Are you burnt out?

Chronic fatigue, insomnia, forgetfulness... how to spot the telltale signs - and how to avoid them

“Burnout can be defined as a feeling of helplessness, disillusionment, and complete exhaustion,” says Dublin-based counsellor and psychotherapist Siobhán Murray. “With burnout, problems can seem insurmountable, everything looks bleak, and it’s difficult to muster up the energy to care, let alone do something about your life. The unhappiness and detachment it causes can threaten a person’s job, relationships and health.”

While burnout’s medical diagnosis remains imprecise, what is clear is that a health threat can become of real risk when even doctors are powerless to avoid it.

In May The Irish Times reported that one in three doctors working in Ireland have experienced burnout, according to the National Study of Wellbeing of Hospital Doctors in Ireland. Just 20 per cent of those doctors said they had enough time for family and personal life, while four out of five reported going to work when ill or injured. So, if that's how doctors are "coping" with burnout, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, burnout originally described the consequences when mixing severe stress with noble ideals in the “helping” professions, such as doctors and nurses. Forty years later, it has spread like wildfire to all working ages and most professions, from pressure-quenching careerists to overworked carers, from manual workers to undervalued homemakers.


Yet, according to the US National library of Medicine, there still remains no clear definition of burnout, nor any mutually agreeable means of how it can be diagnosed with clarity or certainty. And while exhaustion is a normal reaction to stress, it’s not necessarily an indicator of any disease or illness. Consequently, unlike other mental health problems, there is no official diagnosis for burnout.

Always on (autopilot) syndrome

According to Murray, professional burnout can cause feelings like having little or no control over your work, a lack of recognition or reward for good work, unclear or overly demanding job expectations, doing work that’s monotonous, or working in a chaotic/ high-pressure environment.

“Meanwhile, personal causes of burnout can be caused by working too much, without enough time for socialising or relaxing, lack of close, supportive relationships, taking on too many responsibilities without enough help from others, or not getting enough sleep,” says Murray, who says she has witnessed a marked increase of burnout cases in the last three years at her practice.

Technology was meant to free us up so we do less, but it's achieved the opposite

“You will hear a lot these days about ‘always-on’ syndrome,” says Alan Lyons, author, psychologist and managing partner of KinchLyons.

“Ironically, technology was meant to free us up so we do less, but it’s achieved the opposite in giving us the sense that we can never be alone. There’s loads of research to show its dampening down levels of our hippocampus in our brains, which is directly linked to empathy, so our social skills are reducing. We introduced such technology to be masters of it, but we’re actually slaves to it,” says Lyons, a qualified coaching psychologist.

“There’s interesting research on millennials, where they feel like they want to be meaningfully involved and make a real contribution, but they get stressed if they can’t make a deep connection to the organisation.

The age of information is over; it's now the age of focus and attention

“What’s interesting is that they score lower than older age groups in independence, which means their decision-making skills and stress tolerance is lower, but it can be hard to believe because millennials can seem to so decisive and confident,” says Lyons.

“The age of information is over; it’s now the age of focus and attention. So many people can’t stay sufficiently focused or pay attention. But why is that? It’s the paradox of choice: there’s so many options, but people are completing less. In the past, people had fewer options and less burnout and people had a greater sense of achievement and satisfaction in completion. Now, so many people can’t prioritise what’s most important other than general busyness.”

On epidemic levels

“I’m seeing burnout walk in the door of my practise, day-in, day-out. It’s on an epidemic level, to be honest, and I’m not sensationalising it. It’s a real problem,” says author and performance coach Jane Downes.

“For me, burnout is that state of mental, emotional and almost physical exhaustion that is brought on by a state of prolonged stress and emotional drainage. This is affecting our mental health. At a basic level, if people aren’t getting through their workload, they’re losing faith and second-guessing themselves.”

Downes, who established her career coaching and training business, Clearview Coaching Group, in 2004, says it’s very often those “all-go” millennials who are putting excessive demands on themselves for outperformance, trying to rise through the ranks quickly while wanting everything working perfectly en route.

“Then there are the older generations who have been working for a very long period of time but the demands are getting greater. Where there is prolonged stress, it leads to burnout. Because if we’re putting absolutely every bit of our lives into work, we’re not looking after our mental, social, emotional, physical or spiritual needs.”

