Most people go through periods where they feel tired or unhappy at work. However, if your job leaves you feeling emotionally exhausted, beyond the point of caring, or unable to function normally, you might be experiencing burnout.
Burnout is a common issue that can affect almost anyone in any job. While burnout is usually a work-related problem, it can arise in other settings, such as sport and education.
If it isn’t addressed, burnout can lead to serious difficulties, including problems with your mental and physical health, work, or functioning in daily life. If you’ve been burnt- out in the past, you might be worried about it coming back. The good news is that burnout can be addressed in lots of different ways, whether working at the level of an individual, a team, or an organisation.
What is burnout?
Everyone has bad days at work, and problems with our workload, role, organisation, or personal life can be difficult. For most of us, stress is an unavoidable part of work that comes and goes. In fact, a little stress can sometimes help us focus and perform at our best.
But what if every workday is a bad day? When work-related stress becomes too great or goes on for too long, it can lead to serious problems. ‘Burnout’ describes what happens when we feel so depleted by the stresses of work that we struggle to perform. It’s as if our energy for work is ‘extinguished’ by prolonged stress, leaving us feeling emotionally drained, unmotivated, and ineffective.
Burnout isn’t something that happens overnight – it’s usually caused by a build-up of stressful things happening inside (and sometimes outside) of work. When you reach the point of burnout, you’ll typically experience some of the following symptoms:
Feeling exhausted and drained – emotionally, mentally, and physically.
Becoming more distant, disinterested, or detached from your work.
Finding it difficult to cope with the demands of your job.
Losing interest in your colleagues, customers, or activities outside of work.
Having an increasingly negative, cynical, or pessimistic attitude towards your work.
Struggling to concentrate, remember things, and pay attention.
Feeling less productive, enthusiastic, or effective in your role.
Problems with your mood, sleep, or health (e.g., headaches or stomach pains).
Do any of these signs seem familiar to you? Some psychologists believe that you can experience different degrees of burnout. While some people carry on with ‘mild’ burnout, others struggle with such high levels that they can’t function normally (this is sometimes called ‘severe’ or ‘clinical burnout’). At its most extreme, burnout can make it extremely difficult for you to work at all.
Burnout is usually seen as a work-related problem rather than a mental health condition. This doesn’t mean it isn’t serious: burnout can lead to significant difficulties with your health, mood, relationships, and personal life.
You can separate the effects of burnout into how you might think, how you might feel, and how you might act:
How you might think
Doubting your abilities or your capacity to do your job.
Worrying about your ability to cope, meet demands, and manage your workload.
Believing your work situation cannot or will not change.
Dwelling on the loss of your purpose, lack of energy, and how little you seem to achieve at work.
Brooding over work situations where you felt ineffective, mistreated, or unappreciated.
Planning ways to escape from your job (e.g., taking absences, changing jobs).
How you might feel
Exhausted, extremely tired
Empty, detached, numb
Angry, resentful, irritable
Trapped, helpless, powerless
How you might act
Finding it difficult to put energy into your work.
Distancing yourself from colleagues or customers.
Avoiding, delaying, or giving up on tasks.
Responding dismissively, critically, or insensitively to others.
Losing interest in things outside of work or enjoying them less.
Prioritising work above your own needs (e.g., rest).
Missing work (i.e., absenteeism).
Coping in ways that harm your health (e.g., using alcohol).
What you might pay attention to
How exhausted and depleted you feel.
Negative interactions with the people you work with.
How unrewarding and unproductive your work feels.
Signs that your colleagues are also dissatisfied or burnt-out (or succeeding while you aren’t).
Mismatches between your hopes and the reality of work.
Signs of being treated unfairly or unequally.
Your lack of success or achievements at work.
How your performance compares to others.
What’s the difference between stress and burnout?
While stress is one of the main causes of burnout, the two are quite different. Most people experience stress as being too ‘full’ of tension, pressure, or anxiety. Burnout, however, feels like you’re extremely ‘empty’ of energy, motivation, or hope.
When you are stressed:
Your emotions are heightened - My work makes me feel really tense and under pressure.
You become more active - There is so much that I need to do.
You feel anxious - I worry about how much work I have to get done.
Your work seems meaningful - It’s important that I get these things done.
When you are burnt out:
Your emotions are dulled - I feel numb and detached at work.
You become more withdrawn - I can’t bring myself to do my work.
You feel low - Work leaves me feeling depressed and hopeless.
Your work seems meaningless - I don’t feel like my work matters anymore.
Are you burnt-out?
It’s sometimes difficult to notice burnout, particularly if you’ve been struggling with it for a long time or don’t pay much attention to your own needs. It can also look and feel like depression (although depression is a different type of problem and requires a different kind of treatment).
