How to … avoid burnout

by 01 May 2007

Being constantly overworked and under pressure is likely to lead to a state of emotional exhaustion, or burnout, with deadly effects on our careers

Most of us encounter occasional difficult periods in our professional and personal lives, such as taking work home to finish over the weekend or feeling slightly stressed. But when we are constantly overworked and under pressure, it is likely to lead to a state of emotional exhaustion, or burnout, with deadly effects on our careers.

Most respondents to a 2004 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development survey about working long hours reported negative effects on job performance, while more than 25 per cent said they had suffered physical and mental ill–health as a result. One in 10 also said their personal relationships had suffered. However, there are precautions you can take to prevent burnout.

What are the danger signs?

Typical symptoms include: tiredness, loss of productivity, cynicism, high rates of absenteeism, interpersonal conflict, substance abuse, and deterioration in mental or physical well–being. Prolonged and intense levels of stress are usually seen as a precursor to burnout.

“Most people work at a level of stress that might seem high but is generally tolerable, and allows them to deliver optimum productivity,” says James Bradley, stress management specialist at Employee Advisory Resource. “If we look at this in the form of a beaker, levels around 50–70 per cent full is a good measure. If the stress levels rise to 90 per cent and above and remain there for some time, this is when burnout occurs.”

Keep expectations realistic

Experts agree that burnout often occurs when individuals expect a great deal from themselves, set goals which are difficult or impossible to achieve, and when these are not realised begin to feel disillusioned or helpless. So keep a sense of perspective and try not to place too much pressure on yourself.

Reduce your workload

Avoid putting in unnecessary long hours as this will not lead to higher productivity. Establish clear boundaries – if your work capacity is as much as you can handle, don’t be afraid to turn down requests to take on additional responsibility. Don’t take work home to complete and don’t try to do everything single–handedly. List and prioritise tasks and identify any activities that can be delegated and if you still feel overwhelmed by your volume of work, seek extra help.

Relax at work

Finding a way to slow down and relax at work is essential to prevent things getting on top of you. Take 10–minute breaks throughout the day and a full lunch break, even if things are particularly hectic. Exercise lifts energy levels and produces endorphins, which reduce stress, so use the time to go for a run, to the gym or swim. Eat regular meals and plenty of fruit and vegetables. Drink plenty of water and cut back on tea or coffee. While at your desk look away from your computer screen at intervals, stretch and practice deep breathing exercises.

Consider a career break

Many organisations offer sabbaticals as a way of revitalising workers at risk of burnout. As well as offering a break from the routine and a chance to get your life in perspective, it could save you from having to quit your job altogether.

Develop and maintain interests outside work

Remember that work is only one part of your life, and to stay in a good frame of mind you need to be able to distance yourself from work and have a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Take time out to do things you enjoy, and treat yourself regularly. Having fun and laughs with a strong support network of family and friends will also help you to cope better with the rigours of work.

Second opinion on how to avoid burnout

James Bradley, stress management specialist, Employee Advisory Resource

Do HR professionals attach enough importance to this syndrome?

The problem with burnout as a concept is that it has been consumed by other problems. You can find burnout in stress, long and short-term sickness, capability, performance, turnover and disciplinary processes.

What is the key to avoiding burnout?

More effort is being made by organisations to combat symptoms, primarily employee assistance programs, counselling services and occupational health services. This work is proactive in the form of stress awareness, health initiatives, work-life balance initiatives, working time regulations and flexible working. Counselling support, absence management and performance planning are reactive measures.

What can individuals do to strengthen themselves psychologically?

Recognise your own indicators. Look at change and how it is affecting you. Do not look at short-term approaches unless the issue is short-term. Recognise that changes in your personal life do affect your work. Try to plan ahead. Make sure that all targets and goals are achievable.

Are certain occupations more prone to burnout, or are there sectors where it is more prevalent?

Typically, burnout can be found in sales, call centres, deadline-led cultures and companies going through any kind of change.

What is the latest thinking on the subject?

Increasing recognition of liability in organisations for the safety of their employees has led to a clearer understanding of what they can expect of their staff. Fifteen years ago, organisations almost boasted about their burnout time and who made it and who did not.

Employee assistance programs, stress audits, performance and absence management are being used to recognise and deal with employees who suffer from this condition.

For more information


The Truth About Burnout, Christina Maslach, Jossey Bass Wiley, ISBN 0787908746

Joy of Burnout, Dina Glouberman, Hodder Mobius, ISBN 0340821590

By Scott Beagrie. Courtesy of Personnel Today magazine.