• Now recognised as a medical condition, burnout is the result of chronic workplace stress that goes unmanaged

  • Hypnotherapist Hayley Stevens explores the effects of burnout and offers 10 helpful tips for managing it

  • We have therapists specialising in burnout – find them here

Burnout is now officially recognised as a medical condition, defined by the World Health Organisation as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” . Burnout can lead to serious mental health issues without the right coping skills. It reduces productivity and depletes your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful.

Symptoms of burnout

  • Feeling exhausted and depleted all the time
  • Frequently catching viruses due to lowered immune system
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Loss of motivation
  • Feeling cynical and negative
  • Feeling isolated and alone
  • Feeling helpless and defeated
  • Struggle to find positivity in anything
  • Experiencing brain fog and forgetfulness

People suffering from burnout find themselves procrastinating often, increasingly snappy with loved ones or colleagues and possibly using alcohol or drugs as an escape.

The psychological impact of burnout

Burnout is not just ‘feeling stressed’ but is the consequence of prolonged exposure to experiencing chronic stress and leaves you feeling like you are running on empty and have nothing left to give. Ultimately, burnout results when the balance of deadlines, demands, working hours, and other stressors outstrips rewards, recognition, and relaxation. Burnout shares similar symptoms of depression and essentially suffocates people’s ambitions, and sense of worth leading to psychological ill-health.

The physical and cognitive impact of burnout

Under normal circumstances, when we feel stressed cortisol is released into the bloodstream. Once released into the bloodstream, cortisol then triggers strong reactions throughout the entire body, ranging from cardiovascular activity to the immune system and memory formation. 

Once the threat has passed, cortisol levels drop, and these systems return to normal. However, in the case of burnout the body fails to return to normal leading to a number of potential health problems such as Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hospitalisation due to cardiovascular disorder, musculoskeletal pain, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems and more.

Evidence suggests that burnout also causes changes in the anatomy of the brain. Burnout causes the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that is responsible for cognitive functioning – to thin. This normally happens with ageing but in people who experiencing chronic stress, it occurs much more rapidly. Parts of the brain that control memory and attention spans are weakened.

Scientists are now a beginning to understand how burnout can affect people’s cognitive functioning — disrupting creativity, problem solving, and working memory.

Managing the effects of burnout

So, what can you actually do to manage the effects of burnout?

There are various evidence-based methodologies that you can adopt to fit around your current lifestyle and career that will allow you to manage the demands of modern life.

Burnout is a product of feeling like you cannot cope with or control the things that are happening ‘to’ you. Therefore, by creating a toolbox of coping skills that you can utilise at any time means you are able to regain that control.

Below is a list of tools and techniques and you can select those that work for you and begin to apply them in your daily life. 

1. Compartmentalise your life

When you are at work you are at work, when you are at home you are at home and when you are with your family you are with your family and so on. This can feel like a real challenge when you start but is a highly effective way to reduce stress and avoid burnout. Feeling overwhelmed is a huge contributor to burnout and learning to compartmentalise is a great way to manage a busy schedule and hectic lifestyle.  You have to make a conscious effort not to check your phone as often, or have a ‘harmless’ check of your emails etc. Work with a therapist who can help you with ways to ‘organise’ your mind and compartmentalise your life.

2. Avoid over-stimulation 

Take yourself to a quiet, relaxing space and simply switch off for five minutes. Leave your phone and any electronics in another room and simply just rest. Allow your parasympathetic nervous system to take over and allow your mind and body to enjoy no stimulation. Do absolutely nothing for five whole minutes! 

This can take a bit of training as we live in a world where we are always reaching for our phones and breaking this habit takes a bit of practice. I offer short mindfulness and self- hypnosis recordings to my clients or suggest using progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) that they can discreetly listen to in those few minutes. Create five minutes a day for yourself no matter where you are.

3. Find joy in your day

It can be very easy in an ever demanding to world to simply let the days pass you by. But the saying ‘stop and smell the roses’ was created for a reason. Start to appreciate the small things that happen in your day. The first sip of coffee, the sunshine on your skin, the hug from your children or partner, reading even two pages of your book and so on. 

