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Burnout: defining it, spotting it and 6 ways to manage it

In the last five years, ‘burnout’ has become an ever more popular phrase. Its rising success feels ominously linked to the increasing number of people seeking support for their mental health. 

If you type the word ‘burnout’ into a search engine, the results are telling. It occupies as many health and wellbeing websites as it does employment and human resource ones. Wellbeing websites advise how to spot and manage it, while employment sites advise on how to increase productivity from employees while avoiding it. Is it the intersection between our work life and emotional life? The International Classification of Diseases, 11th Revision (ICD-11) seems to think so:

“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed… Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Defining it

Something about the ICD-11’s definition of burnout caught my attention, ‘chronic stress.’ As a therapist with expertise in working with trauma and PTSD, stress is something I frequently work with. However, when talking to patients or clients who report burnout, they use words like ‘empty, drained, numb’ and ‘sluggish’ to describe it. This is a very different experience from the overwhelming, panicked, crisis mode of trauma and PTSD. 

This is because burnout doesn’t operate like the frantic stress we are used to. It accumulates slowly over time, manifesting itself not just in our work lives but also in personal life. It can develop and grow without us noticing until we are entirely disengaged from work life, personal relationships, and ourselves. 

Spotting it

Despite what the ICD-11 says, I believe that burnout isn’t exclusive to a person’s work life. In fact, I believe a person can experience burnout without stepping into the workplace. A carer, parent, or guardian can also experience burnout. Although society may not consider these roles as traditional ‘jobs,’ this unpaid labour can be just as challenging and draining as any workplace. 

If burnout can happen inside or outside of the workplace, how do we spot it? Below I have categorised three areas in our lives where burnout symptoms can manifest:

Spotting burnout in your behaviour:

  • Forgetfulness. Losing things or trouble keeping routines.
  • Procrastinating or ‘being lazy’. Taking longer or unable to complete tasks.
  • Avoiding work. Unable to keep regular work hours, coming in late or leaving early.
  • Unsustainable coping techniques. Using food, smoking, drugs, alcohol, or pornography as coping or distraction techniques.
  • Isolating yourself. Not replying to texts or emails from friends and family and opting out of social activities.

Spotting burnout in your emotions:

  • Worthlessness. Lack of feeling like you have worth, either with yourself or with your work.
  • Detachment. Feeling disconnected from work, friends, or family, almost like you’re looking at the world from the bottom of the ocean.
  • Lack of motivation. Lack of desire to start or complete tasks.
  • Helplessness. Feeling like you are stuck and unable to get out of your situation, both practically and emotionally.
  • Everything feels negative. An increasing sense of negativity and pointlessness about work or personal life.

Spotting burnout in your body:

  • Drained of energy. Feeling tired and like you want to stay in bed all-day.
  • Constantly unwell. More frequently ill or feeling under the weather.
  • Aching in the body. Everything from muscle pain, joint tension to headaches and brain fog.
  • Irregular sleep patterns. Sleeping too much, not getting enough sleep or being unable to sustain regular sleep patterns.
  • Irregular eating. Everything from loss of appetite to regularly seeking comfort food.

Managing it

There is no magic pill to overcome burnout. Hopefully, one or more of these suggestions will help you consider how to support yourself to move past burnout and reconnect with your work, loved ones, and yourself. 

1. Identify what are the points of stress and evaluate your options

If your job is the cause of burnout, see if you can identify specific concerns and discuss them with your manager. What flexibility do you have, or can you compromise on your workload? If the source of your burnout is in your personal life, as a carer or parent, try and identify what causes the most stress and where you can give yourself a break.

2. Take breaks in your routine

Allow yourself more time to rest. Schedule in breaks during your day and prioritise them as much as you would an important work meeting or appointment. This could include regular small breaks or longer lunch breaks. Figure out what works for you and your schedule. 

3. Seek support from your family, friends or co-workers

Ask for support from the people around you. People often want to help, so let them give that support. Involve them in identifying the points of stress and see how you can work together to manage or change them. 

4. Set boundaries

Learning when to stop looking at emails, allowing yourself a long weekend break, or turning off your phone can be difficult. Establishing boundaries can be a powerful first step to managing burnout. Don’t compare yourself to others and find the boundaries that work for you. 

5. Downtime and distraction

When managing burnout, getting up and engaging with hobbies, exercise, or activities can be the last thing you want to do. However, activities like sports, walks, and physical activity in general are as necessary as distractions like binging on box sets and playing games. Don’t feel guilty for taking time to do these things. They are as essential to our coping as anything else.

6. Seek support from professionals

Sometimes we need support from people outside of our social or work lives. This could mean talking to a GP, searching for a therapist, or engaging with support groups. Asking for help from mental health professionals can be a significant step in stopping burnout from developing into clinical depression or anxiety. 

Burnout can make life miserable. It is vital to listen to yourself. Keep an eye on your behaviour, emotions and body for the signs of burnout, and even if it doesn’t seem too serious, spotting it early can make the difference. 

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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London SE10 & SE15

Written by Jeremy Sachs (BA Hons, Dip.Couns)

London SE10 & SE15

I am an Integrative Psychotherapist and Counsellor. I am trained in multiple models of psychological care so I can respond to your needs in a flexible way. My practice is friendly and welcoming. I provide a space for exploring all sorts of issues. I offer a free assessment so we can meet informally and I currently practice online.

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