ADHD Burnout In Adults: Why & How It Happens
Aug 22, 2023, 10 min read
We all suffer from various levels of burnout at different times in life, but for those with an ADHD diagnosis (or those who suspect they may have ADHD but have not yet been diagnosed) this can feel more intense and difficult to manage. From the feelings it can provoke, to the health consequences it can lead to, to the tips for avoiding burnout or tackling it when it’s already upon you, we’re taking a look at ADHD burnout and how to handle it.
At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about ADHD or burnout in general, we’re here to help.
What is burnout?
Burnout was first coined as a term in the 1970s by an American psychologist called Herbert Freudenberger, who used it to describe the symptoms and feelings of the severe stress felt in professions which involved helping people, such as doctors and nurses. More modern studies have suggested that in the medical profession, turnover and absence due to sickness are some of the effects of burnout.
Today, the term burnout is used to refer to not only the stress felt within someone’s profession, but to describe the feeling and consequences of doing too much, or “burning the candle at both ends”, as the saying goes. This could mean doing too much physically or mentally.
Symptoms of burnout are unique to everyone, however you may notice general stress symptoms such as:
- Sleep problems
- Trouble focusing
- Stomach issues
- Fatigue, both mental and physical
- Becoming sick more often due to poor immune function
- Feelings similar to depression, such as worthlessness
- A loss of interest in doing things you once enjoyed
Burnout can affect anyone, but those with ADHD may find it hits them with very specific symptoms.
What is ADHD?
In adults, ADHD symptoms might include things like trouble focusing, impulsive behaviours, and difficulties controlling attention. Living with these symptoms can mean everyday tasks are disrupted such as learning, studying, working, organising, managing time, remembering things, or getting things done.
In children, ADHD can make it difficult for them to play quietly, take instructions without distraction, and in some cases, may make them hyperactive. ADHD can present differently in girls than in boys, so girls may display less hyperactive features and more inattentiveness.
Remember, ADHD can have a number of symptoms that exist under the surface, and are not obvious in family or friends — you can read more about this in our article ‘What Is The ADHD Iceberg & Why Is It Important?’
Can having ADHD make burnout symptoms worse?
In a word, yes. If you experience ADHD symptoms, you may need to work harder than others to achieve the same things, so burnout could come much sooner. Small, seemingly insignificant tasks can be impacted by ADHD such as your organisation, time management, and attention, and when faced with a heavy workload or a lot going on in your personal life, you risk experiencing burnout on top of everything else.
For everyone, not just those with ADHD, burnout is our body’s way of telling us to slow down.
One symptom of ADHD that is often seen positively is ‘hyper focus’. This is when you become fully focused on one thing, and it may mean you neglect taking care of yourself as a result. When you don’t sleep or eat well and avoid basic wellness-boosting activities, burnout can come knocking sooner than it would for neurotypical individuals.
As ADHD is so prevalent today, many people in the workplace must manage ADHD symptoms (read our article on workplace ADHD statistics, here) alongside a growing workload, quotas, targets, performance reviews, stress from colleagues, pressure from managers, and more. This is not always easy.
Those with an ADHD diagnosis and treatment plan can manage burnout similarly to the rest of the world, however if you suspect you may have ADHD and haven’t yet started to get support or treatment, burnout could hit you harder than it would for others. For this reason, it is important to understand your symptoms and seek treatment for ADHD as soon as you can.
How can you recognise burnout if you have ADHD?
People with ADHD are prone to stress and overwhelm. A 2016 study suggested those with ADHD are more susceptible to burnout, and many ADHD symptoms (for example, lack of organisation and impulsivity) could make burnout worse.
Some of the signs that point to burnout include:
- Feeling overwhelmed with your responsibilities (whether at work or in your personal life) and feeling like you have hit a wall
- Feeling like you can’t continue or achieve what is expected of you
- Giving up on completing the required tasks
- Feelings of depression, shame or guilt during a burnout episode
- Pressure to match or surpass what others around you are doing
- Setting unrealistic standards for yourself
- Physical symptoms of burnout, such as stomach issues or extreme fatigue
- ADHD paralysis symptoms (you can read more about this in our article: ‘What Is ADHD Paralysis and How Can You Cope With It?’)
What else could it be?
As burnout is not an official diagnosis, it is often considered alongside other physical or mental health conditions that share similar symptoms.
For example, symptoms of depression can include feelings of hopelessness or despair, or a loss of interest in things you once found enjoyable. It can be difficult to distinguish between depression and burnout, but one way to do this is to ask yourself:
Am I feeling depressed about all aspects of my life?
If the answer is no, maybe you are only feeling this way about work or one part of your life, or perhaps you find escapism into a hobby sometimes. In this case, depression may not be the problem, and burnout should be considered as a possible cause of your feelings.
If you do believe you are experiencing depression it helps to reach out to a professional, such as your GP or a private specialist. Our free 15 minute consultation can help match you with a therapist who may be able to help. Please note that this is not an emergency service. If you feel like you are in an emergency situation, please call 111, contact The Samaritans on 116123 or text SHOUT on 85258.
How can you avoid burnout if you have ADHD?
At Augmentive, we believe advice and support for those with ADHD should always be bespoke and tailored to the individual to help with their specific symptoms, so if you regularly experience burnout, we recommend speaking to a professional who can listen to your symptoms and teach long-term tools for avoiding this in future.
