It’ll probably come as little surprise to hear that burnout in the UK is on the rise. Workplace stress is at an all-time high post-pandemic – and it’s having a significant impact on our careers, our relationships, our health, and our finances.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, 74% of UK adults have been so stressed in the past year that they’ve felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Another survey conducted by Kalms Rhodiola found the numbers were even higher – suggesting 87% of Brits experienced burnout symptoms in the last 12 months, including 71% of parents and 68% of women.
For our NHS doctors and nurses, our health care professionals and social workers – burnout has reached what they’re calling ‘emergency levels’, yet no one seems to know what the solution should be.
As for the rest of us? We’ve kept our heads down and worked hard through economic uncertainty and job insecurity of the past nineteen months. We’ve done our best to look after our health and those of others – our friends, our family, our neighbours. We’ve stayed inside, followed the rules, and ploughed through lockdown as weeks became months became a year. And still hasn’t fully lifted.
The fact is that for many (if not most) of us, the last year has been an exercise in ‘soldiering on’. No matter what the government has said, the pandemic created the perfect storm of stressors around our lives and livelihoods. It put new pressures on our personal, social, and financial lives. And now we’re feeling the impact in a big way.
“It’s all thanks to the corona-coaster,” Selina Barker, author of Burnt Out: The Exhausted Person’s Guide To Thriving In A Fast-Paced World, explained in the Metro. “You keep yourself going with adrenaline, but by lockdown three, we were emotionally bankrupt. Now restrictions are lifting and you feel like you can relax again, that’s when burnout really kicks in… it’s your body’s way of signalling there is an energy crisis taking place and something has to change.”
So what is burnout? What does burnout feel like? What are the symptoms and how can we spot them early? How does workplace burnout impact your mental health and financial wellbeing?
That’s what we’re going to discuss here, because now, more than ever, it’s essential that we recognise the signs and take care of our minds and our money.
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What is burnout?
The World Health Organisation recognises burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ caused by prolonged workplace stress.
The key thing to note is that burnout – particularly workplace burnout – is a symptom of today’s ‘always on’ business culture. We don’t log off. We’re contactable at all hours. And whilst this manifested as presenteeism pre-pandemic, these days it can mean we’re in the middle of dinner and still answering an email because our kitchen table is also our office.
But what are the symptoms of burnout?
When you google burnout symptoms, the list includes a myriad of emotional signs to watch out for: chronic stress, loss of motivation, low energy, physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, lack of concentration, inability to focus, difficulty sleeping, loss of compassion.
But the signs and symptoms of burnout just aren’t that straightforward.
Like most mental health conditions, there’s no one-size-fits all. Whilst some of us may find that we’re more emotional than usual, crying over things that would never normally phase us or feeling angry over the smallest things; others may find it hard to feel anything, feeling despondent, disconnected and disillusioned. It can also affect your physical health – disrupting hormones, causing heart arrythmias and leading to gastrointestinal issues amongst other things.
“Burnout has nearly [wrecked] my life twice,” says JK, a 31-year-old marketeer who specialises in tech startups. “I remember the first time, in my twenties, sitting on a bus on the way into work, unable to stop crying. For an hour after I arrived, I hid in an empty meeting room, gathering myself together. The only thing keeping me there at the time was the salary. I ended up quitting that job and moving to a completely different type of company. The second time was during the pandemic, I realised I just couldn’t keep working at the place I was at during the second lockdown. I’ve only just handed in my notice but it’s the best thing I’ve done for myself in a long while.”
For JK, the work-related stress she experienced during lockdown manifested as what she calls ‘extreme boredom, but kind of deeper than that’. She describes being despondent and unable to dredge up interest in anything. “I didn’t want to go for another walk. I didn’t want to watch a film. I didn’t want to go into work. I found myself falling behind on tasks because I just couldn’t motivate myself to do them. I was so tired all the time that I couldn’t persuade myself that I was lucky to still be working. Simple things that I can usually do in minutes would take hours because my attention span was just gone.”
Because this is the thing about burnout – whilst there are fundamental signs, ones you can spot early and try to address – it is also a condition that doesn’t happen all at once. As Sherrie Bourg Carter writes for Psychology Today, “burnout doesn’t happen suddenly… its nature is much more insidious, creeping up on us over time like a slow leak, which makes it harder to recognise.”
So how does burnout impact your financial wellbeing?
When it comes to our finances, the impact of burnout can go both ways.
Whilst stress burnout can create money problems, our relationship to our money can exacerbate feelings of stress, overwhelm and anxiety.
Our money influences our mental wellbeing. If we feel in control of our money, then we’re more likely to feel in control of the rest of our lives as well – manifesting our own resilience and feeling confident in our ability to handle challenging situations. If, on the other hand, our financial situation doesn’t feel positive – say because we’re in debt, our job isn’t secure, our salary has been cut but our expenses haven’t etc – then we’re far more likely to feel anxious or worried about other aspects of our life too.
Mind, the mental health charity, likewise notes there are common ways money and mental health can affect each other. For example, if you’re feeling low or depressed, you may lack motivation to manage your finances; or spending may give you a brief high, so you might overspend to feel better.
Because of how complex burnout is, how diverse the symptoms are, it can therefore cause financial issues. You might completely avoid looking at your bank balance because it’s another cause of stress that you don’t want to deal with. Or you might be so exhausted that you keep spending on things that make your life ‘easier’, like takeaways or ready meals or taxis – all of which can add up. It can put strain upon you, your bank account, and your wellbeing.
