Do you feel exhausted from putting in extra hours at work out of fear of missing out on a raise or promotion, and then drink alcohol to deal with the stress? Arlene Harris speaks to people who hit rock bottom before finally taking action — and they’ve never looked back
We all like to think of ourselves as being efficient and hard-working, but sometimes this can have a negative effect on health and well-being.
In fact, a countrywide survey by software solutions provider HRLocker earlier this year revealed that 52pc of full-time workers in Ireland experience burnout from pressure and stress at work.
Niamh Brady can attest to this as she has suffered from “serious burnout” at least three times.
“I experienced it first when I was 22 in my first job, then again at 26 and at 34,” she says. “The first time, I was under-qualified for the job, so overworked to prove my worth. The (IT) role involved hybrid working, so there was no schedule regarding when I should stop working or what was good enough — so I worked continuously.
“I had a ridiculous amount of responsibility and began to suffer burnout. It started with losing my sense of humour as life became very serious, as if all the colour had drained out of it.
“Then I began to doubt my own ability, so I worked harder and harder, always doing one more day or one more hour — I would check my emails everywhere, even at 2am in a nightclub. It was out of hand.
“I was so stressed all the time, I couldn’t eat, sleep or think properly. I was drinking too much to block the stress and went out at least four nights a week. In the end, I quit as I couldn’t take it any more.”
Although Niamh, who lives in Cork with her fiancé Steve and children Emily (3) and James (1), found it difficult to cope, she didn’t tell her colleagues and when it happened again, she invented other ailments rather than admit she was suffering from mental health issues.
“After leaving that job, the anxiety, which felt like a sledgehammer on my chest, subsided,” she says. “I stopped having 4,000 crazy thoughts a day and felt fine, but when I was 26, it happened again.
"With high career ambitions, I was always trying to prove myself by overworking while also trying to be the perfect friend, sister, daughter and girlfriend — something had to give.
“I went out sick for six weeks, was on medication and had counselling, but didn’t admit to anyone what was wrong and instead I lied and said it was a problem with my back. I cried every day for the best part of a year — burnout is such a lonely place as no one can see what is wrong and you can’t describe it.
“But people can also have burnout on a smaller scale and this can be just as detrimental — I had it very badly three times, but also had lesser versions which left me feeling weaker each time.”
The 37-year-old changed jobs on several occasions and, when she was pregnant with her first child, suffered bad burnout again — but this time, she told her boss, which made a huge difference.
“In the past, I lied about what was wrong and this was a problem because after returning to work, I had to carry on as if everything was fine,” she says. “But in my last job, my manager was brilliant and I told him straight away, so when I went back after maternity leave, changes were made to help me, which was really great.
“But if I hadn’t just had a baby and wasn’t too concerned about promotion, I would have worried that being open about my situation would hamper my career.
“This is one of the reasons why there is a stigma attached to burnout as everyone pretends that everything is brilliant and since Covid, we’ve been led to believe everyone has the perfect work-life balance.
“It’s all such a con and it would be so much better if people were honest as it wouldn’t make others feel like they have to try so hard to keep up.”
These experiences led the mother-of-two to try and help others in similar situations and now she works as a productivity coach, having founded her own company, Better Workday.
“We need to stop pretending that everything is wonderful because for many people, it’s not,” she says. “I’ve realised that talking to people about my experience was very beneficial for them as they could really relate and now I use this, along with research and qualifications, to help others deal with work stress.”
Martin Daly, who has also experienced burnout, agrees and says it’s vital to share experiences to try and reduce the stigma which still surrounds this “very common condition”.
“I had an awful time at work a few years ago,” says the Dubliner. “My boss was very driven and demanded so much from me, calling on weekends and evenings, always expecting work to come first.
“I didn’t realise that burnout was creeping up on me, even though my wife kept telling me I had no time for anything other than work — I thought about it 24/7 and felt if I wasn’t on call at all times (even though I worked in sales, not in a hospital ER department), I would be passed over for promotion.
"I began suffering from insomnia, loss of appetite and crippling anxiety, and eventually my wife persuaded me to visit the GP, who diagnosed burnout. I told my boss I needed time off and she made it clear that while I was entitled to it, I mightn’t be considered for a raise.
“So I took the time allotted to me and then resigned — my health and my family were more important than that job. It was the best choice I’ve ever made.”
Siobhán Murray, bestselling author of The Burnout Solution, says that while the WHO describes burnout as an “occupational phenomenon”, it’s better framed as “emotional, mental and physical exhaustion brought on by emotionally demanding situations”.
“The feeling of being disengaged with work, continually irritable with colleagues, family members and yourself, disrupted sleep, cynicism around your employment, mood swings, higher levels of anxiety and increased dependency on alcohol as a stress reliever can be some of the signs that you are experiencing burnout,” she says.
“The first step is acknowledging that something is wrong — too often we just keep going in the hope that life will magically right itself.
“Seeking external support through HR, colleagues, bosses, GPs or family members is really important, as is focussing on the four pillars of health: sleep, nutrition, movement and social connections.
“All too often in burnout, the simple basics of care fall by the wayside.”
Going back to work afterwards can be difficult, but Murray says people should be open with colleagues.
“You’ll be surprised at how many people feel the same way,” she says. “Think about what you can control in your day and focus on that rather than on all the things you can’t control as this is exhausting and very rarely results in a positive outcome.
“Break your day into parts — pre-work, morning, afternoon and post work. Create habits for pre- and post-work — such as a short walk or a coffee — as creating small daily habits adds up to bigger habits, which allow you to care for yourself.”
Life coach and counsellor Monica Jackman agrees and says it’s important to make changes.
“Many people are reluctant to take time off as they feel they are letting people down or there may be pressure to meet deadlines, but it’s important to realise that your mental and physical health comes first,” she says. “Relaxation is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”