What is burnout?

The term ‘burnout’ was first used in the seventies by German-American psychologist Dr Herbert Freudenberger to describe the symptoms of exhaustion professionally. He published a book entitled, The High Cost of High Achievement and defined burnout as: “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”

If you feel exhausted, start to dislike your job and feel less capable at work, you are showing signs of burnout. The negative effects of burnout can be felt in every area of your life, including home, work and social life. Anyone who feels overworked and undervalued can experience burnout, from an office worker to a stay-at-home mum.

It is only since 2019 that burnout became an official medical condition. It was added to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) handbook, the International Classification of Diseases, which is used to guide medical professionals in diagnosing diseases.

What are the symptoms of burnout?

Burnout is a gradual process, which can creep up on you. If you notice the early symptoms and actively reduce your stress, you can prevent facing a breakdown.

Physical signs:

  • Feeling tired and drained
  • Lowered immune system and frequently catching illnesses
  • Headaches and muscle pain
  • Change in appetite and sleep habits

Emotional signs:

  • Self-doubt
  • Feeling helpless, trapped and defeated
  • Feeling detached and alone
  • Loss of motivation
  • Decreased satisfaction and sense of achievement

Behavioural signs:

  • Withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Isolation from others
  • Procrastination and finding it difficult to complete tasks
  • Skipping work, arriving late and leaving early
  • Using food, drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.

What’s the difference between stress and burnout?

Burnout may occur from being overly-stressed but it isn’t the same as too much stress. Stress usually involves too many pressures that are both physically and mentally demanding. A stressed person may still feel that if they can get everything under control that they will feel better.

Burnout, however, means feeling mentally drained, lacking motivation and beyond caring. A burnt-out person may not see any hope of positive change in their situation.

What can you do to help feelings of being burnt out?

The following steps may help alleviate symptoms of burnout:

Reach out to friends and family - opening up to others will help ease the burden. Spending time with loved ones or friends can be positive and enjoyable.

Take a break - whilst a holiday may not be an option, you can take a weekend off to try and relax at home.

Eat well - people respond differently to stress and burnout by either bingeing and overeating as a way to cope or, on the other hand, by stopping eating altogether. It’s important to fuel your body with a balanced diet of organic meats, fish, vegetables and fruits. Minimise processed foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates as these lead to a crash in mood and energy. Setting timers on your phone can help to remind you to eat something.

Sleep - generally, the more burned out that you feel, the more sleep you are going to need. Getting into a routine of switching off from your phone and Netflix and going to bed a little earlier can help.

Exercise - it may be hard to motivate yourself to move at first but starting with something simple such as walking, especially during your lunch hour at work, still counts. It gets easier the more often that it becomes a habit.

Look for the positives about your job - you might be at the point where everything feels hopeless, but it’s important to try and think about what you do enjoy about your work. Try to find some value in your work. Changing your attitude towards your job will help in gaining a sense of purpose and control.

Set goals - if you are really unhappy in your work environment, you can set yourself the goal of slowly looking for a new job. Making small lists of things that you would like to achieve for the week - exercise, eating well - will get you into good habits.


If you are feeling depressed, stressed, anxious and/ or burnt out, you can book an appointment to talk with one of our highly-experienced psychologists or psychiatrists now. 

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