Carer’s burnout

The job of a carer can be challenging at times, but if you are providing care to a loved one alongside another job, family commitments or other life responsibilities, you may start to find everyday caring duties become demanding, stressful and emotionally draining. As much as you care about your relative, you likely did not choose to become their carer. 

Here, we are helping to identify whether you are currently in the role of a carer without realising it, the signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout, what causes this, the long-term effects and challenges, how to cope with the stresses of caring, and how to know when it is time to seek respite care

At Home Instead, our aim is to help people age positively and in place by bringing expert care to their home. For nearly 20 years, we have been providing the highest standard of care, and creating industry-leading training programmes for our Care Professionals that are accredited by nursing and medical professionals. Today, we are the world’s largest global home care network, supporting over 100,000 older adults with personalised, tailored care at home. So whatever questions you have about carer burnout or respite care, we can help.

How do you know if you are classed as a carer?

The definition of a caregiver is someone who provides physical care, mental health care, or additional help to a person who is unable to do the same for themselves, either due to an illness, injury, medical condition or their declining health and mobility as they get older. People with conditions such as dementia, cancer, chronic illnesses, brain injuries or other debilitating illnesses may require help from a caregiver or a team of caregivers. 

A caregiver may be a paid professional, or a family member or friend of the person, and they may help with some or all of the following activities: 

  • Personal care such as using the bathroom, washing or getting dressed 
  • Preparing and cooking meals
  • Doing housework or home maintenance 
  • Managing medication schedules 
  • Taking the person to medical appointments 
  • Monitoring the person’s health and wellbeing 
  • Managing visits from healthcare providers or specialist carers 

Whether or not you have a background as a professional carer, if you are spending a significant amount of time each week helping a loved one with some of these activities, you should consider yourself a caregiver. 

carers burnout

What is carer fatigue, or carer burnout? 

You may have come across the term ‘burnout’ before, as it is typically used to describe symptoms of severe stress that occur in a number of job roles. Since the term was first used in the 1970s, it has been applied mainly to caring professions such as doctors or nurses, however it is more widely used now to describe feelings of severe stress across all areas of life. This could be things like raising children, studying for an exam, or working on an important work project. 

The symptoms of burnout tend to include issues like getting sick more regularly, feeling fatigued most of the time, experiencing sleep problems, and/or feeling down or depressed. Research has found 79% of people say they frequently feel work-related stress, making it the most common source of stress. This is followed by financial stress and family stress. For this reason, the caring profession can be considered one of the most stressful roles due to its place at the intersection of these three things: 

  1. Heavy workload – which can include managing a lot of administration as well as physical workload
  2. Financial worry – due to a person’s regular job being affected
  3. Family worries – when relationships with the care receiver potentially change, and the wider family are affected by the carer’s availability and more

Caregiver burnout is a recognised state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion, and it is commonly experienced by both professional carers and family caregivers, as well as those caring part-time and full-time. Looking after someone is not the same as a 9-5 job which can be forgotten about as soon as you leave the office. Instead, it requires a lot of organisation, careful planning, and physical labour. It can also cause you to worry about how a loved one is doing when you are not with them, which can make it difficult to switch off and recharge.

If you devote much of your time and energy to helping another person, you could be depleting your mental, physical, emotional and financial reserves, which can impact your own health and wellbeing, your work, your relationships, and your ability to continue providing high quality care. This is caregiver burnout, and it should be taken seriously and proactively addressed. 

What are the signs and symptoms of carer burnout?

The signs and symptoms of carer burnout manifest in a similar way to those found in other types of burnout. These might include:

  • Physical exhaustion, or aches and pains 
  • Feeling emotionally drained 
  • Withdrawing from friends and family, and focusing all of your time on caring – research suggests 50% of carers say they feel lonely, so isolation can be a key problem in this area 
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Feelings of hopelessness, feeling stuck, or like a dark cloud is hanging over you – research suggests 49% of carers feel depressed, so this is important to address 
  • Changes in your appetite and/or weight 
  • Changes in your sleep, such as insomnia or falling asleep at inopportune times 
  • Struggling to focus 
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach troubles, tense muscles, and more 
  • Becoming sick more frequently 
  • Becoming irritable or frustrated by the person you are caring for, or having a short temper 
  • Turning to unhealthy coping habits like smoking, alcohol, junk food and others 
  • Becoming more anxious about whether or not you are providing the appropriate care – research suggests over three quarters of carers feel stressed or anxious

Experiencing compassion fatigue, or feeling like you lack empathy for the person you are caring for – this does not make you a bad person, it is a common symptom of carer burnout and something you can seek support for to ensure your loved one continues to receive the best care

carers burnout

What can lead to carer burnout?

Caregiver burnout is common, and it happens when a low level of stress is not addressed early enough. Eventually it can progress to a stage where the carer experiences some of the aforementioned symptoms and struggles to cope. 

