The warning signs of burnout: ignore them at your peril

Unmanaged stress has an evil twin – but there are steps you can take to avoid burnout

As the peak holiday season kicks in, a lot of people are badly in need of their summer break. But if you’re so tired that you’re counting down the “sleeps” like a kid to Christmas, it may be worth considering if what you’re feeling is the natural build-up of manageable stress or the precursor to something more serious, like burnout.

Burnout is not about working too many long days. It’s a complex state with emotional, physical and mental undercurrents often underpinned by a sense of not being in control of your working life and not resonating with your job. Add to this task overload, little recognition and poor management and it becomes a toxic cocktail that even the most mentally strong struggle to cope with.

Classic symptoms of burnout include negativity, cynicism, resentment and exhaustion. In most cases, it’s a response to excessive stress over time.

Needless to say, with such a catalogue of corrosive emotions at its disposal, burnout doesn’t confine itself to your working environment. Its influence also has an impact on your home, personal and social lives. Frequent colds, headaches and muscle pain are physical manifestations of the problem while isolating oneself, struggling to make decisions, being short-tempered and turning to food, alcohol or drugs to cope are well recognised behavioural symptoms.


The good news about burnout is that, if you spot the warning signs early, you can stop it in its tracks because it’s cumulative. Really simple measures can help show it the door, including being more sociable with your co-workers rather than less, plugging into a hobby or activity you enjoy, taking daily exercise, eating well, practising some form of deep relaxation and staying away from people whose default setting is to moan and bitch.

Dr Alberto Ribera is senior lecturer in managing people in organisations at IESE (the Barcelona-based business which came joint first in the FT's Global Executive Education programme rankings in 2018) and he was in Dublin recently to address IESE alumni on the topic of peak performance and stress management – tools for executive resilience.


“Numerous studies confirm that stress has much more to do with how we handle situations than with the situations themselves,” he says. “In the workplace, what causes stress for some people can motivate others. For example, giving a presentation at a shareholder meeting can be agonising for some and energising for others. Stress is closely linked to our inner world and our perception of reality, and we can work on our inner ability to face pressure.”

Ribera says one of the best workplace strategies for avoiding burnout is to stop being a people pleaser.

“Say ‘no’ to impossible deadlines that you won’t be able to meet and to employees and colleagues who return work that you’ve delegated to them. Refuse to favour the urgent over the important. Set, respect and defend your priorities,” he says.

Ribera doesn’t have a lot of time for one of the most disruptive features of modern life – multi-tasking – and he’s a big fan of the “off” button on mobile phones and silencing the “ding” that announces the arrival of texts and emails unless relevant to the task at hand.

Rather than improving output, he says multi-tasking has a high cost in terms of “stress, time, accuracy and productivity. Focusing attention on a single task makes it much easier to accomplish successfully.”

Another fact of modern living is the status symbol of being perpetually busy, but what this fails to appreciate is that not everyone can cope with constant levels of intense activity.

“Know yourself and your own limits,” says Ribera, who has a particular interest in mental health and trained as a medical doctor before studying for a PhD in economics. “We’re all human and we all make mistakes. No one is perfect and no one is good at everything. We all get tired. Identify the first signs of stress when they appear and take measures. Ask for help when you need it.”

Ultimately, if you’re overstressed by your job, you need to consider changing it. However, this isn’t always practical. If you have to stay where you are, you need to reframe how you look at what you do. Try to locate value. How is what you’re doing helping others or making life better for someone?

Focus on what you enjoy, even if it’s the chat at break time. Build relationships with co-workers as a good conversation or a shared joke can diffuse stress and relieve monotony. Find satisfaction elsewhere. Focus on your family, on voluntary work or getting really good at something you enjoy. Creativity is powerful weapon to combats stress. Maybe the time has come to discover your inner Picasso.

Red flags for burnout

  • There is no such thing as a good day
  • You're constantly exhausted
  • You've unexplained aches and pains
  • You've lost interest in all the things you used to enjoy
  • You feel helpless, trapped and alone
  • Nothing lifts your spirits
  • Loss of motivation
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • You feel constantly angry, frustrated and resentful
  • The future looks bleak