The COVID-19 pandemic has led to huge changes in people’s working situations in the past 15 months – whether it’s the impact of increased workload, remote working, high-pressure situations or the uncertainty about when things will go back to normal.

And ‘burnout’ is becoming an increasingly used word to describe how people are responding to the consequences of the pandemic on their working lives.

Last week dating app Bumble announced its employees would be given a paid week off work to help combat burnout. Other companies have announced similar measures.

But what is burnout? And why is burnout a problem right now?

What is burnout?

Our member Michelle Seabrook, a Leicester-based therapist, says burnout is “a reaction to prolonged work-related stress”.

“Predominantly we’re all a bit exhausted. We’re all feeling it.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been the ideal cocktail for elevating our stress. It’s been such a unique work situation and that’s pushed people’s ability to cope to a whole different level.

“Their usual levels of day-to-day stress may be tricky at points, but COVID has elevated all of that.

“We don’t know when this stress is going to end, so everyone has to keep going.”

Michelle adds that we can often cope with stress if we know it’s only for a limited period.

But that’s not been the case with COVID.

Plus, a lot of the things that help us balance out our work-related stress have been missing – such as socialising, being able to go the gym, having some ‘down-time’ with friends.

That may have changed in recent months – but the ‘end point’ is still very uncertain.

Michelle’s also keen to point out burnout can also cover people’s roles that aren’t traditionally thought of as work.

“I think it’s evolved. It really needs to be an inclusive term that could involve home-makers, caring roles, not just those in paid roles. Students at university: it’s their job to be at university, they can have burnout too.”

What are the signs of burnout?

“It’s usually about a feeling of exhaustion, feeling quite detached and feeling like you can’t perform at what your normal level of performance is,” says Michelle, who often works with businesses and organisations who are looking to address staff wellbeing and mental health.

“You can often feel quite disengaged from your work and you can feel like your resilience has been impacted.

“There are often symptoms such as feeling disconnected with our normal lives, lack of motivation, or not feeling like we’ve accomplished anything or behaving in a way that’s out of kilter with our normal way of being.”

Feeling overwhelmed, negative, helpless or trapped and lack of concentration or brain fog are other common signs.

Michelle points out there can be physical indicators – such as tiredness, change of appetite, headaches or digestive problems.

“There’s often these physical clues. They tend to be the ones that I think get missed quite a bit. But they’re often the early warning system, that tells us something isn’t right.”

What can people do about burnout?

“There are things people can do as individuals themselves, but I also think we have to be very careful about saying burnout is an individual problem,” says Michelle.

“Particularly if it’s related to a more traditional workplace, burnout is often related to the culture of the organisation. There are bigger changes that need addressing.”

As an individual, Michelle recommends you keep track of how you’re feeling every day – whether that’s in a journal or the notes section of your phone.

This could be giving yourself marks of 10 for how you’re feeling, noting physical symptoms or how worn out you are.

This can give you a good sense of how you are over a longer period of time.

She also recommends sharing this with someone who can hold you accountable to doing something about it.

How counselling can help

“Counselling or psychotherapy can be a brilliant way to get that space to join those dots up.

"I find that a lot when I’m supporting people who may be experiencing workplace stress.

"They’ve not always been able to join the dots up and realise they may be burnt out.

“While the individual, can keep tabs on things, it probably does need that outside view.”

The role of the workplace

There’s a very important role for workplaces to address burnout too, says Michelle.

“It has to be much more than a tick-box exercise. It’s about day-to-day conversations and actions and getting professionals in who can help with that as well.

“Burnout shouldn’t just be a flavour of the month topic, or a buzzword.

“For employers, it’s about having that mental health and wellbeing provision and embedding it in to the fabric of their workplace.”

Find a counsellor or psychotherapist who can help you by searching on our Therapist Directory.