What is burnout and how do we deal with it?

You wake up in the morning, after a good night’s sleep, feeling exhausted.  Throughout the day you constantly feel this strong need to rest, to sleep even.  Your productivity is low, but you can’t find the strength to keep up.  Your breathing feels heavy and it feels like you’re pushing yourself around.  You might be experiencing burnout.

Burnout can perhaps be described as feeling drained, like you’re constantly running on a low battery. It may result from enduring stressful situations such as relational conflict, illnesses, stress at work or an influx of bad news.  It is the physical, mental and emotional exhaustion that arises as a result of experiencing a lot of stress over a long period of time.  This state of exhaustion makes it hard to cope with daily life and affects various aspects of one’s life.  These may include relationships with family, intimate relationships, friendships, career and work life, and often detracts from the quality of life.

How do I recognise if I’m burnt out?

Burnout has several effects that may get in the way of going about your normal day-to-day.  It may leave you feeling empty, unmotivated and consumed by dread. Responsibilities previously carried without issues start feeling heavier, whilst frustration and cynicism increase. You might be struggling to take initiative and feel low on energy.  Burnout can also present physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches and generally getting sick more often.

People who are experiencing burnout often feel that they are unable to cope.  Daily activities that may be affected include work performance, caring for family, relating to others, and tasks that require creativity and concentration.  If unaddressed, burnout may give rise to more serious issues such as depression, anxiety and heart related complications.

What leads to burnout?

Excessive pressure and unreasonable time frames at work may be demotivating, while lack of communication or little support may make you feel alone.  Demanding schedules and workloads eventually become too much to maintain, and real or perceived unfair treatment permeates a feeling of injustice. Caregivers can also experience burnout, and often feel guilty for not being able to do or give more to their loved one.

Burnout happens in five stages:

  • The honeymoon phase – be it a new job, a new task, a new relationship or friendship, we often experience a high in terms of energy and satisfaction and commitment. This phase is characterized by initial stressors.
  • Onset of stress – this is when one becomes aware of the stress they are experiencing and start to experience fatigue and decreased energy, focus, productivity and satisfaction.
  • Chronic stress – stress becomes more frequent and more intensely felt. Motivation decreases and irritability and fatigue persist.
  • Burnout – symptoms become very evident and daily functioning is clearly impaired. The person reaches their limits and coping becomes very difficult.
  • Habitual burnout – symptoms of burnout persist and affect other aspects of life.

What can I do?

Preventing and treating burnout is vital.  Accepting that we need help and asking for it is crucial. If at the workplace, try discussing specific concerns with your superior. Reach out to your friends or loved ones. If your work offers an employee assistance programme, make use of it to speak to a professional. Exercise is a good source of emotional and physical health boosts and good sleeping habits ensure that our body has time to rest and recharge.

It’s important to keep in mind that you don’t need to face rough times alone. Help and support are available – go ahead, take the first step and reach out.


This article was written by Celine Baldacchino, Mental Health Recovery Officer, Richmond Foundation.


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