The age you're 'more likely to experience burnout' - and what you can do to prevent it

Marie Claire Dorking
·8 mins read
People in their 30s are most at risk of suffering burnout. (Getty Images)
People in their 30s are most at risk of suffering burnout. (Getty Images - Posed by model)

2020 and all the unprecedented challenges it has brought has left many of us feeling as if we’re teetering on the verge of burnout.

But a survey has been able to pinpoint the age it is most likely to happen to you, and it may well be sooner than you think.

According to the poll, the average worker is most like to experience career burnout by the early age of 32, some considerable years off retirement (the state retirement age is 67).

We might previously have assumed that the older generation, those in their work-fatigued 40s and 50s, would be more at risk from burning out.

In fact a previous study found that women aged over 55 years showed the highest levels of burnout.

Watch: Is working from home affecting our mental health?

But it seems the coronavirus pandemic and all the consequential changes, and stresses, that have come with it have had a greater impact on the 30-something workforce.

The study, commissioned by The Office Group (TOG), found that the biggest reasons this age group – who make up 50% of the UK workforce – are feeling so anxious and exhausted include working longer hours while working from home (59%), being unable to separate work and personal life (42%), and facing an uncertain, increasingly competitive job market (33%).

Read more: How look after your mind during the coronavirus pandemic

Many (52%) say they try to do too much, while others (58%) believe their typical working hours are too long.

Other popular burnout triggers include not taking enough days off (39%) and feeling like one must always be “on” while at work (47%).

Meanwhile nearly two in five workers (37%) feel like there’s pressure to constantly put in extra work.

It’s little wonder, therefore, that since coronavirus restrictions started the average remote worker is estimated to have put in an extra 59 hours of work.

That’s the equivalent of around seven full additional days of work over the past five months.

Working from home has contributed to some suffering burnout. (Getty Images - Posed by models)
Working from home has contributed to some suffering burnout. (Getty Images)

So what’s going on?

Dr Niall Campbell, from Priory’s Roehampton Hospital in south-west London, said burnout has been increasing recently partly because working from home has meant longer hours, with no real cut-off point.

“People have been anxious about their finances and the uncertain economic future, as well as their physical health and the health of their families and loved ones, and we’re working harder than ever,” he explains.

“Additionally isolation and loneliness are very real issues impacting on mental health for those living alone or separated from a partner.”

Dr Campbell says there is a combination of factors why this age group is most likely to tip into the burnout ball pit.

“At 32 you are probably working very hard to keep a job and build a career, or you may be looking for work in this very uncertain climate.

“You may have taken on a mortgage, or are paying high rent, thinking of having a family, or have just started one, just as we are in a recession. You may also be worried about paying the rent if you have lost your job,” he adds.

Consultant psychiatrist Dr Sarah Vohra, aka The Mind Medic, who has partnered with TOG to share her insight on burnout, adds that: “This age group has also been disproportionately hampered by events outside of their control, having experienced two recessions, and for many, it’s a struggle to get on the property ladder.

“Throw in a competitive job market and the pressures of social media, and it’s no wonder that the research found the average worker experiences burnout aged 32.”

Add in the fact that working long hours generally means less sleep, poorer diet, less exercise, more stress, and feeling you are constantly ‘on’ and having to prove yourself and you start to see why so many are suffering.

Read more: Children can tell when parents are hiding their stress

Watch: Learn how to ease your stress and anxiety through meditation

Dr Anne Whitehouse, author and subconscious transformation expert at www.FeminineConfidence.com has an additional theory about burnout and what can lead to it.

“The root of burnout is deep in our minds, and the cause is not what you’d expect,” she says. “We naturally assume that we keep pushing ourselves because we want to achieve more, and it just gets out of control.

“Instead, it’s actually caused by deep-seated conflict which pulls us in different directions. Burnout is caused by that internal non-resolving loop.”

This continuous conflict between the two sides of our brains, the survival part, which wants things to stay the same, and the conscious part, which wants to achieve is a major contributing factor to burnout.

