Burnout can happen to anyone

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“I wanted to sit down and cry and curl up in the corner. I am so scared if I breakdown, I might never recover. Been up five times last night with dad, now I have to put on a smile and go to work – so tired and drained of energy.” 

This was part of my diary entry for 10 May 2007 and it was not unusual. Caregiving is emotionally, physically and psychologically debilitating. I, like so many others, soldiered on: family and financial responsibilities meant I had to keep the household going, for all of us. At the time I felt like I was the only person doing this, but in reality 600 people a day quit their job to care for somebody (and those statistics were from before the pandemic). Statistics from 2019 showed that one in seven of the UK workforce was caring for a loved one.

I am a criminal psychologist. In this line of work you would think I’d have known about the drawbacks and dangers of burnout. Of course, intellectually I did, but emotionally I thought: “I am different, I am OK,” when clearly, I was far from OK. By February 2008 when my father died, I was in pieces, in all areas of my life. I had totally isolated myself even from people I liked. I hardly cried, I carried on doing all the practical things – certificates, notifying people and companies, arranging the funeral, going through his belongings – all on autopilot (though I would not have admitted it at the time). I had all the logical answers: “it was a kind release,” “he’s not suffering anymore,” “I’m fine, we’ve been expecting it for a while now,” and many more.

Photo of author’s dad

We don’t think of this as part of burnout, but it is. Being numb to feelings (good or bad), having a lack of empathy for ourselves and others, devaluing our own needs and wants – all helps us to function on an outward way, but not to engage with ourselves or others. Building a brick wall around yourself, with stainless steel reinforcements, doesn’t happen overnight, nor can it come down quickly. Not only had I let myself get lost psychologically, but I had also lost myself physically – gaining a huge amount of weight and finding comfort inside a large chocolate bar or packet of biscuits. I was quite lucky in this respect: many others resort to alcohol or drugs, which can have even more disastrous consequences.

As caregivers, whether professional, voluntary, or home-based, we are still human, not superheroes. We need care too. It’s important to be kind to yourself without feeling guilty about it; it isn’t a luxury or a weakness, it is a necessity. You cannot do everything; you can only do your best. And to do your best for others, you need to do the best for yourself.

One of the biggest issues we have as humans is to live without denial. We try to con ourselves and others, but first we have to be honest and accept we cannot do everything on our own. Signs to watch out for include changes to mood, sleep patterns and living conditions, changes to your eating patterns and alcohol or drug consumption, and changes to your relationships. This last one can be a big indicator of there being a problem and isolation can also be a factor. Watch out too for catastrophisation – blowing small things up into big grievances, like somebody getting into your parking place at the supermarket, ring any bells? 

Burnout does not happen overnight, it is a slow creeping process and it can be beaten, if you are aware of what you are looking for. Prevention is always preferable to recovery.

“Given the immense personal cost that comes from providing round the clock care it is unsurprising that carers who care for more than 50 hours a week reported poorer health with 25% reporting bad or very bad physical health and 29% reporting bad or very bad mental health.”

(State of Caring 2019 report)

It took me over six years to talk to anyone about being involved in psychology and 11½ years to walk into a prison again, not to mention all the pain and heartache of recovery. I am one of the fortunate ones and have made a comeback, many don’t.

Be kind to yourself, look for help and support. I bet you would be the first to give it to somebody else. This time it’s your turn.

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