Burnout is typically experienced as emotional exhaustion manifesting, among other things, as irritability, cynicism and de-personalisation. Burnout is different for different people as it involves one’s own unique subjective experience of stress and a subjective experience of the physical and emotional responses to stressors.

Burnout is typically associated with job-related stress. This stress can be actual stress or perceived stress which involves your own personal perception- whether the stress is objectively there or not is irrelevant, if you feel stressed then your body is responding to that stress on a physical, mental and emotional level. Job-related stress can mean anyone who feels overworked or undervalued, whether in a large corporation, a small business, or a stay at home parent. All stress often involves an element of feeling like there are high expectations of you, whether they are someone else’s expectations or your own. Burnout often happens when demands exceed your available resources, or your perceived ability to meet those demands. Exposure to stress over long periods of time is the main cause of burnout. Burnout can also be made worse by psychological factors such as: Job conditions where one may feel that one’s contributions are useless, ineffective or unappreciated; Poor opportunities for promotion or personal development or strict workplace rules- feeling trapped in an unfair organisation; Absence of social support.

Stress and burnout are different. Stress itself isn’t a disease but if it goes on for a prolonged period of time without being addressed it can lead to mental and physical ill-health. Similarly, exhaustion is a normal reaction to stress and on it’s on wouldn’t indicate the presence of an illness.

Stressed Burnout
Over engagement Disengaement
Emotions are over-reactive Emotions are blunt
Produces urgency and hyperactivity produces helplessnesss and hopelessness
Loss of energy Loss of motivation, ideas and hope
Leads to anxiety disorders Leads to detachment and depression
Primary damage is physical Primary damage is emotional
May kill you prematurely May make life seem not worth living

Your lifestyle and personality traits could also contribute to your likelihood of experiencing burnout. Some work-related causes of burnout could be: feeling like you have little or no control over your work; lack of recognition or reward for good work; unclear or overly demanding job expectations; doing work that is continuously monotonous or unchallenging; working in a chaotic or high-pressure environment. Some lifestyle-related causes of burnout could include: living an unbalanced lifestyle, such as working too much without enough time for socialising or relaxing; lack of close, supportive relationships; taking on too many responsibilities without enough help from others; not getting enough sleep. Personality traits that could contribute to burnout include: perfectionistic tendencies (nothing is ever good enough); pessimistic view of yourself and the world; the need to be in control; a reluctance to delegate to others; high achieving A-type personality.

The symptoms of burnout are varied. One useful approach is to categorise them into four categories: Behavioural symptoms (e.g. changes in sleeping patterns or eating habits, reduced performance, fidgeting or restlessness, escapist behaviours such as alcoholism); Physiological symptoms (e.g. low energy and fatigue, headaches, muscle pain, heart palpitations, stomach or digestion problems); Cognitive symptoms (e.g. cynicism, difficulty focusing, feeling like every day is a bad day, alienation from people and work, every activity or task feels like too much; even suicide ideation); Emotional symptoms (exhausted, overwhelmed, down or demotivated, frustrated, irritable, impatient, helpless).

What can be done about burnout?

Your perception of burnout will have a role to play in how you choose to address it, if you choose to address it at all. It is possible that you could fear the consequences of admitting to distress and impairment because it could lead to embarrassment, loss of credibility at work, status, or maybe even friends.

Interventions for addressing burnout must be guided by the severity of the condition. There is no “one size fits all”. Also, be wary of self-diagnosing burnout- there are many overlaps with Depression and a misdiagnosis could be dangerous. For example, recommending rest for burnout will be helpful, however, excessive rest could exacerbate depression through increasing the perception of loneliness and isolation and decreasing a sense of purpose and motivation and possibly leading to worsening suicide ideation.

Prevention is the best answer to burnout, start by taking appropriate measures as early as possible in your career to minimise personal and professional problems that may interfere with competent work performance. It is never too late to address your personal life and explore the ways in which it may be impacting on your professional life. Develop good working habits, take proper vacations, and be careful to not become professionally isolated. At a personal level, maintain good health habits, good support systems, and a meaningful and balanced life.

Burnout doesn’t go away on its own. Rather, it will get worse unless you address the underlying cause. If you continue to find yourself in a ‘burnt out space’, it could be valuable to seek professional assistance from a Psychologist and explore the possibility of an underling Depression or Anxiety disorder. Recovery from burnout is a slow journey, not a quick dash to some imaginary finish line. You need time and space to recuperate, don’t rush through the process.

Some practical suggestions

  1. Try to discover why you have burnt out. What are your feelings towards work or home, are you harbouring resentment? Take time to think about and talk through some negative feelings you may have about your professional or personal life roles.
  2. Focus on the basics of good health and wellbeing. If you are burnt out your body has been through a lot. Start with exercise, enough sleep, and a healthy diet.
  3. Take a vacation or a leave of absence. You need rest and a change of scenery.
  4. Reassess your goals and priorities. Ask yourself if your work is out of alignment with your values or if the work you do is helping to get you closer to achieving long term goals.
    • Set boundaries. Be assertive and say ‘no’ politely.
    • Take a daily break from technology.
    • Nourish your creative side.
    • Set aside relaxation time.
    • Plan self-care activities and schedule them regularly, make them non-negotiable.
  5. Practice positive thinking. Work consciously to combat the cycle of negative thinking that burnout has most likely got you stuck in. Try to reframe the way you view work or life in general.
  6. Seek social support, reach out to others- this may help manage your stress. People you talk to don’t have to be able to ‘fix’ anything, they just need to be attentive and non-judgmental.