Savour the moments that strike a little joy into your heart. Don’t brush them off, really truly enjoy the small moments. Find a hobby that you enjoy and enjoy life outside work. Spend time with good friends, book tickets to upcoming shows or concerts and find what it is that brings you joy and savour whatever that may be to you.

4. Switch your negative self-talk to positive self-talk 

Self-talk is central to our wellbeing and a symptom of burnout is a tendency to blame oneself for not ‘being better at my job ’or for ‘not doing more’ etc. This is a vicious cycle that only amplifies the effects of burnout. 

Burnout happens because we are both mentally and physically exhausted and therefore positive self-talk is hugely important to lighten the load. Rather than telling ourself ‘I should be doing more’ and ‘I am not doing enough’ we need to start telling ourselves ‘I have done everything I can for the day and it is okay to switch off’. This takes practice but gets easier over time.

5. Reframe your mindset 

Reframing your mindset is crucial to overcoming burnout. Find the things you enjoy about your job, such as your colleagues, the actual job regardless of office politics, one particular task and so on. TELL yourself the things you enjoy. If you catch yourself thinking a thought such as ‘I have to go the Monday meeting’ tell yourself ‘I get to go to the Monday meeting, I have some good ideas to present’. 

Small changes in your mindset will lead to great improvements. It will allow you to regain a sense of control.

6. Learn to say no, create boundaries, handle confrontation and be assertive

A lot of burnout cases happen when people are simply taking on too much workload and do not have any boundaries. Whether that be taking on too much from their boss, peers or juniors and even sometimes outside of work. 

If the workload from your boss seems to be overwhelming it is time to start delegating. Take the time to see what aspects of your day-to-day job can be assigned to another team member as you focus on other tasks. 

If someone in your team is not pulling their weight and you are picking up the slack then this needs to be addressed. Burnout can happen because people do not have the skills to handle confrontation or deliver a message assertively so they rather take all the work on themselves. Learning to handle confrontation and assertiveness training are hugely beneficial for burnout. 

Many people use hypnotherapy to improve their confidence and practice handling confrontation and awkward scenarios in their imagination and in role play with their therapist. Being able to practice this over and over again in a safe environment means confrontation and assertiveness is much easier in real life.

7. Progressive muscle relaxation 

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a deep relaxation technique that has been effectively used to control stress and anxiety. It is a tension and release exercise of the muscles. Evidence suggests PMR helps with insomnia and improves our quality of sleep if performed before bed. 

I also use a form of tension release with my clients that requires simply imagining the tensing and releasing of the muscles which means it can be performed discretely anyway and everywhere without anyone knowing.

8. Work with a therapist 

It is important to talk about what you are experiencing but sometimes we can offload a little too much on to our friends and family. While they will want to help you, these relationships will not flourish and will be put under strain if you are always just offloading on them. A therapist is trained to listen and give advice and it is important to not treat our friends and family as our therapist.

9. Protect your overall wellbeing

Ensure that you are eating well, getting regular exercise and taking care of your physical health.

10. Take a holiday 

It’s time to use those holidays and take a vacation. If your work or manager makes it hard for you to take a break use your assertiveness skills to ensure you get the time you deserve. Everything will still be there when you get back. If it is an inappropriate time to take a vacation such as a project is just about to launch, simply book in a date that works with your boss and be assertive and ensure it is not moved for ANY reason.

Hypnotherapy is a very mechanical and practical form of therapy that allows you to build a toolbox of techniques to manage the impact of burnout and improve overall wellbeing.

If you feel you are experiencing more than burnout or stress or you are feeling completely overwhelmed it is important to always consult with your GP.

Hayley Stevens is a verified welldoing.org hypnotherapist in Mayfair, London and online

Further reading

Why you need to set boundaries

How to identify your values and what you want from your career

Does your life need a spring clean?

Thinking about quitting your job? Ask yourself these questions

How to say no politely and get your time back