When I was performing eight shows a week in a major West End show, I was on a path to burnout.
I thought I was doing all I could to take care of my body. After all, I was rolling out my muscles constantly with my foam rollers, doing pilates every day, warming up thoroughly before each performance, eating my vegetables and drinking lots of water. Surely that was enough, right?
But looking back now on my time in the show, I realise I was dangerously close to burnout without even knowing it. I didn’t even know what burnout was.
The WHO describes burnout as a syndrome linked to chronic work stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by exhaustion, mental detachment from one’s job, and poorer performance at work.
It is becoming more and more common, with some statistics citing that 595,000 people in the UK suffered from burnout in 2018.
And with theatres around the UK already opening up, how can we ensure that we have the tools we need to avoid burnout?
Learn the signs
When I was doing eight shows a week, I constantly relied on sugar to get me through the day. I would eat constantly. And the more tired I felt, the more sugar I ate. But the more sugar I ate, the more tired I felt.
This was a vicious cycle and a telltale sign I was on my way to burnout.
Other signs of pre-burnout include over-consuming alcohol, constantly feeling exhausted even when you get enough sleep, feeling mentally and emotionally drained or detached from work and social commitments.
Burnout is much more common in the performing arts world than people realise. The West End schedule is particularly gruesome. Performing on stage eight times a week, six days a week, takes a physical, mental and emotional toll, especially since most contracts are at least one year long.
Physically, there is no chance for the body to recover. Sometimes we didn’t even have twenty-four hours until our next performance. For example, on Tuesdays we had an evening performance which finished at 10 pm, followed by a matinee the next day, which started at 2:30 pm.
Mentally, performing that many shows a week has the tendency to make performers feel drained and unfocused after a while.
And emotionally, because we work when the rest of the world is off work, which means we miss out on time with loved ones who work “regular” schedules.
As the WHO acknowledged, it is the stress that “has not been successfully managed” that is key here.
So how do we successfully manage stress?
Get to the root of what is causing your burnout
This is important because it is different for everyone.
Take a good look at your inner and outer environment and get to the root cause of the stressors that are going unmanaged in your life.
I already highlighted that for a lot of performers, the demanding schedules are a key factor, but it goes much deeper than that.
For me, perfectionism had a tremendous impact on my pre-burnout. I was constantly seeking approval from my superiors, so much so that I didn’t realise I was holding on to the stress from work even when I wasn’t at work.
For others, not being able to spend as much time with their loved ones as they would hope, was a major stressor. A toxic work environment, nutrient deficiencies, and injuries are all stressors.
Learn how to give yourself the care you need
There is nothing we can do about the rigorous schedules that are common in the performing world. But we can learn to take care of ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally through certain foods, lifestyle habits and practices. When we practice self-care, we give ourselves permission to slow down. It is an act of kindness and self-compassion.
And it is the key to overcoming burnout.
I try to avoid using the term “self-care” because it has been hijacked by social media images of people in fancy spas, drinking wine and having massages. If this is what your body needs, then that’s great. But be careful not to think of self-care as only that.
The key is to slow down, pay attention to what your body needs, and do that often.
Advantages of self-care include:
- Increased self-esteem
- Caring for others more efficiently
- Increased compassion
- Becoming your authentic self
- Establishing boundaries within relationships
- Learning to say no–without feeling guilty about it
- Better performances
Here are a few unconventional ideas for self-care practices:
- taking a warm bath
- saying no
- creating (painting, colouring, drawing, crafting)
- listening to your favourite music
- taking a long walk
- spending time in nature
- drinking tea or coffee mindfully
- snuggling with your pet and loved ones
- reading a book
- making a list of things you are grateful for
- eating a nourishing meal
Staying on top of our self-care will help us avoid burnout as theatres reopen and we get “booked and busy” again. So nourish your body, get lots of sleep, keep doing the things that bring you joy, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you feel like you need some extra support.