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Burnout: what does it actually mean?

We’ve all heard the term burnout, but what does it actually mean? How do you know if you’re experiencing burnout and what should you do if you’re burnt out?

Here we examine burnout and provide some strategies to help you feel better.


What is burnout?

In 2019, the World Health Organization classified burnout as an occupational phenomenon. They defined it as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed[1].

Put simply, burnout is when you have mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. You aren’t able to do the tasks you normally would complete and feel a constant sense of negativity and cynicism, particularly related to your work.

While burnout has been traditionally linked to work, researchers are starting to look at whether anyone can experience burnout. For example, research from the Black Dog Institute and UNSW School of Psychiatry suggests burnout can affect different people in the same way, and it does not exclusively affect those in paid employment[2].


What are the symptoms of burnout?

When you’re experiencing burnout, you may feel a range of physical and emotional symptoms[3].


Physical symptoms of burnout

Some physical symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches / gastrointestinal issues
  • Increased muscular pain
  • Prolonged fatigue / exhaustion
  • Vulnerable to illness – more frequent colds and flu
  • Changes in appetite – eating more or less than usual
  • Changes in sleep – insomnia, disrupted sleep


Emotional symptoms of burnout

Some emotional signs you are burnt out include:

  • Loss of motivation
  • Having a cynical outlook / negative attitude
  • Low productivity
  • Unable to concentrate
  • Procrastinating
  • Feeling empty or lacking in emotion
  • Low mood / feeling sad
  • Lacking energy
  • Feeling disillusioned / losing your passion
  • Not satisfied with performance or achievements
  • Easily irritated or impatient
  • Feeling frustrated
  • Having self-doubt
  • Withdrawing emotionally


What are the causes of burnout?

Burnout can occur when you have been exposed to persistent stress and situations that are demanding.

Burnout is usually caused by several factors. It may include a stressful job layered with extra personal responsibilities. Some common causes of burnout include:

  • Working in a high pressure, demanding environment
  • Too much responsibility / heavy workload
  • Unclear job expectations
  • No control over decisions that affect your work
  • Boring or monotonous work that isn’t challenging
  • Not being recognised and rewarded for your work
  • Having a dysfunctional work environment / poor workplace culture
  • Feeling isolated at work and / or in your personal life
  • Poor work-life balance – little time to socialise or relax

In addition to these work factors, not getting enough sleep and having too many personal responsibilities can also contribute to burnout.


How do you recover from burnout?

If you’ve recognised that you’re feeling burnt out, what should you do next?

First, it’s important to stop and take some time out. You could consider taking some time off work or if that’s not an option, you could prioritise rest and recovery after work and on weekends. Try to get some good sleep and do relaxing activities you enjoy like practising mindfulness, reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to a podcast. Regular exercise may also help to decrease distress and increase wellbeing[4].

You could also look at your home and work life and try to understand what is stressing you out and what you can change. You might need to ask for help in some areas or learn to say no when new projects or commitments arise that tip you over the edge.

If it’s work-related, you can consider raising your concerns with your manager or supervisor. Together, you may be able to evaluate your options and reprioritise your workload.

Finally, you could talk to someone about what you’re experiencing. If you have a trusted family member or friend, you could share how you’re feeling. Or you could talk to a health professional who could give you more perspective about how you can reduce your chances of suffering burnout in the future.

Our CAREinMIND counsellors are available 24/7 on 1300 096 269 or click the floating chat button on the right. The service is free for people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.





[3] Salvagioni DAJ, Melanda FN, Mesas AE, González AD, Gabani FL, Andrade SM. Physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout: A systematic review of prospective studies. PLoS One. 2017;12(10):e0185781. Published 2017 Oct 4. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0185781

[4] Bretland RJ, Thorsteinsson EB. Reducing workplace burnout: the relative benefits of cardiovascular and resistance exercise. PeerJ. 2015;3:e891. Published 2015 Apr 9. doi:10.7717/peerj.891