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The danger of burnout

Celéste Olivier
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Have you ever (or overhead one of your employees complaining about) felt that every day is a bad day or caring about your work or home life is a waste of energy? Are you exhausted all the time? Do you feel nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated? If you, or one of your employees, answered 'yes' to one or more of these questions, you might be on the brink of a burnout. The good news is that this can situation can be avoided if you incorporate the principles below into your employee wellness programme.

Have you ever (or overhead one of your employees complaining about) felt that every day is a bad day or caring about your work or home life is a waste of energy? Are you exhausted all the time? Do you feel nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated? If you, or one of your employees, answered 'yes' to one or more of these questions, you might be on the brink of a burnout. The good news is that this can situation can be avoided if you incorporate the principles below into your employee wellness programme.

What is burnout?

'Burnout' is often described as a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet the constant demands placed on you.

Burnout reduces your productivity and drains you energy. Unlike normal stress, burnout eventually leads to you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical and resentful. Eventually, you may feel as if you have nothing left to give.

It's normal to go through some phases of feeling bored, overloaded or even unappreciated at work But if you feel like this most of the time, you may be suffering from burnout.

When you experience burnout, you may feel more aggressive, angry, tired and extremely cynical. People who experience burnout often endure the following stages of burnout:

  1. Emotional exhaustion and physical depletion,
  2. Depersonalisation or loss of empathy and compassion fatigue, and
  3. Being more aggressive, angry, tired and cynical.

What are the causes of burnout?

Work-related causes of burnout

  • Feeling like you have little or no control over your work,
  • Lack of recognition or reward for work done,
  • Unclear job expectations,
  • Monotonous or unchallenging work, and
  • Chaotic or high-pressure environment.

Lifestyle causes of burnout

  • Working too much, without time for relaxing or socialising,
  • Being too many things to too many people,
  • Taking on too many responsibilities,
  • Not getting enough sleep, and
  • Lack of close, supportive relationships

Personality traits that contribute to burnout

  • Perfectionistic tendencies,
  • Pessimistic view of yourself and the world,
  • Need to be in control, and
  • Type A personality.

What are the symptoms of burnout?

If you identified with some of the above causes, you might also find you've experienced some of the symptoms associated with burnout. Common symptoms of burnout include:

  • Depleted physical energy: Prolonged stress can be physically draining, causing you to feel tired much of the time or no longer having the energy you once did. Getting out of bed to face another day gets more difficult.
  • Emotional exhaustion: You feel impatient, moody, inexplicably sad, or just get frustrated more easily than you normally would. You feel like you can't deal with life as easily as you once could.
  • Lowered immunity to illness: When stress levels are high for a prolonged period of time, your immune systems suffers. This could increase your susceptibility to colds, flu and minor illnesses.
  • Less investment in interpersonal relationships: Withdrawing somewhat from interpersonal relationships is another possible sign of burnout. You may feel like you have less to give, less interest in having fun, or just less patience with people.
  • Increasingly pessimistic outlook: When experiencing burnout, it's harder to get excited about life. Because optimism is a great buffer for stress, those suffering from burnout find it harder to pull out of their rut than they normally would.
  • Increased absenteeism and inefficiency at work: When experiencing job burnout, it gets more difficult to get out of bed daily and face more of what just seems unbearably overwhelming.

How can you prevent burnout?

If you – or any of your employees, can relate to any of the signs and symptoms related to burnout, you need to start changing the way you do things. Some suggestions, which you can incorporate into your employee wellness programme, include:

  • Start your day with a relaxing ritual,
  • Adopt healthy eating, exercise and sleeping habits,
  • Set boundaries,
  • Take a daily break from technology, and
  • Learn how to manage stress.

Is it possible to recover from burnout?

Research has proved that the best way to deal with burnout is what is called the 'Three R' Approach. This requires you to:

  1. Recognise: Be aware of the symptoms of burnout.
  2. Reverse: Undo the damage by learning to manage stress better and seek support.
  3. Resilience: Building your resilience by taking care of yourself becomes imperative when recovering from burnout.

It's a good idea to incorporate this approach into your employee wellness programme to ensure that your staff members are able to deal with burnout – before it's too late.


Celéste Olivier is the EAP manager at Kaelo Consulting. She has a BA in social work from the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) and an MA in occupational social work from the University of the Witwatersrand.


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