Burnout

Written by Katherine Nicholls

Katherine Nicholls

Life Coach Directory Content Team

Last updated on 19th May, 2022

Chronic workplace stress can lead to burnout, leaving you feeling overwhelmed, hopeless and even resentful. Here we explore what burnout is, how it can affect you and how burnout coaching can support you in recovery.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a term used to describe a reaction some of us can have to ongoing workplace stress. In some cases the stress is simply too much, in other cases it's been poorly managed. Many of us will recognise the description of burnout, a feeling of exhaustion, perhaps feeling cynical about our work and feeling like we’re not doing our best.

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) added it to the International Classification of Diseases, describing it as an occupational phenomenon (not a medical condition). 

Burnout is defined by WHO as the following:

“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
  • reduced professional efficacy

Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

While burnout is most commonly associated with work-related stress, it can apply in other areas. As an example, there is more conversation happening around autistic burnout, caregiver burnout and activist burnout. Regardless of the source of your burnout, it can easily spill over and affect other areas of your life. Left unaddressed, it can make you more vulnerable to illness and may even lead to depression. For this reason, it is important to take action as early as possible.

In this video, we take to the streets to see how aware people are of burnout and how to tackle it.

Causes of burnout

Looking at work-related burnout specifically, the causes are typically related to your current job. Perhaps you’re feeling overworked and undervalued in your role right now. Maybe you feel as though you have little control over the work you do and lack a sense of recognition. The demands of your job may be overwhelming and/or you are working in a high-pressure environment. Alternatively, you may be doing work that feels unchallenging and boring. 

There may be unreasonable time pressures in your job or a lack of communication from your manager, leaving you feeling isolated. You may even feel that you’re treated unfairly at work, experiencing harassment or bullying. 

Other factors that can increase your risk of burnout include not taking enough time off to relax, not having a good support system around you, not asking for help/taking on too much responsibility and not prioritising sleep. Some personality traits can also put you at greater risk, such as being a perfectionist, having a desire for control or being a high achiever. Sometimes those who struggle with other mental health conditions use over-working as a distraction, which in itself can be detrimental.


Types of burnout

Digging deeper into the concept of burnout, you can categorise it into the following three types.

Overload burnout

This type happens when we feel, as the name suggests, overloaded. Perhaps the most common type, this is the category most people fall into when they experience burnout.

Under-challenged burnout

This is when you are feeling bored in your job and not challenged enough. There may not be room for professional growth and you may struggle to find learning opportunities. This might also be described as rust-out.

Neglect burnout

Closely linked to imposter syndrome, this type happens when you feel you’re unable to keep up with your responsibilities. You may feel helpless and stuck, unable to move forward. 


Burnout symptoms

Burnout isn’t something that suddenly starts affecting you, it is a gradual process. This means the symptoms can be subtle and harder to spot at first but, over time, they build into full burnout.

Getting to know the signs of burnout and increasing your self-awareness can help you notice them earlier, so you can tackle the stress and hopefully avoid burnout. Increasing your sense of self-awareness could involve a regular reflective practice like journaling, mood tracking or meditation. Anything that encourages you to check in with yourself and how you’re feeling is helpful as this takes us out of autopilot, allowing us to notice when something’s not right.

Here are some of the common burnout symptoms to watch out for:

Exhaustion

Feeling drained of energy is a common burnout symptom. You might notice you’re feeling tired more often and that you don’t have the energy to deal with problems. Chronic stress can also affect sleep, leading to oversleeping or insomnia.

Loss of motivation

With this exhaustion often comes a lack of motivation. You might struggle to see the point in what you’re doing at work and feel uninspired to do tasks. If you are feeling undervalued and unchallenged at work, motivation can quickly dissipate.

Cynicism and distancing

Over time, the build-up of stress can make you feel cynical and negative about your work, the company and even the people you work with. You might notice yourself distancing yourself from others, isolating yourself and feeling alienated from colleagues.

