• Almost 12 million working days are lost each year as the result of work-related stress

  • WHO has recently classified burnout, the result of chronic stress in the work place, as a syndrome

  • If you are experiencing burnout, find a therapist here 

We all might expect work to be stressful, and even exhausting, at times – but at what stage does this become a health-threatening issue? This month, burnout has been officially recognised by WHO as an 'occupational syndrome'. It's hoped that this new definition of burnout as a recognisable syndrome (it was previously classified by WHO as 'a state of vital exhaustion') will help those suffering. 

We spoke to some of our welldoing.org therapists who specialise in burnout to find out more about how this syndrome is affecting people. 

The symptoms of burn out

Different from simple tiredness, burn out is a state of "mental, emotional and physical exhaustion," says therapist Ilana Bakal. "As WHO defines, burnout relates to the working environment, specifically from from long-term involvement challenging and demanding workplace."

We might push ourselves at work in a bid to do our best, to impress our boss, or further our career. But there is a limit to what we can do, and burnout often arises as a failure to recognise these limits. Far from helping us to progress in work, pushing ourselves to the point of burnout impairs our ability to do our job. "People with burnout find themselves in 'survival mode' where the priority is to get through the day on their reduced energy levels, with little left over to 'thrive' or for enjoyment," explains therapist Jacky Francis Walker. 

Beyond the physical symptoms of burnout, this syndrome carries a host of psychological symptoms. "Apathy, self-blame, feelings of being a failure, feeling disconnected from colleagues and friends – and all of these, if left unchecked, can lead to (or worsen) other mental health difficulties like depression," explains Ilana Bakal.

"As with stress, we often lose insight that we are getting caught up in a state of burnout, so others may notice it before we do," says Jacky Francis Walker. So, how can we recognise burnout in ourselves? Try asking yourself the following questions:

  • Has anyone I know asked me to cut back on work?
  • Do I feel angry or irritated by colleagues, clients or patients?
  • Am I spending enough time with people outside of work? Or are my relationships suffering?
  • Do I feel in control of my emotions or do I often lash out?

How can I protect myself from burn out?

"Learning to recognise what causes you to move outside your stress 'window of tolerance', a term coined by the professor of psychiatry Dan Siegal, would be a good starting point," says therapist Susan Tomlinson. "When we are constantly thrown out of this window in the workplace, we are in fight/flight/freeze mode, or using our mammalian brain. When this continues unchecked, our symptoms can vary from person to person, but essentially, we can become exhausted, depleted and therefore burnt out."

Mindfulness is a great tool which can help us learn about our personal triggers. At work this week, why not try and check in with yourself at various points in the day, to see how you've been feeling. Other tools to combat stress include the cornerstones of any healthy lifestyle: enough sleep, good food, exercise, and time outdoors. It may be difficult to convince yourself that you have the time to self-care, but even making small changes can have an impact. We have some great self-care resources here

How therapy can help 

"Ideally, it would be great to see a therapist about your stress levels before you get to burnout but sometimes we unconsciously go too far in one direction before we learn our limits," says therapist Susan Tomlinson

Though burnout may be the presenting issue, it's likely that there are long-term reasons both that you push yourself so hard, and that you handle stress in the way that you do. "Therapy would involve exploring the unconscious thoughts and internal stories that keep you on the path to relentless working," says Susan Tomlinson. "It would also inevitably involve making changes to your behaviour at work and learning what triggers your stress levels, and some practical ways to deal with your symptoms." 

"At times it may feel impossible to discuss your experience of burn out, due to the competitive nature of some working environments," says Ilana Bakal. "Talking to an external, skilled professional, in a confidential space, may help you overcome your symptoms and retrieve some compassion towards yourself."

Further reading

Why do some people get more stressed than others?

How CBT helped me overcome anxiety at work

Work-related mental health issues: how therapy can help

When 'pushing on' stops working