“We are simply not aware of what our survival brain is telling us. It is saying ’stop, you’re not obeying the rules’,” she explains.

“It is literally pulling the rug out from under us. When our conscious brain feels this, it misunderstands. It receives the message that we aren’t good enough.

“So we are driven to push harder. This is a non-resolving loop, and once you’re on that slippery slope you keep pushing harder and harder until you drop - burnout!”

Dr Whitehouse explains that WFH may have increased the risk of burnout by putting the survival part of our brain on high alert.

“Why? Because it is different from everything we’ve known up until 2020,” she explains. “To the survival part of the brain, different = dangerous. So, it immediately triggers a fight or flight response (exacerbated by the obvious dangers and fears around COVID-19, and potential loss of jobs, etc.)

“So, the tendency to slip into that burnout mode is greatly magnified in the current pandemic situations.”

Dr Whitehouse believes it makes total sense that 32 would be the age of concern in terms of suffering burnout, thanks, in part, to the position many find themselves in on the career ladder in their 30s.

“Think of it like a rubber band,” she explains. “The survival part of our brain wants everything the same. Our conscious brain wants progress and change, and is our motivation to achieve.

“So, the further up the career ladder we get, the more stress is created. It’s like stretching that rubber band. At a certain point, the band can’t take any more stretching and it breaks.

“When we start out on our careers, we haven’t stretched very much. But by the time we reach out late 20s and early 30s, we are beginning to progress and pull away from the benchmarks that defined where we started in life.

“This is where the internal conflict causes things to break for many people.”

Read more: Male suicide rate highest for 20 years: How to help if someone is struggling

The coronavirus has triggered burnout for many. (Getty Images)
The coronavirus has triggered burnout for many. (Getty Images)

So how can we prevent burning out?

Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of My Online Therapy says one of the key ways to protect yourself against burnout is to prioritise your own wellbeing.

“As many of us have made the move to working from home, we might have found that the boundaries between work and home life have become blurred,” she explains.

“So it’s important to establish a clear divide between work time and downtime for example don’t take work calls past 6pm and resist the urge to check emails from bed.”

She also suggests making sure you’re doing plenty of activities that provide you with a sense of wellbeing, for example online yoga classes, reading a chapter of your favourite book in your lunch break.

“Take breaks every couple of hours to break up the day,” she continues. “True productivity requires us to be fully present so it’s important to take appropriate breaks throughout the day to keep our energy bank ‘topped up’”.

As many of us are likely to be under a lot of stress, Dr Touroni suggests starting the day with a short morning mindfulness meditation.

“This can be really beneficial in giving us an understanding of how we’re feeling so we can structure our day in a way that is sensitive to that,” she adds.

Other tips to prevent burnout

Get your rest

“Napping for just 20 minutes can improve cognitive functioning and processing of information,” explains Dr Campbell.

“Rest also encourages greater tolerance for the tasks that may lead to burnout.”

Encourage ‘good enough’, not ‘perfection’

Perfectionism can actually hinder success, and may be a large cause for burnout. “We can often measure ourselves against impossibly high standards and striving to achieve these standards,” says Dr Campbell.

“Setting the bar too high is dangerous as we will never consistently be able to deliver.”

Read more: 7 lesser known symptoms of depression

Give yourself a pat on the back

And actively connect with your own brilliance. “Reflect on your experience, qualifications and gifts,” recommends Dr Whitehouse. “You ARE good enough.”

Go for optimisation not maximisation

According to Dr Whitehouse this is the most important tip of all. “Think of your life as a jigsaw puzzle,” she suggests. “When you optimise all the pieces, you get the best picture. If you put all your time and energy into one thing (ie work) the picture is warped, and you lose your wellbeing and maybe your health and career too.

“When you optimise all the aspects of your life, including rest, fun, friends, family, self-care as well as work, your achievement level is actually better, and instead of draining yourself like a battery, you can enjoy a full and successful life for many years.”

Watch: How many hours should you sleep?