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How to Recognise & Overcome Burnout

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

Stress. We use the term negatively most of the time, even though stress is what has kept us alive as humans for thousands of years. It's a biological trigger that tells us when we're in danger and at risk of death; prompting us to take action - to flight, fight, freeze or fawn.

I daresay that in prehistoric times this stress was fairly infrequent and usually terminal. For example: imagine running into a sabre-toothed tiger. Huge stress caused by a high risk of death, with only a couple of possible outcomes. Your body needs to quickly prepare to act, so it dumps a load of adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream.

The trouble is, although the human body is an incredibly complex work of biological art, it is also a bit simple. Think 'Ralph Wiggum' simple.

It can't tell the difference between a real situation that puts us at risk of death and the frustrating daily messages and events we experience in our modern lives. Your body treats both the same way.

This biological stress response might happens hundreds of times a day, leading to an over-load of stress hormones such as cortisol, which our bodies are simply not designed to withstand.

It's something we should all be concerned about, as high levels of cortisol can cause irreparable damage and leave a lasting impact on your life. It can even lead to serious physical conditions such as diabetes.

We all experience stress at work; deadlines, time pressure, long hours, frustrating meetings, unreasonable demands, poor relationships with colleagues or managers. Most of the time this feeling is short-lived and disappears with some simple adjustments. Or maybe you learn to manage your stress using a range of positive coping techniques, such as exercise, talking to friends or doing activities you enjoy.

But, when work stress doesn't improve and becomes chronic, it can lead to burnout.

Burnout is a term used to describe a state of complete mental, physical and emotional exhaustion caused by prolonged or chronic work stress.

People experiencing burnout often describe feeling disengaged from their work, a complete lack of motivation and caring, no hope that their situation will change and a complete loss of enjoyment in life.

The tricky part is, that unlike stress, you may not even notice burnout when it happens and the consequences can impact all areas of your life, including your physical health.

It is important to recognise burnout and take prompt action to combat it. Here are some of the classic signs of burnout:

  • Every work day feels like a bad day.

  • You feel exhausted all the time.

  • You can't summon the energy to care about your work or home-life.

  • You have no motivation or energy to complete tasks.

  • Your work tasks feel overwhelming, dull or boring.

  • You feel like nothing you do is appreciated.

  • You believe nothing you do will make a difference .

  • You feel like you aren't competent at your job.

In simple terms, if you feel completely mentally and physically exhausted, start to hate your job, and question your capability to do your work, you may be at risk of burnout.

What can you do tackle burnout?

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to tackle the signs of burnout. They are presented below in our 5 R's model.

1. Recognise the signs

The first step to tackling burnout is recognising the signs and taking positive action. It

doesn't matter whether you believe yourself to be at risk or you have experienced burnout for a while, now is the time to act.

There are lots of options for support and practical actions you can take to support your recovery. It's important to mention at this point that you may want to speak to your GP about how you are feeling to find out what additional support options are available to you.

2. Re-connect for support

Nothing beats opening up and talking to someone about what you're experiencing.

Research shows that connecting with other people is a core way to boost happiness and wellbeing. It doesn't matter if the person you talk to can't fix your problem. Just opening up to someone who can listen empathetically and non-judgmentally can relieve stress and generate a sense of calm.

3. Re-frame the way you work

Chronic stress and burnout can prevent you from seeing the good aspects of your job and can lead to cynical thoughts and despondency. Looking for and listing the positives (even if it is only speaking to colleagues initially) can help to transform how you think about your work and can create a sense of purpose, meaning and control.

So, think about how your job helps others, who you enjoy interacting with and what you would miss if you weren't there. If you can't find any positives, it may be that a break from work will help you gain clarity on the situation. Possibly, a complete change of direction is needed.

4. Re-evaluate your priorities

Sometimes we get so caught up in the motions of daily life that we forget about our dreams, hopes and priorities. Take some time and think about whether there is something you might be missing. Is there some long forgotten goal or dream you would like to pursue? Maybe there's something you've wanted to do or achieve since childhood?

This can be a good time to work out what makes you truly happy and then make time to do more of those things.

5. Relax and re-charge

Finally, make sure you look after your wellbeing. Finding activities that make you feel relaxed can help overcome your bodies stress response. Try exercise, yoga, meditation, breathing, spending time with loved ones or take a walk in nature to encourage the release of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins; the 'happy' hormones.

Don't underestimate the impact a good nights sleep can have on mood and energy levels. Making an effort to get at least 8 hours of sleep a night can significantly improve your mental health and wellbeing. For top sleep tips, check out my article: Sleep Like A Baby.

Also consider what you are eating. It's tempting when you feel low to head for comfort foods such as carbs, sugary cakes and fattening desserts. Unfortunately, these can also make you feel lethargic or overstimulated and hyperactive. Try to eat healthy, whole, nourishing food that makes you feel light and energised. There are many food that have been proven to positively impact mental health and wellbeing. Check out this article.

You should now feel confident in spotting the signs of burnout in yourself or others and understand the practical steps you can take to overcome stress at work. As a qualified Positive Psychology Coach and Mental Health First Aider and I support individuals experiencing burnout and organisations looking to raise awareness of mental health and wellbeing at work. Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions or would like further support or training.

NB: If you find that work stress is interfering with your life, please remember that you don't need to go through it alone. Many companies now have Mental Health First Aider's or a designated Human Resources colleague who can help you talk about your options; remember sick leave is not just for physical illnesses. If you aren't sure what to do, you can always arrange an appointment to speak with your GP.


Finally, if you're still feeling frustrated, stressed or fed up with your situation, but you aren't sure what the problem is, get my FREE DOWNLOAD, answer my 5 Key Coaching Questions and find out why (and what to do about it!).



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