Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. It’s a workplace phenomenon that cannot be confused by daily stressors of everyday personal life responsibilities.

It is defined by the International Classification of Diseases as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized 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, and
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

The culprits are usually an imbalance of resources and/or demands on what is expected of you at work versus the availability of time, finances, training, support systems, mentorship and other resources needed for you to do your job.

Another contributing factor to the development of burnout is conflicting values: either a mismatch between your personal values and the organisational values, or, even worse, a mismatch between the officially stated values of the organisation and the values in action.

However, viewing burnout as something your work has done to you, is not helpful. Yes, organisations do have a responsibility to invest in preventing burnout and promoting mental wellness. If you view your discomfort as purely “work has done this to me”, it will contribute to a lack of autonomy and passivity and generate victim mentality.

READ: How to manage your energy balance at work

Burnout does not happen immediately and gradually builds overtime, with subtle signs and symptoms. Although not a condition that is medically diagnosed, if left untreated, burnout can lead to depression which requires medical treatment – this is not about simply taking a few weeks holiday or resting to overcome the constant state of depletion.

Recognising the different types of burnout

Burnout negatively affects your productivity and leads to feelings of resentment, hopelessness and being cynical. It steals your autonomy, creates a sense of helplessness and passivity, and the inability to summon action or ways to deal with a situation.

It is important to understand the kind of burnout you are experiencing and identify the root cause as a first step towards healing.

Christine Arylo identifies eight different types of burnout:

  • Mental burnout: My mind cannot process anymore; it’s fried.
  • Emotional burnout: These heavy or anxious emotions are exhausting me.
  • Compassion burnout: I cannot hold any more loving space for anyone else; I’m tapped.
  • Relational burnout: I’ve been over giving to others, my organization, or my community/family, and I am over it.
  • Survival burnout: I’m exhausted from trying to make ends meet and stay afloat.
  • Superwoman burnout: The weight of taking on so much is too much; I can’t hold it all anymore.
  • Passion burnout: I love what I do, but I’ve given too much and pushed too hard.
  • Physical burnout: My body is revolting; I have depleted my life force.

By recognising the type of burnout, you will be able to understand the symptoms or signs better and find ways in which to manage the feeling of being overwhelmed.

WATCH: Tired of being tired?

The difference between fatigue and burnout

Feeling tired is a natural state of wanting sleep or rest. If you are tired, it doesn’t mean you have burnout. Although fatigue can be a symptom of burnout, sometimes you are just tired. Nothing more. In this instance, rest is helpful by sleeping, taking a break, or doing something that brings you pleasure or take a holiday.

However, if the fatigue does not go away, even if you get sufficient sleep, and you feel weary all the time, and the negative ruminations will not dissipate (even when you are away from work), you are unable to find a way around an issue (you reach a mental cul-de-sac), your positive emotions are replaced with constant negativity, and you withdraw socially, then it is more than just fatigue. It may be burnout, or even depression. This is also why rest, and prolonged sick leave to “rest”, does not alleviate burnout.

Work is good for you

If you are overwhelmed rethink resigning. Work is good for you and stimulates you far beyond your salary. Here is how:

  • Work is an important contributor to well-being and the pursuit of a meaningful life. Victor Frankl defined meaning as the primary motivational force in man. When people find their work lives meaningful, they not only experience higher levels of well-being, but they also exhibit improved motivation and performance in the workplace. Having a purpose through work can enhance mental health by giving individuals a reason to get up in the morning and stay engaged with life.
  • Work provides a structured environment where individuals can set and achieve goals. This sense of accomplishment can boost self-esteem and overall life-satisfaction. A regular work schedule helps maintain a routine, which is beneficial for mental health. Predictability and structure reduce anxiety and provide a sense of stability. Having a structured day can also help with better time management and work-life balance.
  • Workplaces offer opportunities for social interaction, which is crucial for mental wellbeing. Interacting with colleagues can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. Building professional relationships can lead to a supportive network that helps individuals menage stress and navigate challenges.
  • Work environments often present opportunities for learning and skill development. Continuous learning and personal growth can keep the mind active and engaged. Gaining new skills can lead to career advancement and increased job satisfaction, contributing to overall well-being.
  • Research shows that the longer someone is absent from work (the risk even starting at 1 month of absence), the less likely they are to successfully return. After six months of absence, only about 50% of individuals successfully return to work, while after a 12-month absence, successful return decreases to 25%.

The myth about rest

Burnout is a response to prolonged exposure to stress and cannot simply be cured by time off or more sleep.  Although helpful these tools deal with the symptoms but is not a lasting solution.

  • Rest alone, especially passive rest, may not address the underlying causes of burnout. Active recovery, such as engaging in meaningful activities, can be more effective. Activities that involve problem-solving, creativity, or social interaction can help recharge mental energy more effective than passive rest such as binge watching a series on Netflix. It’s like a battery: by not using it you are not restoring the energy. Rather you need to “plug it in” in order to recharge.
  • Engaging in meaningful work can be more restorative than inactivity. Being productively engaged can provide a sense of control and accomplishment that passive rest cannot. Finding aspects of work that are fulfilling and aligning them with personal values can help mitigate feelings of burnout. We also need to be realistic: finding a work that “ticks al the boxes” might be like finding a unicorn. If you really find no meaning in your work other than paying the bills, consider getting involved in volunteer work that can give you that sense of fulfillment.
  • It is important to reframe how we view work. Instead of seeing it as a source of stress, recognising it as a platform for growth, achievement, and connection, can change your relationship with it. Strategies such as job-crafting by altering aspects of your job to better fit your strengths and interests can make work more enjoyable and less stressful.
  • Striving for work-life balance is vague. The achievement can never be 50:50 and therefore setting boundaries between work and personal life is crucial. Incorporating regular breaks and ensuring time for hobbies, relaxation, and connecting with your family and friends, are more effective than prolonged rest periods. Quality is more important than quantity.

READ: Your well-deserved hug. How to practice selfcare

The most important way to deal with burnout is to try and limit the possibility from the start. Practice selfcare every day to ensure that your batteries are fully charged, that you do not ignore any of the signs of burnout, and that you find fulfillment and joy outside of work.

“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.” (Peck, 2003)