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how to spot and avoid burnout

how to spot and avoid burnout

We often can't tell or don't know when we're burning out but it's good to know the signs of when it could be happening

Sometimes we work too much, make too many commitments and life becomes overwhelming. We start burning out, tasks can become increasingly complex and we need to know when to switch off. Sometimes it takes specific indicators to make you stop, get help or wind down.

Burnout is a complex condition arising from work related, personal and lifestyle factors gradually accumulating over time. Prolonged exposure to chronic stress leads to physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. It’s not just feeling tired or stressed temporarily – it’s a deep-seated and debilitating condition that can affect every aspect of an individual’s life and overall wellbeing. 

It doesn’t go away independently and can worsen if unaddressed, leading to physical and mental health issues. Understanding the underlying causes and recognising the signs of burnout is essential to prevent and manage it effectively. 

Symptoms of burnout

You might not know it’s happening or it might be on the horizon. You may be exhausted already but can’t identify precisely what it is. Burnout can manifest in various combinations of physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms. 

Here are some common physical signs:

  • Persistent tiredness and lack of energy
  • Frequent headaches or muscle pain
  • Insomnia or disrupted sleep patterns
  • Weakened immune system and increased susceptibility to illnesses

Emotional signs of burnout could include: 

  • Feelings of cynicism and detachment from everything in the world
  • Reduced sense of accomplishment and self-worth
  • Increased irritability and frustration
  • Mood swings, anxiety, and depression
  • Feeling overwhelmed even by simple situations or tasks 

Behavioural changes you could notice when burning out include:

  • Withdrawal from work or social interactions
  • Decreased productivity and performance or taking a long time to complete tasks 
  • Neglecting responsibilities and deadlines
  • Increased use of unhealthy coping mechanisms (substance use, overeating)

Burnout in the work environment 

Burning out is often misunderstood, stigmatised and disregarded, but it can become costly to the health and wellbeing of the workforce and their overall productivity. 

Whether you’re an employee or a manager, knowing how to change your workplace to help people take time out and feel less overwhelmed is good. 

Often, employees need to learn what options are available, what they can or who they can go to if they want to open up about burning out. You can contribute to your colleague’s wellbeing by recognising their burnout symptoms. They often exhibit decreased engagement, heightened stress levels and compromised performance. That affects their wellbeing and has a ripple effect on everyone else in the workplace as lowered morale and strained teamwork become evident. 

Burnout and stress at work cost the UK economy £28 billion yearly and cause 23.3 million sick days (AXA). From the employer’s perspective, fostering a healthy work culture and allocating resources to prevent burnout helps reduce costs and turnover, improve company reputation, attract and retain top talents.

If you’re an employer or business looking to improve mental health and wellbeing within your workforce, request a free consultation with the mental health training team to discuss your organisation’s needs and how it can benefit from a bespoke workshop. Read our resource on good workplace wellbeing to get some tips you can introduce immediately.

Amidst the cost-of-living crisis, over a quarter (26%) of Scottish workers experienced increased stress from taking on extra work, while 29% felt that the pressure of mandated office return contributed to burnout in the past year.

Read more from Mental Health UK

Causes of burnout 

Despite the general opinion about burnout being a work-related condition, lifestyle and personal factors can contribute to burnout. 

Work-related causes include:

  • Being constantly overwhelmed with tasks and responsibilities
  • Feeling powerless over decisions and tasks
  • Facing pressures to meet unrealistic goals
  • Struggling with insufficient tools, time, or support
  • Struggling with remote working
  • Feeling misaligned with the role’s requirements and responsibilities
  • Not receiving acknowledgement or appreciation for efforts.

Lifestyle factors include:

  • Failing to prioritise rest, nutrition, and leisure
  • Consistently needing to get more quality sleep
  • Not engaging in regular exercise to reduce stress – check out our resource on workouts that can boost your mood
  • Isolating oneself from support networks. Samaritans and Breathing Space are phone lines you can call to chat with someone if you’re feeling lonely and in fear of burning out. Our Advice and Support Service can signpost you to relevant support in your area that most fit your needs to combat your isolation and loneliness
  • Financial troubles? Contact Mental Health and Money Advice team
  • Caring for others? Read our resource on help for carers to establish your rights and how you can get support if you’re caring for somebody with a mental health condition
  • Turning to substances or unhealthy habits to cope.