Reduced performance

The effects of long-term stress can, unsurprisingly, have a negative effect on your performance at work. You may notice an increase in mistakes or simply feel you aren’t doing your best.

Using unhealthy coping mechanisms

There are lots of things we can turn to to cope with stress and, unfortunately, it’s often the unhealthy tools we gravitate towards. You may use alcohol to numb feelings of stress or find yourself scrolling social media for long periods of time to escape. The odd glass of wine and Instagram binge is totally normal, but if you’re using these tools in excess to cope with stress, it may be a sign that you’re headed for burnout

More aches and pains

Ongoing stress can take its toll physically, affecting how our body feels. You may experience more headaches, general aches and pains, or notice an increase in digestive issues. If you’re ever concerned about these symptoms, be sure to visit your doctor.


The difference between stress and burnout

As burnout is caused by chronic stress, it’s easy to think that stress and burnout are one and the same. In reality, there are some subtle differences between stress and burnout. When you’re stressed you may feel as if there’s too much pressure on you and too many demands on your time. You can, however, likely imagine how things will get better once things calm down. 

Burnout can be described as feeling empty and wrung out. Like you don’t have anything more to give and that there is no end in sight. Those with burnout typically can’t imagine things will get better, or that things will ‘calm down’. 

Most of us can recognise stress quickly, but burnout can creep up on us. The lesson here then is for us to not only notice when we’re feeling stressed but to deal with it quickly before it escalates into burnout. 


How to recover from burnout

If you’ve identified some burnout symptoms, acting quickly is key. There are several ways you can approach burnout recovery but, often, the first step is to understand what is causing it and then speak to someone at work about how you’re feeling. You may need a meeting with your manager to discuss workload and your job satisfaction, or even HR if you’re feeling mistreated. Reaching out to colleagues can also help as they may have experienced something similar and have tips to help.

Of course, if you’ve realised you’re unhappy at your workplace, you may decide now is the time to move on to another role. If you can’t change jobs right now, you may be able to use job crafting to help you find more value in your current role. If you are self-employed, then it’s time to have a good talking to with yourself. Is it time to recruit some help or pull back in certain areas of the business? How can you re-spark the joy that first led to you starting your own business?

Try to set up healthy boundaries to protect your energy. This may include logging off work at a certain time, fully switching off from work at the end of the day, saying no to additional tasks when you’re busy and prioritising self-care. 

Outside of work you can look at how you release stress. Are there any relaxing hobbies you can take up, like walking, reading or meditation? Exercise can be a great way of easing tension and boosting your mood. If you can exercise in nature or with others, even better.

Taking time off where possible and spending it with friends, family and loved ones can also help to reduce stress. This precious time can also give us perspective, helping us recognise the importance of our life outside of work.


10 ways to overcome burnout

woman on laptop

Read more


Preventing burnout with Dr Julie Smith

Dr Julie Smith

Listen here

Burnout coaching

For some, burnout becomes a cycle. This is where you experience stress, burn out, recover and then fall back into the same cycle. Whether you’re struggling to recover from burnout or find yourself trapped in a burnout cycle, working with a coach can be really beneficial.

Coaching for burnout will offer you space to reflect on what may be at the root of your burnout and the strategies you can implement to reduce stress. Looking at your life as a whole, a coach can help you notice any blind spots, giving you clarity and helping you discover the right solution for you.

Using reflective questioning, they can help to raise your own self-awareness, so you can spot early signs of burnout and take preemptive action. Depending on the coach, they may also help you build confidence and self-belief so you feel empowered to make a change. They may talk through your career options, helping you decide if it’s time to move on from your role or if changes in your approach to work will help.

Supporting you in a sustainable way, their ultimate aim will be to help you prevent burnout moving forward, so you can feel confident in your abilities to manage stress and find a healthy work/life balance. 

If you’re ready to move on from burnout and return to yourself, you can use our search tool to find a coach today

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