Managing and preventing burnout with Dr Julie Smith

Lucy Donoughue
By Lucy Donoughue,
updated on Mar 28, 2022

Managing and preventing burnout with Dr Julie Smith

Clinical Psychologist Dr Julie Smith joins Happiful’s podcast to discuss burnout, the everyday tools that can help and her brilliant new book

Dr Julie Smith’s insights on therapy and self-compassion are incredibly valuable and for over two years she’s been sharing them with an online audience that's swelled to over 3 million people. Offline, Dr Julie runs a small private practice so she’s able to work around her children’s school hours and has over 10 years’ experience under her belt as a clinical psychologist, formerly working in the NHS.

Dr Julie is passionate about sharing the knowledge that we need to manage our internal lives in a way that prioritises our mental wellbeing, and, in addition to producing her regular online content, she’s now published her first book, the wonderful Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before?

Dr Julie joins Happiful’s podcast I am. I have to share thoughts on a subject we know our readers and listeners often struggle with - burnout.

What is burnout?

"Burnout was conceptualised by researchers who were looking into chronic workplace stress," Dr Julie explains. "If you look it up on the World Health Organisation's website or somewhere like that, they will say it only relates to the workplace but that's just because that's where the research started."

Dr Julie knows from her own practice that burnout happens to a wide range of people, regardless of their employment status. "As a clinician who has worked with people who are outside of paid employment, I see the same collection of symptoms in people who are unpaid carers, parents, foster parents. All sorts of people."

@drjuliesmith Which signs show up for you? #burnout #stress #stressed #examstress #workstress #psychologist #anxiety #psychologist #therapist ♬ drivers license - Olivia Rodrigo

'Burnout' however, isn't a clinical diagnosis in itself, as Dr Julie shares. "It's not a disorder, it's a collection of symptoms or a syndrome, that if it's present would have a significant impact on your mental and physical health. It's a really serious health issue that you can't ignore. You have to address it."

You need some level of replenishment otherwise you'll reach zero and feel like you have nothing left to give

Opting to ignore the early stages of burnout can lead to the worsening of symptoms, she warns. "When you think about chronic stress, it's like taking money out of a bank account. You have a certain degree of resources and continuing on with burnout is like withdrawing money without ever putting any back in. You need some level of replenishment otherwise you'll reach zero and feel like you have nothing left to give. Then there could be time off work and greater problems."

Increase in burnout

Dr Julie notes that the content she shares across social media relating to burnout garners a huge amount of attention and feedback, suggesting that it's an issue many people have experienced or are in the midst of.

"Data shows that burnout is becoming more of a problem," she notes. "For example, people who were or are working from home felt like they weren't being productive enough, but they were actually being more productive. Things like the daily commute and lunchtime breaks, those small pockets of time throughout the day, were breaks that instead were spent sitting, working at a desk alone. People were getting more done and feeling more drained by not having that downtime - leading to burnout."

There's a price to pay for relentless productivity that doesn't prioritise your health

Questioning what productivity means for us, could help us to challenge how we work and how we perceive our own value before we reach burnout. "In our culture, there's this idea that productivity is linked to our self worth and then it becomes difficult to take breaks because people feel guilty about not doing something 'productive'," Dr Julie asserts.

"Instead of seeing a break as something you do to maintain your health," she continues, "it's become something that's associated with 'laziness'! There's this drive for 'be more, do more!' and actually, the cost of that is the queue of people outside the therapy room door who are saying 'I'm completely burnt out and I don't know what I'm doing with my life and my health is down the drain'. There's a price to pay for relentless productivity that doesn't prioritise your health."

How do you spot burnout?

"Everyone probably has an idea of what it feels like when their own stress levels are going up," Dr Julie offers. "Some people might experience a lower mood or periods of anxiety throughout the day. They might have sleep disturbances, either struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep, or have that 'tired but wired' feeling where they're exhausted by their day but still can't fall to sleep because of worry.

@drjuliesmith 👉 What are your signs? Can you relate to this? #learnontiktok #tiktoktherapist #stressrelief #burnout ♬ original sound - Dr Julie Smith - Psychologist

"There might be conflict in relationships because both parties are stressed, tired and not dealing with things in the way they would normally," she says. "People might withdraw socially and feel less able to focus and concentrate and work. They might also lose motivation for the things that bring purpose to their lives."

We have to get good at recognising the signs of stress in ourselves

And burnout doesn't appear suddenly or in the same way for everyone, as Dr Julie outlines. "Burnout is less about stages, and more of a continuum that gradually increases, so it can creep up on you over a matter of months, or even years. So, we have to get good at recognising the signs of stress in ourselves, as well as others, and see them as something we need to take note of.

"Burnout is a serious issue. Stress is meant to be a short-term measure for our bodies to keep us going, but if it's long-term you will have problems."

Managing and preventing burnout

Dr Julie offers the following advice:

  • Firstly, take burnout seriously, as you would do with a physical health issue.
  • Get to grips with what your symptoms are and report them to a medical professional for further advice.
  • Look at how your life is now and look at the demands that you're facing. Most of us can't choose the stress we're dealing with, but there are other things that will compound that stress that we can manage.
  • Get your worries and challenges out of your head and down on paper, map it all out. Look at where you can make manageable small changes that can help you replenish yourself in small ways. This could be taking a 1o minute break, sitting quietly in your car or in the park during your workday. It's quite surprising when you take small breaks how replenishing they can be.
  • Mindfulness and meditation can really help and there's research to back this up. It doesn't give you immediate results but if you are interested in learning about it and committed to taking it on, then I don't know anyone who hasn't benefitted from doing so!
  • Get professional mental health support, so you can look at your challenges together.

Listen to Dr Julie Smith’s full episode of I am. I have.
Buy Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before?
Follow Dr Julie Smith on TikTok and find out more about her work on YouTube.

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