Burnout – What is it and how is it treated?


Whether you are a teacher or a tradesman, stress is a big problem across the developed world. The pace of life doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down as we move into the second half of 2021. According to the Harvard Business Review, stress at work costs the US healthcare system between $125 and $190 billion each year.

The irony is that being busy has become a form of social currency. People feel proud that they are busy, and people who don’t get much done each day can often be judged as being lazy. It wasn’t until 1974 that German/American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” in the context of mental health. He described burnout as gradual emotional depletion, loss of motivation, and reduced commitment at work.

Stress is not something that has always been taken seriously. It is not until the 2000s that stress was really acknowledged in terms of the damage that it can do physically and mentally. High stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline can keep us safe in the short term, but when they are elevated for months or even years, the impact on the mind and body is quite dramatic. Despite this, there is still a stigma attached to burnout. People feel weak for example, if they need time off work due to burnout.

What is Burnout?

Burnout is now acknowledged by the World Health Organisation. Burnout is a huge problem and is often mentioned within the same conversations and interchangeably with terms such as stress and anxiety. Burnout actually has its own unique definition:
“a psychological syndrome occurring from prolonged chronic job stress” – although students
can also develop burnout.

Burnout has three components:
1. Emotional exhaustion
2. Cynicism and depersonalization
3. Feeling of ineffectiveness

It is often also described as a “mismatch in the workplace between desired state and reality.” Depression is not the same as burnout either, although the two conditions often overlap to a certain extent. People who are depressed are slightly more likely to become burnt-out, but burnt-out people aren’t necessarily depressed and vice versa.

Burnout primarily impacts work life but can cross over to personal life.

Burnout also has physical symptoms, such as aches and pains in muscles and joints, headaches, blurry vision, and problems with digestion.

Techniques for Dealing with Burnout

The first strategy for dealing with burnout involves changing your work patterns. It seems obvious but standing back, analyzing objectively can help people realize that they are working too much. Long work hours are a common cause of burnout. It can take a lot to first acknowledge that you are damaging your health and possibly impacting those around you. It is even braver to pursue any options related to working shorter hours.

Having breaks more often can also help, as can having hobbies and interests outside of work that will ‘refresh’ your mind in some manner.

Outsourcing and Delegating

If you are not able to cut down your work hours, consider whether or not it is possible to delegate tasks or outsource them. If you are a business owner, for example, could you outsource email filtering and replying to a virtual assistant, and could you employ a phone answering service to take care of your calls 24/7? With a professional phone answering service, you can literally switch off in the evenings and weekends. Anything that reduces distractions will also help reduce stress. Interruptions are scientifically proven to increase levels of anxiety, annoyance and increase the rate of errors on a given piece of work. If outsourcing is not possible, would working from home once or twice a week free up more time for you to pursue leisure activities?

Social Support

If reducing your hours at work is not a practical option, then it can help to seek out social support. Discussing your issues with your friends, colleagues and just spending time socialising in general is really important for everyone’s mental wellbeing. If you want to discuss work, sometimes it is best to do this with a family member rather than a colleague. That way, you can exaggerate and rant as much as you want, without impacting the professional reputation of anyone who may have upset you.

Relaxation Strategies

Breathing directly impacts our physiology. Breathing rapidly increases your heart rate, increases blood pressure and releases stress hormones. Breathing slowly, particularly on the exhale is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress. Many people who sit down all day, tend to breathe from their chest instead of their belly. This makes their breathing shallow, as the diaphragm is not engaged fully. In turn this can lead to higher levels of physiological stress

Using breathing techniques such as the physiological sigh can help us to relax in the short term. practicing breathing from the belly with diaphragmatic breathing can help us to feel more relaxed in general.
Yoga, music and art therapy are also great methods for relaxing the body and mind.

Diet and Exercise

Exercise is great for mental health. It can increase feeling of wellbeing and self esteem. Diet is also crucial. A diet full of refined and processed foods will tend to increase the body’s level of inflammation, and impact the gut microbiome. Both gut health and inflammation are correlated with burnout (see a study here).

After speaking to your doctor or a dietician, people suffering from burnout, may want to consider using an adaptogenic herb such as Rhodiola rosea and ashwagandha.  Rhodiola Rosea  has been shown to increase exercise performance in human and animal studies. It does appear to have anti-depressant effects (without any common side effects), and it reduces stress to a significant level.


It sounds cliché, but the first thing to do if you are suffering from burnout, is to acknowledge that you have an issue and ask or look for help. There are many interventions that can help, including changes in diet, physical activity, and working conditions.