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What is Burnout?

23 February 2022, by i-sopod

As a society we often normalise extreme levels of stress, glorifying being constantly busy and overworked, allowing the situation to go on for far too long.

Culturally, we have made real progress in awareness and education around wellbeing and mental health. However, an increasing number of people are googling ‘signs of burnout’ of ‘every day. Why is that?

Burnout manifests as mental, emotional and sometimes physical exhaustion, caused by chronic stress. The condition is most commonly linked to work related stress, but that’s not all it can be triggered by; ongoing, difficult and stressful situations in your personal life can also induce burnout.

For how common it is these days, burnout is actually a pretty new phenomenon. The term was first coined by Herbert Freudenberger, in his 1974 book ‘The High Cost of High Achievement’. The psychologist defined burnout as:

‘The extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.’

What are the main causes of burnout?

Some are less obvious than others…

  • You’re overworked. Burnout is often caused by a toxic work environment, long hours with no work-life balance. How and when did our relationship with work get so toxic? Jonathan Malesic suggests society’s descent towards burnout began when we allowed work to become our sense of purpose in life.
  • Unhealthy thought patterns. Studies show that people who are inclined towards perfectionism and pessimism are more likely to face burnout. Negative, critical thinking – towards ourselves and our achievements – can push us beyond our healthy limits.
  • Caring mainly for someone else. Whether as a parent, carer, or as a partner, there are relationship dynamics which can sap us of energy if we’re not taking proper care of ourselves.

What causes burnout at work?

Not all high stress jobs necessarily lead to burnout. So what is it that tips people over the edge? These are the 5 main toxic factors in a work environment to look out for:

  • Overwhelming pressure. Being set wild deadlines which you’re heavily pressurised to meet, as unrealistic as they might be.
  • Lack of support. It’s important to know that you have someone you can speak to when the going gets tough at work. Employees who feel well supported by management are 70% less likely to experience burnout.
  • Unclear role. When there’s little organisational structure, or resources are tight, or your role is just quite… fluid… you can be lumped with a lot more responsibility than one person is able to manage.
  • Immense workload. Having nightmares that you’re drowning in emails? You, like a huge percentage of workers, are most likely totally overloaded. An unmanageable workload can lead to burnout, as you constantly struggle to keep your head above water.
  • Bad treatment. Whether it’s endless criticism from a manager or colleague, hostility, prejudice or penalisation, the negative vibes at your workplace are likely to rub off and have a detrimental effect on your wellbeing.

Signs of burnout

The tell-tale indications of burnout appear holistically:


Digestive issues and abdominal pains, migraines and perpetual headaches, and lethargy can all be linked to burnout.

  • Feeling drained and unable to cope with life.
  • No energy to get anything done.
  • Feeling empty and hopeless.
  • Experiencing compassion fatigue; a numbness to the feelings of others, and an inability to feel or display empathy.

Feeling negative about everything, and having difficulty focusing. No creativity, feelings of apathy.

Dealing with burnout

Unlike the term itself suggests, burnout isn’t a permanent, irreversible state. When you realise you’ve reached burnout, there are things you can do to recover, and it all starts with slowing down and asking some questions…

Start by figuring out what the root cause was for you. Maybe it’s obvious, maybe you’ve hated your job for years, and always get a sense of dread when you walk in or log on on Mondays.

Or maybe it’s a culmination of different stressful life situations that has led you to burn out.

If it’s work that‘s the main problem, see what can be done to improve the situation:

  • Have a chat with your manager or with HR to discuss solutions
  • See if your role can be re-evaluated / if you can offset some of your responsibilities.
  • Maybe the remedy is taking a good chunk of time off, even a sabbatical.
  • Or, if the culture is toxic, perhaps it’s just time to move on.

If you have stressful situations outside of work that have caused you to burn out, for instance family or relationship issues, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you compromising your own wellbeing in order to care for someone else?
  • Are there commitments that drain you more than uplift you, that you can scale back on?
  • Are there dynamics with people in your life that leave you feeling stressed and depleted? Are these relationships serving you?

Prevention is better than cure

When it comes to burnout, this age old saying holds very true. Here are a few ways to keep your life balanced, and to avoid burning out, which can also act as antidotes if you’ve already reached burnout.

  • Reclaim some time from your schedule. Maybe a weekly slot that can be sacred ‘me-time’, when you do something that nourishes you.
  • Book yourself some long weekends away in advance. It’s always good to have something to look forward to, and this way you’re booking off time that you’ll be dedicating just to yourself, and to rest.
  • Boundaries are key to a healthy work-life balance. Consider having a tech curfew in the evenings, and maybe longer stints off your devices on weekends if you’re able to.
  • Evaluate which friendships uplift and energise you; those are the relationships to nurture and give more attention to.
  • Prioritise your hobbies. It’s important that you give yourself the space to play and be creative, and that your time isn’t totally eaten up by tasks and must-dos.
  • Consider therapy. Having a counsellor or therapist to speak to regularly can be a good way to check in with yourself emotionally, to become aware of what’s working for you in life and what isn’t.
This is just one way, of course! *Meditation and journalling are also great tools for cultivating self awareness.
  • FLOAT! We saved the best til last. Regular sessions in a float pod will keep your stress hormone levels in check, soothe your nervous system, improve your sleep quality and so much more.

Find out more about how floatation can help with burnout, read this post about floatation for chronic stress, and this piece on what links floating and meditation.