Before the carer reaches burnout stage, the lead up to this might include things like:

  • A gradual increase in the time spent caring for a loved one
  • Using more of your energy and resources to care for the person
  • Neglecting your own health or wellbeing activities in favour of providing care
  • Keeping feelings to yourself and letting them grow without airing your concerns 
  • Neglecting your personal responsibilities, such as your job – 57% of people who stopped working or reduced their hours at work to care for someone said they did this due to the stress of juggling both  
  • Letting caregiving take over from your regular job, which can affect your finances 
  • Role confusion when caring for a person who is also a family member or friend, when you may feel your relationship has changed in a negative way 
  • Feeling like your efforts are not appreciated by the person, or not helping them like you hoped they would 
  • Feeling a lack of control when juggling too many responsibilities
  • Not recognising when it is time to outsource elements of care, ask for help from other family members, or seek respite care  
carers burnout

What are the potential long-term effects and challenges of caregiver burnout?

The above effects of caregiver burnout can have an immediate negative impact on your health and wellbeing, but the long-term effects of continuing to muddle through without help can lead to serious consequences. Prioritising your own wellbeing while caring is incredibly important, as research suggests caregivers who are experiencing strain have a 63% higher mortality risk than others. 

Caregiver burnout has also been linked to mental health conditions like anxiety or depression. In fact, 27% of unpaid carers are reported to have ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ mental health, and for those caring for over 50 hours per week, or for over 10 years, this rises to 31%. It is clear that ignoring early signs of caregiver burnout, delaying preventive health check-ups, or even delaying necessary treatment due to caregiving responsibilities, can have a detrimental long-term effect on your health, mental health and overall wellbeing

What is respite care?

Respite care is a type of temporary care which takes over caring duties when a regular carer needs to take a break. There are many reasons a respite carer may be brought in, such as to cover a holiday period or to look after the person while their regular carer attends a special event, but in many cases it is used to help regular carers take a much-needed break.  

Respite care can be a vital tool that caregivers can keep in mind for when they need it most. This could be someone to take over caring duties within the person’s home for one day a week to give you a regular break, or it could be someone to take over for a week or two while you reset and recharge your batteries. 

It is normal to struggle with feelings of guilt about leaving a loved one, or to feel uncomfortable leaving their care in the hands of a stranger. However, there is evidence to suggest respite care benefits everyone involved, from caregivers to care receivers.

You can read more in our articles: What Is Respite Care? and The Benefits Of In-Home Respite Care

How to cope with carer burnout, and minimise your chances of developing it 

You could have a higher risk of caregiver burnout if you feel you are the only person who can provide care successfully to your loved one, or you do not have a support system in place to help when you need it. Thankfully, there are some things you can do to minimise your chances of developing carer burnout, and cope with stress when it arises. 

You will be able to determine what areas of the caregiving process give you the most stress, as everyone will find certain elements more challenging than others. However, there are several tried-and-tested ways to help cope with caregiver burnout, including: 

  • Managing your time to make room for your own needs and activities
  • Saying no and setting boundaries to help limit how much of your energy goes into caring – this might mean having some difficult conversations with other family members to share the responsibilities equally 
  • Making time for your physical health by prioritising exercise and healthy eating, and not neglecting this
  • Making time for your wellbeing and relaxation, such as reading, meditating or walks in nature
  • Implementing systems to organise everything you are responsible for, such as medication schedules, meal times, health appointments and more 
  • Talking to someone you trust about the emotions involved in caring for a loved one 
  • Maintaining hobbies you enjoy can also be stress-relieving, such as running, language learning, or crafting 
  • Maintaining personal relationships and attending social events to break up the monotony of your duties 
  • Prioritising sleep in order to feel well-rested and ready to provide care 
  • Seeking professional help such as therapy or support groups who can listen and provide resources and advice based on experience 
  • Being open to respite care and taking breaks in order to continue providing the best care 

Ultimately, carer burnout should be considered early so it can be avoided, but if you are already feeling burnt out, think about the underlying reasons for why this might be. Has your workload increased? Do you feel like you are neglecting your own family or responsibilities? Do you feel physically drained? Whatever the reason, address the root cause and make strategic changes rather than trying the above advice while still continuing on as normal. 

How to know when you need the help of a respite carer

It can be hard to recognise when you have reached the stage of burnout, or whether or not you need to bring in respite care to help relieve you of some of your duties. You may decide it is time to look for respite care if you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above. Or you might be struggling to get everything done around your own life responsibilities, or have a particularly big life change coming up like a new job or a new baby on the way. You may be very aware of your burnout and know you need the help of a respite carer, or you might find it difficult to judge when it is time to implement this. 

If you are struggling with the decision and feel you need to speak to someone who understands, you can reach out to our friendly team for a no-obligation discussion. We can talk about how things are currently going with your care responsibilities, discuss what services may be available to help, and – if you believe it could be useful – arrange for a respite carer to take over and provide you with much-needed time off to recharge. 

Our Care Professionals are carefully chosen to deliver only the very best care, allowing you to feel secure that your loved one is being properly looked after in your absence. 

You may find more useful advice in some of our other articles:

Home Instead is an award-winning home care provider and part of a worldwide organisation devoted to providing the highest-quality relationship-led care for older people in their own homes. Arranging care for yourself or your loved one shouldn’t be stressful, so whatever questions you would like answered, feel free to reach out to the Home Instead team to discuss your needs.