If you can identify the source of your burnout and would like to know some general tips for getting back to your regular self again, here are a few ways to avoid burnout when you suffer from ADHD:
- Rest: People with hyperactive ADHD symptoms may find themselves constantly on the go and busy, but making time to rest and do nothing is important. The key word here is ‘make’. If you plan to simply ‘find’ time in your schedule, you probably won’t, so make time by blocking out some hours or days to focus on you.
- Set boundaries: Learning to say no to things (even work-related things) can put you back in the driving seat of your own life. Don’t be afraid to say no to a social invitation, an exercise class, a work project or anything else that is likely to put you in your burnout zone.
- Reset your expectations: It can be far too easy to chase perfectionism, but instead of striving for this and always feeling like you are falling short, reset your own expectations of yourself and learn to be OK with ‘finished’ rather than ‘perfect’.
- Find the times that work for you: Showing that you are performing well at work often means adjusting your natural workflows to suit the rest of the office. However, it may help to adapt your daily routine so you are doing deep work during your most focused, efficient hours. Adjusting your working hours could avoid future burnout.
- Avoid excess caffeine: Studies have found that a high intake of caffeine can result in people with ADHD experiencing higher levels of burnout and impulsiveness, so consider cutting down your intake to see if it makes a difference to your burnout symptoms; caffeine can still be present in your bloodstream for up to ten hours after you consume it, and it can severely impact sleep quality as long as six hours after you drink it! Caffeine can also interact with some common ADHD medications to change or inhibit their effects, so that’s worth bearing in mind too if you’re taking something like Adderall or another amphetamine.
- Avoid alcohol: You could also try cutting out alcohol if it causes issues for you; the relationship between ADHD and alcohol is a complex one but it can affect medications too, and one study found that people with ADHD are more likely to experience alcohol related impairments such as memory or concentration issues, which can aggravate the common symptoms of ADHD like impulsiveness and trouble focusing, which can increase burnout risk.
- Ask for what you need: Many workplaces don’t think about the needs of ADHD employees. To change this, it requires employees with ADHD to speak up about what would help. If you are finding it difficult to manage your workload and prioritise, speak to your HR team at work and suggest any simple changes that could help you and others. This might be quieter workspaces free from distractions, more frequent reminders ahead of deadlines, written requests rather than spoken ones, etc.
- Get treatment for ADHD: ADHD symptoms can make regular tasks more demanding than they are for the average person. Seeking treatment for your ADHD can help you manage your symptoms in daily life and avoid future burnout.
How can you cope with ADHD burnout if you already feel it?
As above, we believe advice and support for those with ADHD is best when it is tailored to the individual, but if you are currently going through a burnout episode, here are some tips for coping while it’s happening:
- Listen to your body: Do you need to drink more water? Exercise more? Sleep? Whatever your body is asking for, now is the time to do it. Not looking after your body will contribute to a general state of feeling unwell, so definitely put this one down on your priorities list!
- Give in to rest (if you can): Often the counterintuitive reaction to burnout is to work even more, but this will not address how you are feeling right now. Burnout is your body screaming “it’s time to rest!”, so listen to it and book a day off work or take some time away from whatever the source of your burnout may be.
- Prioritise tasks: If resting simply isn’t always a viable option, doing your best to prioritise tasks can also help immensely. ADHD can make it more difficult to prioritise when stressed because everything seems urgent all at once, but try exercises like writing things down into lists and prioritising them. This can be easier when your executive functioning is at its peak (this varies for different people; some work best in the morning, others in the evening). If you prioritise tasks, you’ll generally feel much better when the most important ones are done.
- Use your resources: Dig out any tools you need to to find your focus again, such as listening to brown noise to concentrate better, taking yourself away somewhere on your own to focus, or turning off your phone for a few hours to get things done.
- Delegate and outsource: Not everything on your list will be a top priority right now, so take some time to figure out the tasks that could easily be delegated to someone else. By outsourcing or delegating, you can focus on the most important tasks.
- Find a new environment: Taking a walk or moving to a new place to work from (if you can’t take time off) could help to clear your mind, help you feel more refreshed and give you clarity on your next steps.
- Overhaul your sleep routine: Prioritise an early night tonight, and do everything you need to do to ensure a brilliant, re-energising sleep (think warm bath, cool room, earplugs, etc).
- Try calming activities: When you are experiencing burnout, sometimes the best thing you can do in the moment is to try to shut off your brain by engaging in a calming, self-soothing activity. This could be meditation, yoga or a nature walk — find the one that works best for you.
- Do some exercise: Physical activity may not be the most obvious thing to do when you feel burned out, but there is increasing evidence that exercising can have a positive impact on burnout symptoms and even make you less likely to feel burned out to begin with if you do it regularly. Even just a gentle walk can help!
How is ADHD treated?
Advice and support for those with ADHD is most effective when it is bespoke and tailored to the individual to help with their specific symptoms. If you are interested in learning about treatments for ADHD, we always recommend speaking to a qualified professional.
In general, ADHD treatment typically includes a combination of medication (here’s a guide to ADHD medication in the UK) and/or different types of therapies such as psychoeducation, behavioural therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, and more.
Ultimately, more understanding and research is needed to find out the challenges of what it is like to spend time in the workplace while living with ADHD. At present, the employee is required to take steps to address their issues themselves, however with a little more understanding and some small adjustments, workplaces could be made much more manageable for those with ADHD.
If you have a question about a mental health condition, like ADHD paralysis, or anything else, we’re here to assist on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.
Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from a private ADHD assessment or review, to broader private mental health care.