Personal traits and tendencies contributing to burnout

  • Striving for flawlessness and setting unrealistically high standards
  • Taking on more tasks and responsibilities than manageable
  • Inability to say no and establish limits
  • Failing to express needs and concerns effectively
  • Harbouring self-doubt, self-criticism or imposter syndrome.

Stages of burnout

  1. Honeymoon phase: you feel enthusiastic about your work and you feel you must prove yourself.
  2. The onset of stress: stress and excitement coexist. You work harder and harder and work starts interfering with your personal life.
  3. Chronic stress: persistent stress and lack of balance. You begin to neglect your needs by skipping meals, workouts and social interactions.
  4. Denial: ignoring problems and pushing harder. You dismiss conflicts and blame others or situations.
  5. Overwhelming energy depletion: exhaustion sets in. You realise you’ve lost focus on what truly matters. Instead of confronting it, you adjust your moral values to prioritise work.
  6. Denial of new problems: after changing your moral compass, you blame time and work pressure for your stress. 
  7. Withdrawal: pullback from social, family and work life. You start to isolate yourself and may escape through guilty pleasures.
  8. Impact on others: your behaviour changes become visible and harm your relationship with friends and loved ones.
  9. Depersonalisation: you don’t feel like yourself and are disconnected from your body. Nothing has value for you and you become negative or indifferent towards your work.
  10. Inner emptiness: a deep feeling of hollowness and further reliance on harmful coping mechanisms to try and fill this gap. You might have thoughts about quitting your job or changing your career.
  11. Depression: you feel emotionally and mentally drained. Your work has no meaning for you and you’re lost.
  12. Full burnout syndrome: you’ve reached a breaking point. A full collapse of physical and emotional health. Medical help is necessary.

These stages illustrate the gradual progression of burnout, from initial enthusiasm to potential recovery or severe collapse. The process isn’t linear; not all 12 elements must apply, and a person can go back and forth between early stages.

Recognising symptoms of burnout and knowing the mechanism of each stage can help in early prevention and navigating the challenges.

Strategies to avoid and manage burnout

Burnout can be avoided and stopped by applying multiple strategies which target the previously mentioned work and lifestyle-related factors.
If you’re worried about burnout, here is a list of ways to develop healthy work-to-life balance, work hygiene and self-care practice.

set clear boundaries

The first step to push back burnout is establishing clear distinctions between work and personal time. Those could include simple rules like finishing work on time, not taking calls during your break or annual leave, or not reading emails outside your working hours.

prioritise self-care

Just like your phone, your body and mind require time to recharge. Activities such as exercise, relaxation and hobbies replenish your energy reserves and enhance your overall wellbeing. It is worth exploring mindfulness practices to stay present and handle stress.

take breaks

Remember to take breaks throughout the day. These can be short, like a five-minute walk to make coffee or a stroll around the block for some fresh air. Disconnect from technology during these breaks to give your mind a chance to relax. And don’t forget to take your annual leave!

build and cultivate relationships

Building a strong support network helps you to share your experiences, seek guidance and receive emotional help. Connecting with others reduces isolation and creates a sense of belonging, even if it’s just a cup of coffee and a nice chat.

healthy habits

Regular exercise, balanced nutrition and sufficient sleep strengthen physical and mental resilience. Introducing healthy habits promote long-term wellbeing, making you less susceptible to the accumulation of stress.

work adjustments

Consider discussing flexible working with your superiors or altering roles and responsibilities that align better with your strengths and interests. Look for learning opportunities to increase your skills, build confidence and explore other paths.

contact

Our Advice and Support Service is open Monday to Friday, 10 am to 4 pm, where advisers can signpost you to local support that most fits your needs, including our Change Mental Health services. We offer initial advice on money worries and help to deal with emergencies.

Contact 0808 8010 515, email us at advice@changemh.org or fill out the enquiry form on the Advice and Support Service page.

Contact our Training team to book a free consultation about the mental health needs of your organisation or learn more about our mental health training courses.

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