Answering the questions below can give you an idea of whether it is worth arranging a professional assessment.
1. Does your work leave you feeling exhausted? Yes No
2. Have you lost the energy and enthusiasm you had for your job? Yes No
3. Do you ever appear uncaring, disinterested, or insensitive at work? Yes No
4. Have you started caring less about your clients or colleagues? Yes No
5. Do you think that nothing you do at work makes a difference? Yes No
6. Do you feel frustrated, disappointed, or disillusioned with your job?
7. Are you neglecting yourself (e.g., not taking time to rest, eat, or exercise)? Yes No
8. Have your family, friends, or colleagues noticed a change in your character? Yes No
If you answered ‘yes’ to most of these questions, you may be struggling with burnout. You might find it helpful to speak to your family doctor or a mental health professional about how you are feeling.
What causes burnout?
Burnout doesn’t have a single cause, but there are some things that make you more likely to experience it:
Your job. Work environments play a big role in burnout. If you have a large workload, long hours, or little control over your job, you may be at greater risk. Burnout has also been linked to having conflicting or unclear roles at work, feeling unsupported, and receiving a lack of feedback from others. Professionals who work in ‘people- focused’ jobs (e.g., teachers and medical professionals) are particularly at risk of severe burnout, but burnout is relevant to all types of work.
Your personal life. Problems outside of work can sometimes increase the risk of burnout. These include relationship difficulties, financial worries, caring for a family member, and conflicts between work and family commitments.
Your personality. Some personality traits appear to be related to burnout. If you are the type of person who finds it difficult to cope with stressful events, you doubt your worth or competence, or if you tend to experience more negative emotions and fewer positive emotions, you may be at greater risk of burnout.
Your beliefs. Some research suggests that your beliefs about yourself and your work can affect burnout. For example, one study found that beliefs about needing to meet high personal standards (e.g., perfectionism) were linked to burnout in trainee therapists. Other studies have found a similar link between perfectionism and burnout.
Genetic factors. Research evidence suggests that there may be genes that make you likely to develop emotional problems in general, and the same is probably true of burnout. However, your experiences in and around work are likely to play a bigger role.
What keeps burnout going?
Burnout can be looked at through different lenses. It can be seen as an individual problem, an organisational problem, or a problem in our society. Often, all these perspectives are relevant. This means that there are several ways people with burnout can be helped.
Research studies have shown that cognitive behavioural therapy is one effective treatment for burnout. CBT therapists work a bit like firefighters: while the fire is burning, they’re not so interested in what caused it, but are more focused on what is keeping it going (and what they can do to put it out). Working out what keeps a problem going means that they can address it by tackling the cycles that maintain it.
CBT models of burnout suggest that several things keep burnout going once it starts. These include:
Working in a stressful environment
Burnout doesn’t happen in a vacuum: people get burnout when they work in environments that they find highly stressful. What causes such high levels of stress will vary in different workplaces and from person to person.
Some of the reasons might include being asked to do too much, problems with your role, difficulties with your co-workers, or a mismatch between your hopes for your job and the reality.
If these issues aren’t addressed quickly, they can build up and create considerable stress. When your stress levels become too great or stay high for too long, you eventually reach the point of burnout. It’s a bit like trying to start a fire with damp wood: the more it rains – the more stressors you face at work – the harder it is to catch light.
Unfortunately, burnout can make it difficult to address work-related problems. If you feel exhausted, defeated, pessimistic, or cynical about your job, changing things might seem impossible or a waste of time.
This doesn’t mean that it should be your responsibility to improve your workplace: employers have a duty to protect their staff’s wellbeing (and some work environments are very difficult to change). However, the risk with burnout is that you might resign yourself to a situation that doesn’t meet your needs, and which leaves you feeling constantly exhausted. Unless you make a change, your burnout is likely to continue.
Not being able to recharge
What gives you energy? Your first response might be ‘rest’ or ‘food’, but there’s probably more to it than that. Suppose that your life only consisted of work, food, and rest... Would this fill you with energy and enthusiasm?
For most people, feeling energised involves meeting their basic needs (e.g., eating and sleeping) and doing the things that give them a sense of pleasure, productivity, and purpose. Burnout can get in the way of all these things.
When you’re exhausted, doing more might seem like the last thing you want to do. In fact, you might want to limit your activity because you feel tired, so you can conserve what little energy you have left. This is particularly likely if burnout also affects your sleep (e.g., you’ve started sleeping less or don’t feel refreshed in the morning).
Have you started doing less? Psychologists believe that burnout is not only a result of too much stress, but also too little recovery. In other words, feeling emotionally exhausted might be getting in the way of you doing things that help you recharge (which is usually more than being inactive).
