Burnout: Definition, Symptoms & Cures
Tuesday, August 06, 2019

What is burnout?

In today’s modern world, burnout is officially recognised as a legitimate diagnosis. That feeling of pressure to always be ‘on’ can affect anyone, of any age.

The American Psychological Association (APA)’s David Ballard describes job burnout as “an extended period of time where someone experiences exhaustion and a lack of interest in things, resulting in a decline in their job performance”.

Two other important definitions of burnout describe it as:

  • "A state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations."
  • "A state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward."


Specific symptoms of burnout include:

  • Having a negative and critical attitude at work
  • Having low energy, trouble sleeping
  • Experiencing headaches, illness, or backache
  • Being irritated easily by team members or clients
  • Thinking that your work doesn't have meaning or make a difference
  • Pulling back emotionally from your colleagues or clients
  • Feeling that your work and contribution goes unrecognized
  • Feeling frequently on edge
  • Feeling unmotivated at work, difficulty focusing or a short attention span
  • Excessive worrying, high level of self-criticism
  • Increase in addictive behaviour - excessive dependence on caffeine, sugar, drugs, alcohol, eating comfort foods or watching more television than usual as coping mechanisms

Causes of burnout

People experience burnout for a variety of reasons.

Lack of autonomy is a common cause, so you might experience burnout if you don't have much control over your work, or if you feel that you never have enough time to finish tasks.

Other causes include:

  • Having unclear goals or job expectations
  • Working in a dysfunctional team or organisation
  • Excessive workload
  • Having little or no support from your boss or organisation
  • Lacking recognition for your work
  • Having monotonous or low-stimulation work

Consequences of burnout

  • Productivity can drop dramatically, and this not only impacts your career, but it negatively impacts your team and organization as well
  • Your creativity will be affected, so you're less likely to spot opportunities (and you don't have the interest or desire to act on them)
  • You may find excuses to miss work or take days off sick
  • Career burnout can also spill over into your personal life, negatively impacting your well-being and relationships with friends and family

When feelings of burnout start to occur, many people focus on short-term solutions such as taking a holiday. While this can certainly help, the relief is often only temporary. You also need to focus on strategies that will have a deeper impact and create lasting change.

How to avoid burnout

1. Notice the little triggers

Taking a conscious 60 seconds to not be on auto-pilot and focus on your breathing can relieve a lot of tension. Stop and look around you - instead of focusing on the next 20 things to do, stop and take note of 5 things in your surroundings. It opens your perspective and forces you to relax.

2. Listen to your body

Our bodies send us signals when they need rest. It could be that your breathing is affected, a constant stress headache or a loss of appetite. These are all signals from the body that you're feeling the strain.

3. Devote some time solely to yourself 

This is crucial in order to rest and recharge your batteries. A 20-minute soak in the bath, half an hour of reading, a morning you allow yourself to have a lie in. It can be a short spell, but it's so important that you have it.

4. End the day on a good note

According to Harvard psychologists, you’ll feel better and actually be more productive when you pay attention to your “done” list. Jot down 3 or 4 things that you achieved that day. You'll be amazed at how acknowledging the good things gets rid of some tension.

5. The importance of routine

Identify what really matters to you, consider time frames, be accountable to your routine and, most important, be adaptable. With a good daily routine, good habits form, and we begin to make the changes we want to see in our lives.

6. Take breaks

A long lunch, a mental health day or even a 10-minute walk to recharge. And make sure to take your holidays. No-one will thank you for not taking your time off.

7. Delegate

Sharing out tasks and giving others responsibilities may take a bit of time to organise, but the long-term payoff is more time for you. If you are feeling overwhelmed, delegate wherever you can, whether at work or at home.

8. Have a chat

Secondly, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and overworked, it is worth talking to your boss or a trusted mentor about your feelings. If you need some time off, then talk to your doctor and your employer. It is a sign of strength to acknowledge the problem and deal with it before it takes over your life.

9. Have a life outside work

Get a hobby, do some exercise, meet your friends and make sure to get at least seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Taking these steps will not only improve your professional life, your personal life will also benefit.