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Awareness dates, Opinion piece

When you run out of spoons – exhaustion and overwhelm

By Bela Gor, Head of Legal and Content

Bela Gor

I thought I was alone in thinking that 2022 has been much harder than 2020. Yes in 2020 we had a new and terrifying pandemic and words like ‘coronavirus’, ‘COVID-19’ and ‘lockdown’ dominated our everyday conversations. We couldn’t go anywhere and were separated from loved ones, and many lived in fear, but then I sort of got used to it. I mentioned to a colleague that I was feeling constantly exhausted and a bit overwhelmed. He asked if I’d heard about spoon theory. I hadn’t but I looked up BDF friend Michael Vermeersch talking about it.

Theory of spoons

The theory, as I understand it, is that most non-disabled people have an unlimited number of “spoons” in their day (spoons in this context representing units of energy). Some disabled people, however, with for example autism, chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia or indeed long COVID only have a limited number of spoons at their disposal every day and once the spoons have been used up by the stresses, interactions, and activities of the day, they are exhausted and need time to recover.

It seems to me that spoon theory doesn’t just apply to people with long-term conditions or disabilities. I think everyone has a limited number of spoons. Perhaps some have more spoons than others and might not have come, as yet to the limit of their spoons, but 2022 has taken many of us close to exhausting our supply of spoons.

In an impromptu Teams meeting recently, colleagues have talked about the death of friends and family and not knowing how they should be feeling or how they should grieve. Others talked about losing a way of life because an underlying health condition meant they still could not go out without fear of catching COVID. Some colleagues became carers and moved in with older family members, others were slowly losing parents and grandparents to dementia. Some women talked about the lost opportunity of becoming a parent because IVF treatment had been suspended during the pandemic or simply because they hadn’t had the opportunity to meet someone to settle down with while their biological clock ticked away and for others, menopause meant a loss of fertility.


All of this has taken a toll on everyone’s spoons before even thinking about a war in Europe, climate crisis and a cost-of-living crisis that has made everyone worry about money. It is understandable therefore if workers have very few spoons of mental or physical energy left for their work. When I mentioned that I was feeling overwhelmed to my colleague it was because I didn’t think I could cope with one more email asking me a question or to do something landing with a ping in my inbox. (My colleague referred to this as ping-dread). Actually, I’ve turned off the pings, so I don’t hear them arrive, but they do still arrive and need to be read.

I like to think of myself as someone who has a positive, can-do approach to work (and life) who will respond with “how can we make this happen?” when an opportunity or request is made by my manager or colleague. But these last few weeks after news of deaths (both of Heads of State and of family and friends) and travelling the country to take elderly relatives for COVID boosters and moving them to nearer care homes, I must confess to being a bit done in. So much so that a perfectly ordinary work task can bring me hopelessly near to tears or bursts of irritation at my inability to do it. I cannot be the only worker who feels this way.

So, this 10 October – World Mental Health Day perhaps we should all just pause to be kinder to ourselves and those around us be they family, friends, or colleagues. If the usual bounce and positivity doesn’t greet your brilliant new idea at work or reasonable request, perhaps the person you’re talking to has just run out of spoons.

Business Disability Forum has a host of mental health and wellbeing resources for you and your organisation to share – from “Cost of living crisis – Supporting mental health of employees” to “Why having friends at work matters” 

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