Research has it that January 31 is historically the day that most people quit their jobs, and with work-from-home restrictions easing and more of us returning to the daily commute, it seems inevitable that we’re going to be re-assessing our relationship with work, if they haven’t done so already.
Towards the end of last year, a survey by workplace well-being company Juno found that three-quarters of UK white-collar workers were considering quitting their jobs or changing their careers because of ‘burnout’, a lack of ‘work-life balance’ or a ‘toxic’ workplace environment.
That was certainly the case for Kim Uzzell, who left her job as a vice-president of Barclays Wealth before Christmas, after a 30-year career in investment management.
“I loved the job, even though it had always been a demanding one,” says Uzzell, 51. “But, like many people, in lockdown, I started working even longer hours, and just had no time to decompress. I’d always been fit – in October 2020, I ran two marathons back to back – but by February 2021 I couldn’t even walk the dog. I began to get incredible chest pains, my heart started racing, and my sleep became more erratic. I was terrified because I had lost my dad when he was just four years older than I am now. After months of ECGs and hospital appointments, it was clear there was something wrong, but there was no physical reason for it. In my heart of hearts, I knew it was because everything was getting on top of me, after years and years of this pressure, something had to give. I decided it was going to be my job – what’s the point of having an amazing pension scheme if you’re not well enough to enjoy it?”
Uzzell handed in her notice in September, left the company in December, and has since established her own business as a wealth coach (mymoneymovement.co.uk). “I’ve been gone almost a month and, funnily enough, so have the chest pains and the heart palpitations.”
Her story is far from unique. One of the demographics most keen to throw off the shackles of the workplace appears to be the over-50s. In September, Tony Wilson, director of the Institute for Employment Studies estimated that there were about a million fewer workers in the UK than before the pandemic and that approximately 50 per cent of those were over 50.
According to Michaela Thomas (thethomasconnection.co.uk), a clinical psychologist, this is no coincidence.
“People talk about mid-life crisis, but I think it’s more helpful to think of it as mid-life clarity,” she says. “You get to a point where you reflect on what matters, on what’s meaningful, and there’s less pressure to live up to other people’s expectations.”
She also points out that once you get to an age where you no longer have young children and may have paid off most of your mortgage, you have the opportunity to take more risks with work. And, with retirement age shooting up – not to mention the fact that we’re living longer, and continuing to keep our brains active and engaged has been shown to help keep us both mentally and physically fit – you can see the appeal in shifting into a job that will make you happier, and less prone to exhaustion.
Middle age can also make you less resilient and more susceptible to the symptoms of burnout. These can manifest themselves differently in different people. For Uzzell, it was chest pains and heart palpitations, but Dr Samantha Madhosingh (askdrsamantha.com), a psychologist who now works as an executive coach, says one of the most common symptoms she sees is a poor sleep habit. “When people are answering emails or trying to work until late, their brain is racing with tasks and that often results in insomnia. Diet often suffers too, and from a mental health point of view, it’s common to see signs of depression, anxiety and attempts to self-medicate with alcohol.”
Thomas says that forgetting things, being irritable, lacking motivation, feeling resentful, rushed and busy are also red flags that can indicate you’re heading for burnout.
But it’s worth remembering that burnout isn’t always about the office you find yourself in, it can be about the pressure you put on yourself as well, which means that even switching to a different role – or working for yourself – won’t entirely protect you, and that can be down to something that has been called the winner’s curse.
“Burnout can come about because of the work environment,” says Thomas. “But it can also be self-inflicted.”
And when you’re used to being a high achiever, that’s when the winner’s curse comes in – that sense that you’re only as good as your last deal, and that every time you succeed, you push the bar higher for yourself, by working around the clock. This is something Uzzell recognises.
“You spend your time fighting to get somewhere and the last thing you want to do when you’ve pushed through barriers, smashed glass ceilings and made sacrifices to get to where you want to be, is to give it all up. Even when you’re exhausted because your child has been up all night, you still make sure you’re in the office at 7am and that your brain is switched on.”
So if switching jobs won’t prevent burnout, what will? It’s presumably no coincidence that, with employers across the UK desperate to hang on to and recruit staff, 30 UK businesses – including Canon and Morrisons – have committed to a six-month trial of a four-day working week. Could this be the solution?
“It depends,” says Dr Madhosingh. “Research shows that a four-day working week can actually improve productivity, so if you can take three days off every week to recharge with family and friends, that’s great. But if you’re working four 15-hour days, and feel like you should be on call on the fifth day as well, you could actually see a higher rate of burnout.”
So what practical steps can you take to protect yourself from burnout, whatever your working situation?
Speaking up when you’re overloaded with tasks and asking for help is a start, but putting boundaries in place that relate to when you work is also key.
“Smartphones have created a culture of availability,’ says Thomas. ‘There’s a sense that you should answer your phone or reply to an email seven days a week. But very few jobs actually require that.”
And if you work in a culture that doesn’t allow that?
“Think about what success looks like, if it comes in a form that doesn’t threaten your mental and physical health,” advises Thomas. “Don’t see it as a personal failure if you have to leave a toxic workplace.”
And, according to Dr Madhosingh, workers of all ages are doing just that.
“While once people used to have jobs for life, and would work for a company for 50 years, even if they hated it, these days young people think nothing of moving on from a workplace where they don’t feel their time and energy are respected,” she says.
“And that is a sentiment that is spreading. People are realising they don’t just have to put up and shut up. There are many different ways of earning money that don’t involve constantly putting yourself under pressure and heading for burnout.”
The Daily Telegraph