Burnout: don’t be wise after the event

Burn out is a state of mental and physical exhaustion that can follow a lengthy period of personal and/or professional commitment that is unsustainable. It is the logical endpoint of a life out of control. Characteristics of burnout include:

  • cognitive disruption
  • depression
  • severe fatigue
  • social withdrawal
  • impaired decision making

Anyone who has experienced burnout will tell you it is far more than just being stressed. A serious mental health issue, burnout has received a lot of attention recently in the media even if, it isn’t a new phenomenon. In this post, I offer my take on this contemporary subject.

Is it me?

Common ‘internal’ factors that can cause burnout include perfectionistic, competitive and obsessive mindsets especially when it comes to work or study. And because these mindsets have often proven successful for people, so they can be hard to change. This is why burnout is frequently the result of a series of ‘missed’ opportunities when someone ignores, misjudges or doesn’t even notice runaway levels of stress. As a result, they do more of what isn’t working. They work harder. They don’t talk about it. They continue because they don’t know there is a problem in the first place.


As a cause of burn out, people-pleasing has few equals and is worthy of its own paragraph. In placing others ahead of themselves, people-pleasers neglect their own wellbeing. Again, this can be hard to let go of because of the ‘benefits’ derived from this way of relating, such as a sense of meaning and purpose, validation and attention. Secretly, people-pleasers often know the harm they are doing to themselves, but the fear is that by saying ‘No’ to others any benefits will be lost. As a further disincentive, saying no makes people-pleasers feel variously guilty, selfish, undeserving and arrogant.

It’s not me, but what can I do?

Burnout can also be due to ‘external’ factors that are to greater or lesser degrees outside of someone’s control. Certain professions are known to have a higher risk of burnout, especially those where demand always outstrips supply, or when the nature of the role is relentlessly demanding. Some workplaces have what are called ‘toxic’ cultures where overwork is normalised and even celebrated. Here burnout happens due to an understandable desire to ‘fit in’, gain promotion or even to remain employed.

People with complex caring responsibilities can experience burnout, as can those who have demanding work/life circumstances such as having more than one job or long commutes. Burnout due to external factors can be magnified when there is a lack of support at home and/or at work.

Plan A isn’t working

When life is moving along quite nicely, we can leave Plan A running in the background. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Plan As are great, but they come with an Achilles Heel: they are often the result of a lot of blood, sweat and tears. When we change or the world changes around us necessitating a Plan B, the sheer enormity of the effort required to develop it can prove too much. Defeated, we fall back into the warm embrace of Plan A, which requires no effort at all. Burnout can happen when we exhaust ourselves ‘forcing’ Plan A to work in a world run on Plan B’s. Common examples of this cause of burnout include staying in a career or relationship that is no longer fulfilling due to the fear of leaving them.

Spotting the signs of burn out

  • Awareness is key – if you are at risk of burnout, the clues will be there: exhaustion, fatigue, depression and withdrawal. Be kind to yourself and accept these clues are not there by accident.
  • Emotions as messages – emotions are a form of communication from our ‘emotional self’ trying to get an important message through. The more extreme the emotion, the more serious the message. Burnout is our ‘emotional self’ screaming at us to change course.
  • Seek feedback – people often know more about us than we realise. If in doubt, ask someone you trust whether they think you are pushing yourself too hard. It might be hard to hear what they say, but remember they care about you. If they express their concern, they are unlikely to be lying.
  • Challenge beliefs – burnout is often the end point of a journey with positive beginnings. Psychologists talk of a ‘honeymoon’ period where early achievement is equated with excessive workload. Challenging the belief that grinding oneself into the dust is the only path to achievement, success or recognition is vital

Recovering from burnout

Recovering from burnout requires someone to accept they have – ‘burnt out’. If they can’t accept, the motivation to carry on might prove too strong. This is why it is so important that someone does not see acceptance as resignation but as the beginnings of their transformation. Acceptance makes it easier to practice self-care and seek support, the foundations of recovery.

What forms the self-care and support takes will depend on an individual’s circumstances. Support, for example, can take a variety of forms. It can come from those close to us and from those in professional capacities.

Over to you

Imagine having a conversation with your future self. After all they are the one who will fully experience your burnout. Understandably, they have a real interest in you looking after your mental and physical wellbeing, so imagine being in conversation with your future self. How might that conversation go? What areas of your life would they encourage you to take an interest in?

To help you spot any emerging signs of burnout, consider the areas below and assign a number between 0 and 10 where 0 = no signs of burnout and 10 = significant signs of burnout.

  •       Mental and physical health (self-care, sleep, diet and exercise)
  •       Time/workload management (having spare capacity)
  •       Downtime (relaxation time)
  •       Fun/focused enjoyment – (laughter, hobbies and interests)
  •       Connecting (partners, friends, family)
  •       Home life (harmony)
  •       Personal and professional boundaries (switch on/off)
  •       Reflecting time (step back & asking how things are going)
  •       Work and career (meaning, purpose, fulfilment, enjoyment)
  •       Support at home and at work (a go-to person)

What did you discover? My rule of thumb is:

  •    3 or below are areas where you are getting it right
  •    4 or 5 are areas to keep an eye on and look to make     improvements in
  •    6 or above are areas for concern

Getting support for burnout

If anything in post resonated for you either personally or professionally, then please get in touch. Avoiding and recovering from burnout is absolutely possible.