Feeling stressed in the run-up to Christmas? End of year burnout could be to blame

Written by Katie Rosseinsky

With extra work pressures and a busy social calendar, the final weeks of the year can be the most draining. We asked experts to share their advice on beating end of year burnout

Work deadlines are looming and your social life is about to step up a gear for Christmas, but you’re feeling totally drained of energy, as though the year is hobbling to a close, and you couldn’t feel worse equipped to face everything that’s being thrown at you. Sound familiar? You might be experiencing end-of-year burnout.

Recognised by the World Health Organisation as an occupational phenomenon, burnout is a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, explains psychotherapist turned executive coach Desirée Silverstone. “It can be caused by too much stress or [too many] demands placed on an individual over an extended period of time. Often, burnout is the result of ongoing stress that builds up over a prolonged period.”

But why is it often so pronounced in the year’s final quarter? With summer holidays now a distant memory, for many of us, it has been several months since our last extended break from work. Throw into the mix the often “overwhelming workload” of December, as Silverstone puts it, when we “rush to finish projects before the end of year” and sign off as much as we can before – hopefully – taking some time off before the new year. So, it’s hardly surprising that the final stretch of the calendar year can feel like such a slog.Indeed, a 2015 survey from insurance provider MetLife found that 42% of employees see December as the most stressful month – so much for the most wonderful time of the year. 

There are other factors that can stir up tricky emotions, too, according to Silverstone, including financial pressures, family conflict or a feeling of isolation that occurs during this season. The end of the year can also prompt us to look back and ruminate on regrets or milestones missed, adds counsellor Emma Roberts, such as “becoming fitter, eating healthier, [or] getting a new job. It also magnifies another year gone from our life, which can bring feelings of anxiety [about] getting old.” In other words, this period is a crucible of pressures and expectations at a point when we’re typically at our most tired.

Red flags include emotional and physical exhaustion, feeling detached or negative about your work, being less efficient at doing your job, and having trouble sleeping, says Robin Clark, Bupa UK’s medical director for UK insurance. And in a stroke of not-so-perfect timing, end-of-year burnout can cause your productivity to go down the drain at the very point when your to-do list is spiralling out of control. “The prefrontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and decision making, is believed to be impaired by prolonged stress,” Silverstone notes, so you may “lose focus [and] struggle with time management”.

So, what can you do to alleviate the impact of burnout as the year comes to a close, and how can you make small changes that will ease your stress in the long-term? We asked the experts for their advice.

Make time for yourself – even if it’s just a few peaceful moments

“Finding time for the things you enjoy is essential to a balanced and productive life,” says Silverstone. “Too often, people allow their work to consume them completely, leaving no time for leisure or relaxation. It’s important to take some time each day for yourself, even if it’s only a few minutes. This will help you maintain your focus and energy throughout the day.”

This could be as simple as ensuring that you spend 15 minutes reading before bed, making time to make a phone call to friends or family, or booking a yoga class after work. Try scheduling these activities into your calendar if that means you’re more likely to stick to them. 

Speaking up

Opening up about your situation can help you pinpoint exactly where the stresses are coming from, and how you can lessen the load. “Talking about how you’re feeling can help you make sense of how your stress is affecting you, how long it’s been affecting you for, and if there are any positive changes and boundaries you can put in place to help change your circumstances for the better,” Clark says. “Speaking to your manager about how you feel is especially important.”

You might be able to use your end-of-year review as a chance to “calmly open up to them to explain what tasks are making you feel overwhelmed”; if not, it might be helpful to schedule a one-to-one meeting. 

Keep on moving

Yes, your exercise routine is usually the first thing to slip when you’re feeling the impact of burnout (“We all know that exercise releases endorphins, but when we are feeling run down, we don’t have the energy,” notes Roberts), but keeping active, along with eating a balanced diet (again, easier said than done amid all the temptations of Christmas), “are some of the best things you can do to keep your physical and mental health at a priority during this stressful time,” Clark says.

“Large studies have found that physical activity and exercise can reduce stress and improve your mood. It also has protective effects against conditions like depression, which can be a long-term consequence of prolonged burnout.”

If working up a sweat feels like too much, “even a 20 minute walk can make a world of difference,” Roberts advises. 

Streamline your social calendar

“The end of year is a time usually filled with lots of social events,” Clark says. “If we’re feeling burned out, adding further pressure on ourselves to commit to attending events can make us feel worse. Listen to your body and rest up when you need to. You could also think about scheduling in rest days over your Christmas break to protect your energy.” 

And breathe…

Simple breathing exercises can make a huge difference when you’re feeling overwhelmed or your thoughts are racing, and they can easily be slotted into your working day. “Start by taking some slow deep breaths,” recommends Clark. “Breathe in for four counts, then breathe out for five counts. As you’re doing this, focus on the present moment and think about what you’re grateful for. Slow breaths can help reduce anxiety levels and encourage you to reset.” 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’s list of mental health helplines and services.

If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected]. In a crisis, call 999.

Images: Getty

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