Deal with caregiver burnout
Many caregivers suffer from burnout, a state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by being under too much stress for too long. This article describes some of the most common symptoms of burnout. It then explains causes of burnout and ways to prevent or manage it.
Symptoms of burnout
Many caregivers suffer from burnout, a state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by being under too much stress for too long. People often don’t know they are getting burned out until they are experiencing serious symptoms. Some key signs of burnout are irritability, impatience, and indifference; overwhelming fatigue and exhaustion; sleep problems; headaches, stomachaches, and frequent illness; and sadness, depression, and thoughts of suicide.
Irritability, impatience, and indifference
When a caregiver is chronically exhausted, they may find themselves snapping at people or starting arguments. When irritability comes along with teeth-grinding, poor concentration, and/or headaches, it could be a sign that the caregiver is in the first stage of burnout, called the stress-arousal stage.1
Burned out caregivers may find that positive emotions for their loved one, family, and friends have turned to negative ones such as impatience and dislike. They may even stop caring and feel like they are totally indifferent to people they are close to.
Overwhelming fatigue and exhaustion
Caregivers who are getting burned out can feel extremely tired and lethargic. They have no ability to summon up energy. This is a deep type of exhaustion that does not go away even when the caregiver gets more sleep or rest. This can indicate the second stage of burnout, the energy-conservation stage.2
It is common for caregivers to have disrupted sleep, since the person they are caring for might call for them during the night or have a habit of wandering. However, insomnia that comes from anxious thoughts, overtiredness, and feelings of stress could be a symptom of burnout. Sleeping much more than usual can also be a symptom.
Headaches, stomachaches, and frequent illness
The stress that causes caregiver burnout can put the muscles of the face and neck into a state of tension that causes severe headaches and pain in the rest of the head and neck area. Stress hormones can make the digestive system start shutting down as part of the “fight or flight response,” leading to stomachaches, cramps, intestinal inflammation, ulcers, and serious digestive upset. Those same hormones weaken the immune system, which may lead the caregiver to be less able to fight off sicknesses.
Sadness, depression, and thoughts of suicide
Feeling sad, being emotionally numb, or “not wanting to go on” could indicate that the caregiver has reached the third stage of burnout, called the exhaustion stage.3 Although burnout takes some time to get to this extremely serious state, the exhaustion stage is often the first time caregivers become aware or willing to acknowledge that they are suffering from burnout.
Causes of burnout
Burnout is caused by stress that goes on for too long without relief. Some common factors that lead to this kind of stress are unrealistic expectations and demands, lack of choice about being a caregiver, financial stress, and self-neglect.
Unrealistic expectations and demands
Caregivers tend to expect too much of themselves. Unrealistic expectations include committing more time and energy than they can afford and expecting their caregiving to make their loved one better. Family members or the loved one can also make heavy demands on the caregiver, leading to feelings of being overwhelmed, stressed, and burnout.
Lack of choice
Feeling forced into caregiving is one of the biggest factors in burnout. Nearly half of caregivers feel that they have no choice about caregiving.4 When a person feels powerless over having to be a caregiver, they have a hard time seeing the positives and are three times more likely to feel stressed by their caregiving work,5 which often leads to burnout.
It can be hard for caregivers to juggle caregiving duties and work; they often cut back on work hours or leave their jobs altogether to free up more time to give care, leading to a loss in income. A more recent survey also found that 64% of family caregivers give their loved ones money to help with the cost of medical bills and caregiving supplies.6 Caregivers with less money, who have less ability to hire outside help and more worries about money, are more likely to suffer burnout.
Many caregivers put the needs and health of the person they are caring for above their own. As they become overwhelmed with the workload of looking after their loved one, they begin to neglect their own well-being by eating poorly, not exercising, skipping doctor’s appointments, and sleeping poorly.
Ways to prevent or manage burnout
Almost all caregivers say they experience stress, but there are ways to keep it from getting to the point of burnout. It is important to take the stress and burnout of caregiving very seriously, as these states can cause depression, illness, and premature death for the caregiver. Regularly using the Burden Scale for Family Caregivers can help the caregiver keep track of their stress levels and see if they might be approaching a state of burnout.
Some effective ways to reduce the chances of burnout are to ask for and accept help, join a support group, take regular breaks, set realistic expectations and strong boundaries, and prioritize self-care.
Ask for and accept help
Many caregivers fall into “lone-soldier syndrome,” trying to carry the entire burden by themselves. It is crucial for the caregiver to reach out for help and to accept it when it is offered. Family and friends often welcome feeling useful, and can be given specific tasks such as cleaning, buying food, and keeping the care recipient company.
Join a support group
Feeling connected and understood is one of the most important factors in preventing stress and burnout. Joining a support group can provide immediate relief from stress. There are many in-person and virtual support groups available, including ones specifically for caregivers, including the Family Alliance on Caregiving, the Caring.com Resource Center, and the AARP Family Caregivers Discussion Group. Almost all caregiver support groups are free to join.
Take regular breaks
Caregivers must take regular breaks to prevent burnout. Along with asking friends and family members to put in regular shifts, caregivers can also use respite services, which provide hours or days of caregiving to offer the primary caregiver relief. Some types of respite service are adult daycare, in-home care providers, and volunteer respite volunteers at care facilities such as hospices, hospitals, and care homes. Medicare often covers the cost of some respite care.
Set realistic expectations and strong boundaries
The caregiver who is realistic about their own capacities, energy levels, and ability to help will be less likely to burn out. Learning to say no without guilt is vitally important in caregiving, as otherwise the never-ending work can easily take over the caregiver’s life.
Caregivers need to take stress syndrome and burnout seriously. These conditions cause a high percentage of caregivers to die before the person they are caring for. Caregivers should make every effort to look after themselves by eating well, getting exercise and sleep, practicing stress-reduction techniques such as yoga and meditation, making time for solitude, and socializing in order to keep from becoming isolated.
Adult day care
Avoid feeling alone, isolated, or incapable
Balance care responsibilities
Create a care plan
Deal with caregiver depression
Find trusted sources of help
Get help and support
Join a caregiver community
Minimize family confusion, disagreements, and frustration
Take care of yourself emotionally
Take care of yourself physically
External supporting content
1Job Burnout Quiz: Stress Arousal, Energy Conservation, Exhaustion. Psychologia.co.
2Job Burnout Quiz: Stress Arousal, Energy Conservation, Exhaustion. Psychologia.co.
3Job Burnout Quiz: Stress Arousal, Energy Conservation, Exhaustion. Psychologia.co.
4Predictors and Consequences of Perceived Lack of Choice in Becoming an Informal Caregiver. Aging and Mental Health.
5Lack of Choice in Caregiving Decision and Caregiver Risk of Stress, North Carolina, 2005. Preventing Chronic Disease.
67 Tips to Reduce the Caregiver Financial Burden. Dailycaring.com.