But there are ways to protect your finances without contributing to mental exhaustion.
Ellie Austin-Williams, founder of This Girl Talks Money, a financial education community, notes that there are a number of ways that a more mindful approach to money can support both your financial wellbeing and alleviate the symptoms of burnout.
“The first thing really is to try to take the emotion out of money – money is emotional and it can be hard to separate your feelings from what you’re saving or spending, but if you make things like checking your bank account into a habit, this can help,” Ellie says. “It means you’re not letting things slip or become more overwhelming. It’s just fifteen minutes once a week or two weeks or even a month where you check how you’re doing. Once it’s done, it’s done, and you have one less thing to worry about.”
Similarly, if you’re worried that you’re overspending or feel unhappy about what you’re spending money on, then her advice is to consider taking a step back so that you can plan and budget.
“It can help to press pause so you can identify the reasons why you have the instinct to spend money,” says Ellie. “In those moments when you’re about to order a takeaway or impulse buy something online, ask yourself if it’s because you really want it or because you’re stressed and exhausted. Also, will this purchase actually help or make you feel negative? If you pause, you might find an alternative that means you actually feel better.”
“Try to find a middle ground,” she adds. “For example, healthy meals from Cook can go in your freezer or you can order meal kits like HelloFresh and Gousto.”
The point is that with just a little planning, you can alleviate a lot of the decisions and financial concerns that you may have – allowing you to budget and know what’s available for the future, whilst also finding that place between what’s easy and what makes you feel good.
Because it’s not all about frugality either. When you’re suffering from exhaustion or stressed out, it’s important to give yourself things that you enjoy – spending time and money on activities that support your wellbeing.
“Create a saving pot in your banking app or build up a little fund that’s all about fun money,” suggests Ellie. “There are lots of ways to save up a little for those treats or special social occasions or to plan and budget for them. It can create a system that allows you to spend on fun things without adding to your level of stress.”
Finally, if you are struggling with your money and mental health because of workplace burnout, it’s important to note that the issue is not with you. It’s not your spending choices. It’s not how often you do or don’t check your bank account.
There’s no shame in feeling stressed or overwhelmed or prioritising different parts of your life to look after your mental health.
However, if money is a trigger or makes it harder to manage your wellbeing, then it could be time to take steps to ensure you are staying on top of your finances. As Ellie notes, building a routine around your money – checking your accounts, budgeting, setting aside savings, investing – can turn admin into an act of self-care. It can help mitigate the impact of burnout on your finances, helping you to set up boundaries, work out ways to save and spend in line with your values, and ensure you stay on top of your goals too.
Will leaving your job cure career burnout?
For many, dealing with burnout means quitting their job.
JK is case and point – following in the footsteps of millions of others, she’s leaving to find something more fulfilling now the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic is over. Others that we spoke to mentioned that they were considering leaving law for teaching, journalism for PR, corporate roles for a startup gig. Many were considering setting up their own business or going freelance.
Alana Leggett, a life and career coach, explained to Yahoo Finance that this is very normal in the wake of major world events. “The situation can force us to stop, change our lifestyle or habits. In turn that can suddenly give us space, or more time as in this case, to think about things that we may not have had the space or time to think about previously,” she says.
Of course, quitting is itself a financial decision. In some cases, handing in your notice might be well thought out, planned and budgeted for – a deliberate transition rather than an impulse decision. But when you’re burnt out that choice may feel more desperate and rushed.
“A lot of people aren’t really aware of the financial implications of quitting their job. It’s more than a secure salary, there are medium to long-term considerations that you should be aware of when making that decision to take time off,” says Ellie from This Girl Talks Money. “For example, for women who may be tempted to quit but also may be interested in having kids, things like maternity policies and other employee benefits can be significant things to give up. You really need to plan so you’re not put in a precarious position.”
Routine may be the best way to alleviate or even recover from burnout more holistically.
Ultimately, recovery from burnout is about making the symptoms manageable and the best way to do that is through planning, routine, budgeting, and creating habits that help you to look after yourself and uphold your boundaries.
Quitting may allow you to do that, or it might not. Without a plan or a goal in mind, the lack of routine and financial insecurity can be an additional stressor, rather than a cure.
It’s worth taking the time to plan and find that middle ground. Whether you’re struggling now and know you need a change, or if you’re just beginning to experience the early symptoms of burnout, adjusting your life to support your overall wellbeing is key. For instance, experts talk about the ‘42% rule’. This is the amount of downtime you technically require each week to avoid stress and burnout. Developing a routine that respects this rule is a good first start – this means sleeping, socialising, exercising, taking your lunch breaks away from your desk, taking breaks full stop.
“If you’re unsure, speak to your work,” says Ellie. “Quitting isn’t the golden solution to all problems. So many companies now are more flexible and open to time off, sabbaticals and so on. You don’t have to quit straight away, even if that’s tempting. Give yourself time to plan, to make sure you have that buffer in your savings.”
Routines around your work, around your money, around your daily life, those are excellent places to start. It might mean that you quit or change careers. It might mean moving to a four-day week or taking a sabbatical. But first it’s best to take control, respect your boundaries, and to make changes that prioritise you and your physical, financial and mental health.
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