Running on empty: How to prevent burnout

Burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion, occurring when one feels overwhelmed and emotionally drained. Individuals experiencing burnout can find it difficult to meet their personal needs and the needs and wants of others. Small demands that they could usually manage can leave people feeling teary, emotional, irritable, tired, and either unresponsive or overly responsive.

Recently described as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organisation, burnout is included in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases. WHO lists a number of the characteristics of the condition, including feelings of exhaustion, increased mental distance from a work environment and role, and reduced results in the workplace.  Listed under “Factors influencing health status or contact with health services”, burnout is not recognised as an official illness, but it is attributed as a reason for which many people contact health services.

While all workers across a number of industries can experience burnout, those at the top of the ladder (ie. CEOs and business owners) can be at increased risk. These workers have a large catalogue of varied responsibilities, wear a number of hats within the business environment and tend to have maximum accountability to other stakeholders. Ad hoc and/or extended hours can also increase the risk of exhaustion, and, particularly in the case of business owners and entrepreneurs, there is an additional emotional and mental investment in the everyday activities within a business, making it harder to switch off and create an appropriate work-life balance.

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The development of technology – and the resulting reliance that we have on modern-day tools – can make it increasingly difficult to switch off from work responsibilities. The products and services that maximise ease of communication and increase productivity also allow us to be available outside our regular defined office hours. This results in fluid boundaries between work and home environments, making it difficult to manage client and internal expectations, particularly in an expanding global environment. Many professionals are setting meetings, taking phone calls, and answering emails during allocated family or down time, and find it difficult to switch off and say no.

Organisational psychologist Dr Sarah Cotton comments: “It is so important for people to have what is termed ‘off-job recovery’ time whereby they are able to switch off from work … especially given that we know that the effects of holidays can fade very quickly.”

High levels of responsibility, a lack of work-life balance, and a lack of connection and social support can leave workers running on empty.  Mental exhaustion, and limited emotional and physical energy, can also lead to poor decision-making, which is of particular concern for business owners and those in management roles. Anecdotal evidence suggests that high achievers can also be more susceptible to burnout; they generally have higher expectations of themselves and others, and find it difficult to delegate responsibilities and utilise available resources that may help them to minimise stress.  

Factors that can lead to increased risk of burnout include:

·      Unsustainable / unmanageable workloads;

·      Lack of control over work and work responsibilities;

·      Lack of support from the organisation or direct manager;

·      Lack of recognition or feeling unappreciated;

·     Lack of clarity in your role – no defined boundaries around responsibilities and/or expected work hours;

·      Misalignment of values – participating in work that clashes with personal values;

·     Feelings of incompetence – which can come with a lack of leadership and training within a business.

Warning signs to look for that may indicate burnout include exhaustion and reduced performance in the work environment and at home. Increased levels of resentment and disconnection can also lead to a change in general habits – sufferers may no longer participate in activities that used to be of interest. Poor physical health, including disrupted sleep patterns and general feelings of unwellness, can also make it difficult to function in everyday tasks. Burnout can result in irritability, lack of motivation, and minimised physical health. Cotton states that many individuals who experience burnout report a lack of emotional and physical energy, and a feeling of numbness.

Prevention strategies are considered to be the most effective approach for addressing workplace burnout, and there are a number of things that workers can do to minimise the risk:      

·       Recognise the importance of a work-life balance ensuring that you get some recovery time;

·       Prioritise your time.  Identify what is important, what can wait, and what can be delegated to others;

·       Self-advocacy.  This can be difficult, however thinking about the importance of your mental and emotional health may help you advocate better for yourself;

·       Lead by example:  utilise any flexible leave policies and opportunities that your company may provide;

·       Remain aware of resources that are available through your workplace – EAP, counselling, etc. Consider making these resources available if they aren’t already.

Frontline management can have significant influence over the elements that create burnout. Individuals in management or support positions can decrease their own risks – and that of their co-workers – by becoming aware of the signs, and learning how to respond appropriately if they appear.

Psychologist Justine Alter points to the number of resources that are available online, and recommends that anyone who has any concerns regarding their physical and mental health speak to their GP. “Burnout can come hand in hand with certain roles and increased responsibility, occurring across all industries.  What is really important is that we recognise its prevalence – especially in the higher levels of management and business owners, and talk about, and minimise the risks.”

Rachell Bugeja is project administrator at Transitioning Well, which helps shape and support parental leave, work-life and mature-age transitions and provides services to fit the needs of organisations and employees. Visit:



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