s often referred to as being the direct result of 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 disengage, professional burnout is becoming a widespread concern. 

However, job stress isn’t the only cause of burnout. Unpaid caregivers are commonly 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 can be particularly stressful. 

It can hit people at different stages of the care journey, however the following situations can increase the likelihood of experiencing burnout:

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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.

Poor mental health, such as existing anxiety or depression could make some people more susceptible to burnout. Being unable to distance yourself from stressful situations is a major cause too. 

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 disproportionately effect unpaid caregivers. 

Experts 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 an high stress or fast-paced environment – for example, burnout in hospital employees is fairly common. 

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 can 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. 

spotting the signs of burnout when you're caring for an older person

What does burnout feel like?

While every experience will be different, there are some common signs that may indicate burnout is impacting your daily life, these include: 

physical signs

mental signs

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The difference between stress and burnout

While burnout is usually caused by overwhelming stress, the symptoms of both conditions can differ. Stress will usually cause more physical symptoms, while burnout symptoms tend to impact us more emotionally. 

The symptoms of stress:

  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Stomach pain 
  • Muscle tension and jaw clenching
  • Heart palpitations 
  • Physical damage to the body over time – such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and skin conditions
  • difficulties concentrating or making decisions 
  • overactive emotions – e.g becoming snappy or impatient 

Can burnout cause fatigue?

In short, yes. Burnout is widely associated with a lack of energy and feelings of exhaustion, which are both signs of fatigue.

Fatigue doesn’t just cause physical symptoms though. It 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 to help. 

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 caregivers, 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 dependant on drugs or 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 become impatient or irritated by them. 

Burnout is caused by continuous stressors which create a vicious cycle of negative emotions. Over time, this often 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.   

The symptoms of burnout can also lead to a number of physical health worries if left untreated. Research published by the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology has highlighted that those who experience extreme burnout are more likely to experience an irregular heart rhythm called Atrial fibrillation, or AFib. 

AFib has been linked to other heart health concerns, including high blood pressure, and potentially, heart disease

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 usually means getting someone to share or take over the caring responsibilities, or creating a healthier schedule with more opportunities to take time away. 

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 cost of things like respite care. 

Some UK based organisations such as The Respite Association provide free or discounted holidays for caregivers too. 

As well as reducing stress levels, it’s important to tackle the physical and emotional symptoms of stress. The most valuable treatment option is often speaking to a NHS mental health professional, licensed psychologist or BCAP registered counsellor. They can help you understand your feelings and create new ways of coping when faced with stress

Strategies can include self-care such as eating a balanced diet and exercising more, or things like meditation and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). 

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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