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What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion, resulting from prolonged stress at work or from working in a physically or emotionally demanding environment for a long time. The lines between work and life have become increasingly blurred; especially since the Covid-19 pandemic shifted a large proportion of the workforce to working from home. 

Burnout is characterised by: exhaustion, cynicism (you no longer identify with the job), and feelings of reduced professional ability.

While burnout is associated with work-related stress and its consequences, stress from other areas of your life can contribute to burnout. Any tendency towards having an all-or-nothing personality or being a perfectionist can also be contributing factors.

In 2019, burnout received more attention by being recognised by the World Health Organisation as an 'occupational phenomenon'. 

Symptoms of burnout

1. Physical symptoms

Chronic stress may lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, skin complaints and weight fluctuations.

2. Emotional symptoms

People with burnout may feel negative, pessimistic, depressed, tired, lacking in enthusiasm. 

3. Performance-related symptoms

Difficulty concentrating may make it more challenging to complete work tasks at all, or to the same standard as before. You might feel yourself withdrawing from your responsibilities and isolating yourself from your colleagues. 

4. Workplace symptoms

People suffering from burnout may feel detached from their work and/or colleagues. You may feel like you hate your job, and/or that your job is increasingly demanding or stressful. 

How therapy can help

Burnout won't necessarily go away on its own, and if the early symptoms are ignored it can worsen or create other mental health difficulties, such as anxiety and depression.

"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."

We have therapists and counsellors on welldoing.org who specialise in work-related stress and burnout.

Find a therapist for burnout here

Further reading

6 tips to overcome lockdown burnout

Can you get burnout working from home?

When 'bouncing back' and 'pushing on' stop working

What is burnout?

Last updated 29 March 2022

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