Burnout is usually associated with work-related stress and exhaustion. But since the COVID-19 pandemic began, burnout has become an increasingly common feature of everyday family life, as parents are crumbling under the pressure of balancing working from home with homeschooling and childcare.
New research has revealed that parental burnout is on the rise globally. Find out what it is, who's most at risk, what the warning signs are and how to prevent it.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a form of severe exhaustion caused by uncontrolled chronic stress, which leaves those affected feeling physically and mentally overwhelmed. 8% of parents in the UK were affected by burnout before the pandemic, but it's now estimated that as many as 10% of parents are suffering from parental burnout.
Burnout is different from the general daily stress and fatigue all parents feel at times. Parental burnout is an exhaustion that can leave parents struggling to cope, making them unable to function and become emotionally detached from their family. It can leave parents feeling hopeless and believing that they are not a good parents, which is usually untrue.
What has caused the rise in parental burnout?
Parental burnout has always been around - it just didn't have a name! But some studies show it's slowly on the rise over the last 5 years.
However, the unprecedented challenges brought about by the pandemic have caused a sudden rise in its severity over the last 12 months. Evidence suggests that around one third of parents have reported a rise in levels of stress and exhaustion since March 2020.
Parents are struggling as they are trapped between juggling the demands of work and the needs of their children. The separation between work and family life no longer exists. The pressures homeschooling, on top of working a full day (plus more sometimes!) and keeping on top of the usual demands of daily life are just too much - it's no wonder that so many feel exhausted.
For parents who are also being interrupted by their children throughout the day, they may feel the need to play catch up in the evening after the kids have gone to bed. This constant cycle only serves to increase the risk of parents hitting full burnout.
Wealthy and educated mums are most at risk
Parental burnout is more common among affluent, educated mums and dads. Within this group, parents who are not generally good at managing stress and extra workloads, or have perfectionist tendencies will be most at risk.
Women are more likely to be suffer from parental burnout than men, but it's not only mums who are affected - studies suggest that two-thirds of sufferers are women, and roughly one third are men.
What are the warning signs of parental burnout?
Burnout manifests itself as emotional (feeling like you can't cope), cognitive (not being able to think properly) and physical (fatigue).
Irritability and being bad tempered are two major warning signs. If you find yourself snapping at your partner or your kids, take a step back and consider if it's stress. This may not mean you have parental burnout, but it can be a sign that things are heading that way.
Fatigue is another big warning sign. As parenting becomes too much to handle, the body starts to preserve its energy, which results in sufferers becoming detached from family life and looking after the needs of others.
Other signs not to ignore include insomnia and headaches, similar physical symptoms to sufferers of chronic stress disorders.
When full burnout finally kicks in, parents will feel total stress and exhaustion from being around their children, and it's common for them to fantasise about abandoning family life. But as a parent, you can't just 'quit', so it becomes a vicious cycle unless you combat the stressors and seek help.
This doesn't mean that you don't love your children - but the pressure and expectations of parenting have become all too much.
How to prevent parental burnout
Take a step back and try to let the small stuff slide - you don't need to plan every hour of the day. This can be very challenging for parents who are used to strict schedules, but it's important to adapt to the situation we are currently in.
Remember that you don't need to be perfect to be a good parent. Social media can often make us feel as though other parents are doing a better job, or their lives are more perfect than ours (spoiler alert: they're not!).
The pressure of perfect parenting during lockdown will probably backfire, because it just isn't realistic right now (and it never was before!).
That to-do list will never end - if a few things slide, it will be okay. Right now, the goal isn't to be a perfect parent, but to prioritise your mental health, and your children's. Choose the activities that nurture you and your family over the things which 'must' be done.
How to cure & manage parental burnout
With the right support and lifestyle changes, things can and do get better. Dr Amy Imms recommends experimenting with 5 small, personalised changes to see what works best for you. These may include:
- Accepting offers of help or asking for help
- Letting go of expectations imposed by others or yourself
- Taking a break from extra responsibilities
- Regular mindfulness meditation
- Scheduling dedicated time to do things you find enjoyable
As stressors which lead to burnout vary from parent to parent, it's likely some of these suggestions will work for some parents and not others. Find whatever works best for you.
It's also good to practice self-care, and try not to feel guilty for experiencing parental burnout - it doesn't make you a bad parent.