Stress in the workplace is unavoidable for just about anyone. If you’re in a particularly fast-paced environment, even more. However, prolonged periods of high stress can eventually result in an undesirable state we call burnout. Let’s look at what it is, and how to recognise the signs and prevent it altogether.

What is burnout?

I think the word burnout gets thrown around a lot in stressful careers, but what is it really? It was first coined by German-born American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger, in the 1970s. He called it a “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life”. Thirty years later, three research psychologists categorised burnout by three components:

Exhaustion, Cynicism, and Ineffectiveness.

What does burnout look like?

Let’s examine the three aspects of burnout mentioned above, this is how they may manifest in your life:


Exhaustion caused by burnout can manifest as both physical and/or mental exhaustion. Physically, you might feel drained often. You might be prone to head or body aches or changes in your appetite or sleeping patterns. Mentally, it might feel impossible to bring yourself to do even the most menial tasks or things that you normally would like to do.


Cynicism, in this context originally called “depersonalisation”, is when someone distances themselves psychologically from their work. It’s an easy way out when we don’t have the mental resources to cope with constant stress. Cynicism is especially prevalent in environments where there is conflict. If stressed individuals feel like they can’t voice their concerns, it often leads to depersonalisation.


Ineffectiveness refers to feelings of inadequacy. If you suffer from this symptom, you may feel like you don’t deserve to be where you are. You might feel like you’re unable to perform your duties to the standard that is expected of you. It often develops as a result of exhaustion and cynicism because those symptoms inhibit your ability to perform normally.

All three of the above symptoms can occur in sufferers of burnout independently. However, they also often occur in tandem or lead to each other.

Burnout prevention measures

We now have a better idea of how to spot burnout in ourselves and in others. I mentioned earlier that stress in the workplace is unavoidable, and that much is true. However, burnout is definitely preventable. Let’s look at a couple of strategies to prevent burnout:

1. Don’t overcommit often

A lot of times, burnout comes from an individual pushing themselves just a little too hard. I understand that you want to make a good impression or get that promotion. However, if you work to the point of burnout, it’s not going to achieve either of those goals. Is the result of your burnout you taking on a bit too much? You don’t have to slack off, but it’s okay to do less.

2. Set healthy boundaries.

You’re the only person who knows how you really feel inside. Other people might see you’re getting stressed, but they don’t know how close to your breaking point you are. You need to be the one to determine enough is enough and say “no”. It does take some courage to say no to others, especially if you’re a people-pleaser, but your own well-being needs to be your number one priority.

3. Get some exercise

When we get stressed exercise is often one of the first things to go. However, it’s actually one of the important things you can do to prevent burnout. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins that relieve stress and pain. I prefer exercising first thing in the morning, you’d think it would make you tired going into the day but it does the exact opposite. It wakes me up and makes me feel ready to tackle whatever the day throws at me.

4. Get a regular sleep cycle

A lack of sleep can aggravate the symptoms of burnout. Good sleep, on the other hand, helps regulate your emotions which assists with the symptoms of burnout. If you’re struggling to fall asleep, check out these sleep tips from Mayo Clinic.

5. Relentless focus on a single task at a time

Stress often mounts when we have too much to do and when we have too much to do we often try to do too much at once. Whether you want to believe it or not, you’re probably not good at multitasking. Stay laser-focused on one thing at a time, get it done, and move on to the next task. It’s by far the best way to whittle down that to-do list.

6. Make time for yourself

A lot of time, burnout comes from an imbalanced relationship with work. It’s important to know where work ends and where your personal life begins. Try to leave the work at work, and do things that you enjoy doing when you’re not doing work. Doing things that make you happy will do wonders to regulate your stress levels and bring you back to your normal self.

Conclusion / TL;DR

No matter what your career is, there’s always going to be some level of stress. Sometimes, stress can lead to a state of burnout. Burnout is often characterised by someone disengaging from work and finding it hard to get anything done, leading to feelings of inadequacy.

It’s important to recognise the signs and symptoms of burnout early. If you’ve seen the signs in yourself or someone else, the steps outlined above can help to recover. If there’s no marked improvement, a professional therapist may be required. Take care of yourselves out there.