Overcoming burnout involves doing more things that lift your mood and help you to recuperate, aside from rest. Exhaustion might not be the only reason why you find it hard to recover: your response to the pressures of work could also be making it difficult to do things that stop you feeling so depleted, like taking breaks or leaving work on time.
Unfortunately, feeling emotionally exhausted and taking fewer opportunities to recharge can become a vicious cycle: the more exhausted you feel, the less you recuperate. Left unchecked, this imbalance between stress and recovery can leave you feeling increasingly depleted and burnt-out as time goes on.
Coping in unhelpful ways
People cope with stress in different ways. In fact, finding inventive ways to cope with stressful situations is one of the most important abilities we have.
Whenever we find ourselves in a situation that causes us discomfort (for example, physical or emotional pain), our first reaction is to limit the unpleasantness we are experiencing. It’s a very helpful reaction: if you put your hand on a hot stove and didn’t remove it quickly, you’d suffer greatly.
Emotional exhaustion is horrible to experience, so it’s only natural that we try to manage it. Some of the ways that we might try to cope with exhaustion include becoming emotionally detached from our work, avoiding things that add to our exhaustion, and trying to escape from feeling so depleted.
In the long-term, these coping strategies often lead to more problems at work (and maybe in your personal life as well), which adds to your exhaustion.
These strategies can also reduce your sense of accomplishment at work and get in the way of your professional goals. When this happens, you probably feel even more demoralised, fatigued, and unsure about your ability (which might lead you to use these strategies even more).
When your coping strategies become part of the problem, a vicious cycle that maintains your exhaustion can develop.
Having negative thoughts about yourself and your work
Everybody wants to succeed in life. When we feel like we are working towards our professional goals, it can strengthen our sense of direction, worth, and security. So, what happens when our work leaves us feeling depleted, disillusioned, or deeply disappointed?
Burnout can have a big impact on the way that you think about yourself, your work, and your future. When people struggle with emotional exhaustion, they often fall into negative patterns of thinking. These include worry, rumination, and self-criticism.
Worrying involves thinking about things that might happen in the future in a way that makes you feel anxious and afraid. These thoughts often feel uncontrollable, as if they have a life of their own.
Ruminating involves dwelling unpleasant events that have happened in the past. These thoughts are often very preoccupying and difficult to shake off.
Self-criticism involves verbally attacking yourself. People sometimes believe that self- criticism is helpful (e.g., “If I criticise myself, I will learn from my mistakes”), but the truth is that it usually just leaves you feeling sad, anxious, and ashamed.
Worry, rumination, and self- criticism can be very upsetting. They can also be very repetitive: when they start, your mind might feel like a music player that’s stuck in a loop.
It’s important to remember that negative thoughts aren’t always bad or unhelpful, as they can sometimes alert you to danger. They’re like an internal alarm that beeps whenever a threat seems to be around. The problem with worry, rumination, and self- criticism is how persistent they are. When your internal alarm doesn’t stop going off, it only adds to your exhaustion and makes it harder to recuperate.
Psychological treatments for burnout
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for people who are experiencing burnout. It can be provided as a one-to-one therapy, in groups, or alongside other types of help like career counselling or working with employers.
CBT is a popular form of talking therapy. Unlike some other therapies, it is quite structured. After talking things through so your therapist understands your problem, you can expect to set some goals so you both know what you are working towards. At the start of most sessions, you and your therapist will set an agenda so you can both agree on what that session will focus on. It’s best to seek a therapist with experience in working with burnout.
Some of the ‘ingredients’ of effective CBT for burnout can include:
Assessing and monitoring the symptoms of burnout you’re struggling with.
Developing a shared understanding of what keeps your burnout going – this is usually drawn out as a diagram called a ‘formulation’.
Learning about the causes of stress and burnout.
Addressing lifestyle factors that might be playing a role (e.g., sleep difficulties, exercise, alcohol consumption).
Tackling negative thoughts and beliefs that contribute to burnout.
Developing new work-related skills (e.g., communication skills, time-management, or managing conflicts with others).
Creating a plan that helps you maintain your progress and avoid setbacks in the future.
Developing ways to relax.
Engaging in leisure activities that you enjoy and that help you recuperate.
Adapted from "Understanding Burnout" by Psychology Tools
Sally Edwards Counselling
I am a fully qualified counsellor based in Orpington, Kent
I work with clients with problems including: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, identity issues, relationship problems, self-destructive behaviours, self-harm, childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence, domestic abuse, trauma, PTSD, eating disorders and body image problems.
I am easily accessible from local areas near me including Orpington, Bromley, Chislehurst, Petts Wood, Sidcup, Beckenham, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Knockholt, West Wickham, Chelsfield, Swanley and Bexley
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