Down but not out: the burn marks to watch out for

Burnout is a state of prolonged, chronic stress. According to Florida-based Dr Sherrie Bourg Carter, psychologist and author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, it can lead to three categories of symptoms: physical and emotional exhaustion; cynicism and detachment; and, lastly, feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

According to Bourg Carter, the leading signs of physical and emotional exhaustion include:

  • chronic fatigue
  • insomnia
  • forgetfulness (or impaired concentration and attention)
  • increased illness
  • loss of appetite
  • anxiety
  • depression or anger

Concurrently, the physical symptoms can include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting or headaches, all of which should be medically assessed.

Unsurprisingly, the hallmarks of cynicism and detachment include loss of enjoyment, pessimism, isolation and detachment, while the warning signs of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment may feature feelings of apathy and hopelessness, increased irritability and lack of productivity and poor performance.

How does burnout differ from depression?

Both share the sad spectres of extreme exhaustion, low spirits and reduced performance. However, burnout is mostly work-related. Depression, on the other hand, will likely generate negative thoughts and feelings about most or all aspects and areas of life, as well spiralling the sufferer into ever-lower self-esteem, hopelessness or even suicidal thoughts or tendencies.

As the US National library of Medicine succinctly differentiates, “people with burnout don’t always have depression. But burnout may increase the risk of someone getting depression.”

Five steps to help avoid burnout

1. Respect all four dimensions

According to Alan Lyons, author, psychologist and managing partner of KinchLyons, if we’re to stave-off burnout and look after ourselves, we need to look after our four dimensions: our spiritual, physical, mental and social/emotional well-being.

“It’s like the four legs of a chair, because if one of them is out of synch, it affects the others.

2. Differentiate between competencies and strengths

You need to strive for work-life integration, more so than balance, and ask yourself: “are my values aligned to what I work at?” Because, “you could work 100 hours a week and not necessarily have burnout, if there’s a strong sense of purpose and meaning in what you do”, says Lyons.

“Remember, people can tell you what your competencies are, but not what your strengths are. Nobody really knows your strengths as you do, which is something that you are not only competent at but makes you feel good. Aligning what makes you feel good with what you’re competent at is very important in avoiding burnout,” says Lyons.

“When you’re burnt out you become very problem-focused and start to notice everything that is wrong with your life. It’s a constant internal narrative that builds like a wave until it’s utterly overwhelming. You don’t feel like you’ve got choices, or have any input control, when in fact you’ve got plenty.”

3. Be grateful for the little things

Lyons says one step of many in tackling burnout is trying to become more solution-focused, as well as becoming aware of and grateful of the things we take for granted each day.

“All the research suggests that we’re capable of developing a more optimistic mindset if we choose to. When you’re being pessimistic, reactive and negative, you start to catastrophise and take everything personally.

“Optimistic people tend to respond to setbacks as interpreting that as being less personal, less severe and less permanent. You can start to develop this by noticing the change you want and start amplifying it. Change is happening all the time, but when you’ve got burnout you feel it isn’t and that you cannot move.”

4. Say ‘no’ more often

According to author and performance coach Jane Downes, rather than blaming the organisation, we’ve got to take control of our time management and career development and better understand the triggers that are causing us such stress. Rather than necessarily getting a new job, it’s more of a case of self-management, while understanding the signs and symptoms of burnout before they manifest.

“We need to get on top of our life by prioritising our needs, work on our focus and be aware of catastrophising what really are small things in the bigger picture. We need to watch our mindset and the negative thought-stream running in our heads. Also, don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ more often,” says Downes.

“We’ve got be able to switch off technology at the end of our working day and week. It’s very tempting to simply blame technology for all this, but we’re the one turning on the button.”

5. Take regular exercise

“In the face of burnout, it’s not always simply the best idea to up-sticks and get a new job,” says counsellor and psychotherapist Siobhan Murray.

“I’d be very much a firm believer that if you’re not able to resolve the issues around your current job, then that’s what you will bring to your new job. So, ultimately the goal is getting that chaotic lifestyle under control.

“Start by setting boundaries: don’t go in every morning at 7.30. Learn to say ‘no’ to work demands by relating all else you have on your plate at that time. And also, take breaks from technology. People say, ‘I can’t,’ but you can: you can make that choice.”

Murray is also a strong advocate for regular, moderate exercise: you may struggle with energy to begin with, but within weeks your energy levels will significantly boost, lifting your mindset with it.