New research shows burnout is on the rise—and taking a major toll on our health and well-being.

Lauren Wicks
February 24, 2020
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It's no secret our society glorifies busyness and encourages us to keep pushing harder for the sake of success. We're ditching our hobbies for side hustles, loading more activities and responsibilities onto our plates and trying to be our best at all of it—but we only have so much time in the day. Something has to give, and (unfortunately) the first thing to go is often our emotional and mental health.

A recent report from Meredith Corporation (EatingWell's parent company) and Harris Poll found we are experiencing more burnout than ever before. Compared to five years ago, women are experiencing more stress, exhaustion and anxiety—and at significantly higher rates than men. This report also found 25% of women would be willing to give up chocolate or sex for just one extra hour in their week—and even more would be willing to give up alcohol or social media.

"I see [burnout] all the time with both my clients and friends," says Gayden Lewis, M.A., a mental health counselor based in Birmingham, Alabama. "We've been sold this lie as women that we can—and should—do it all. We feel like we should be able to expect perfection from ourselves and don't need to take care of ourselves in the process."

We spoke more with Lewis and Julia Jones, C.P.T., a corporate wellness manager based in Atlanta, Georgia to learn about preventing—and managing—burnout in our lives.

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What Is Burnout, Anyways?

"Burnout is when someone feels overwhelmed to the point where they have nothing left to give," Lewis says. "They've reached the point where they know they can't do it all. Things have added up too much and they know they need to start subtracting."

Jones explains this shouldn't be your normal everyday stress—it should feel much more intense. She explains burnout has been reached when you feel like you consistently can't get everything done, and your stress in one area of your life is bleeding into the rest of them.

Burnout Symptoms

Burnout symptoms can be as severe as experiencing depression and anxiety, Lewis says, or just being acutely aware that you need to overhaul your current lifestyle. Burnout can also make it difficult to sleep, stay focused, make decisions or live a healthy lifestyle.

"It's easy for an outsider to notice burnout in another person, but when you are constantly overwhelmed and have too much on your plate, you might not even be aware that you have it," Jones says.

How to Deal with (and Prevent) Burnout

Lewis and Jones seek out simple yet meaningful tools for their clients that they can use outside of therapy or wellness training sessions. Lewis advises writing out a list of your values and priorities in order of importance and then making a separate list of what you're actually spending your time, money and energy on to see where your schedule lines up—and misses the mark—in comparison to your priorities.

"If someone says their number one priority is family, but they're working 60 hours a week every week, then they may need to reassess what's most important to them in order to find fulfillment," Lewis says. "I remind clients that they have to look at their values and priorities with a grading scale. You can only get an 'A' in two areas—and same for 'B's,' 'C's' and so on. For example, you have to be OK with a 'C' in your relationships or social activities for a season if you want an 'A' in your career."

Lewis also stresses the importance of creating a healthy morning and nighttime routine to make the most of the little free time you have. She starts a load of laundry and dishes each morning and then folds the laundry and puts away dishes each night while watching a TV show during the work week so she knows her family never has to worry about having clean clothes or dishes.

"It's all about finding little ways to make the rest of the day function better," Lewis says. "Use your free time to do things that make the most sense for you, that way it saves you from stressing over the little things in life that aren't actually worth [it]."

Jones' background in fitness helps shapes her two core methods for helping clients deal with burnout—movement and mindfulness.

"Movement can be as simple as getting up and away from your desk to take a lap around the office or removing yourself from a stressful situation," Jones says. "Setting standing and stretching reminders on a smart watch, app or your calendar to get you out of that c-curve posture really does make a difference throughout the day."

Jones finds mindfulness to be an important component of combating burnout, as it is all about accepting the present moment just the way it is. Stress is a part of life, and she equips her clients with tools to handle it with grace.

"You don't have to be happy about the current situation, but you do have to allow yourself to move on," Jones says. "Problems will arise. How you respond is where you'll see the benefits."

Jones encourages finding stress relief through practicing breathing techniques, finding a workout that fits your lifestyle—whether it's gentle exercise or intense interval training—and prioritizing the most important things on your list at the beginning of the day.

The Bottom Line

Jones and Lewis both stress the importance of seeking realistic methods for combating burnout that don't end up causing more anxiety in your daily life. Lewis also encourages clients to be aware of sneaky time-suckers (think: social media and Netflix binges) that take away from using your free time in a more purposeful way.

"If most of us took a look at how we spent our free time during the week, I think we'd find we really do waste a lot of it on things that aren't necessarily restful or productive," Lewis says. "We're not prioritizing rest and making space for it in our life, and there should be time for it."

Lewis says one of the most important things she tells her clients is that every time they say 'yes,' to something, they are consequently saying 'no' to something else—and that 'no' typically goes to their mental health or opportunities for self-care.

"Women would give anything for just one more hour in their week, and it all comes down to not prioritizing what's most important and not being able to let less important things go. We have to realize we are humans with limitations, and we can't please everyone. Say no to whatever you need to say no to, and be unapologetic about it."