From an increased heart rate, to unexplained aches and pains and self-criticism, the signs of burnout are many. Expert Leanne Spencer explains how to identify them and what to do about it
When Lloyds Banking Group chief executive António Horta-Osório returned to work in December 2011 following a sick leave caused by chronic insomnia, he told the Financial Times: “I was like a battery going to zero. You know when a computer battery says it has seven per cent power remaining, six per cent and then it suddenly dies… I needed recharging.”
Horta-Osório’s five-week absence came just eight months after he assumed one of the City’s top jobs, and is just one of a host of high-profile examples of executives suffering the strains of burnout: a critical issue in business. According to a 2015 YouGov survey, over half (51 per cent) of full-time UK employees said they experienced anxiety or burnout in their jobs. Meanwhile, the number of working days lost to work-related stress was 9.9 million in the year to April 2015.
Leanne Spencer, an IoD 99 member, hit “rock bottom” herself in 2012. After a 17-year City career, stress and poor diet conspired in one client meeting where, “My hands started shaking quite badly. My heart was racing and I was sweating… The inescapable truth was my life had been spiralling out of control for some time”.
Signed off for one week by her GP for stress-related anxiety, she changed jobs, but “the old demons returned”. She now works as a fitness entrepreneur, helping executives avoid and recover from the effects of burnout via her wellbeing company.
She believes today’s 24/7 on-demand culture is to blame. “We work longer and longer hours, with bonus and compensation schemes rewarding those who put in the longest day and make the greatest sacrifices,” she says. “Smartphones mean we’re connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week… There are very few places to escape anymore.”
The signs of burnout
Burnout affects people in different ways and it can take some time to realise things are awry. Classic stress-signifiers include increased heart rate and breathing, dry mouth and sweatiness – all triggered by a rise in adrenaline.
Likewise, depleted energy levels and exhaustion are prime indicators. “When everyday stress becomes chronic stress, that’s where problems start,” says Spencer. “If executives feel work is valuable and meaningful, they’re less likely to burnout.”
Coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s, ‘burnout’ is more serious than feeling a bit moody or sad for a few days. It’s a state of chronic stress, resulting in the sufferer feeling powerless to cope with everyday tasks, such as getting out of bed or choosing what clothes to wear.
Spencer remembers one client who “relayed a story about how they were on their way to a meeting before stopping still in the street, unable to continue or remember where they were going… Quite often, a person will remain in their job for many weeks, months or years after the signs of burnout have appeared”.
There are many emotional portents of burnout, such as irritability, confrontation and adopting irrational views, often noticed by family or fellow staff members. A rise in cynicism and loss of humour are also telltale signs, as is excessive worrying and self-criticism and focusing on negative events.
Cognitive problems can also occur, such as finding yourself struggling at tasks you’d normally shine at and a growing sense of futility in your job, despite working harder. Plummeting glucose levels can result in forgetfulness and decreased concentration, while anhedonia – where sufferers no longer derive pleasure from things they previously enjoyed such as listening to music – can also materialise.
Meanwhile, the accumulation of ‘stress hormone’ cortisol, which suppresses appetite, can cause healthy eating to go awry. An over-reliance on caffeine (main culprit in bad sleeping habits) and self-medicating using alcohol both exacerbate problems.
Unexplained aches and pains, such as irregular bowel movements, muscle aches and spasms, hot flushes and lower back pains are all physical harbingers of possible burnout.
As Spencer points out, many people exhibiting pre-burnout symptoms often mask it by working even harder. “People who have suffered most from burnout aren’t people who find it easy to ask for help… They’re more vulnerable as they’re more likely to be working alone or self-reliant. Our macho corporate culture hardly helps.”
She also notes the emergence of ‘competitive presenteeism’ – “a game of how sick you can be and still come into the office” – has become “endemic in the corporate world”. After quitting her job, Spencer took several months to recover, aided by a revamp of her nutrition, exercise and alcohol usage.
“I’ve radically changed my life by reviewing aspects of my lifestyle… I’d recommend anybody starting to see signs of burnout do the same.”
Rise and Shine by Leanne Spencer is out now, published by Rethink Press, price: £11.99
If you are concerned about burnout symptoms, consult your GP
Tips on conquering chronic stress
Sport/exercise Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, generates ‘happy hormone’ neurotransmitters such as endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, while the extra oxygen helps the brain’s hippocampus (the brain’s memory system) create fresh brain cells.
Sleep Forget Margaret Thatcher’s famous four hours a night claim – the recommended duration of shut-eye is an uninterrupted seven-to-eight hours.
Nutrition Ditch takeaways, stay hydrated, embrace kale, you know the score…
Meditation and meditation Google, Apple, Ikea and the Department of Health and Transport for London have all included mindfulness or mediation as part of their employee packages for a reason.
Daily smartphone hiatuses Best enforcing this ‘no checking emails’ rule’ in the hours before bedtime.
Ditch those drinks Cut down caffeine and alcohol intake.