Avoiding burnout

Burnout is linked to stressful workplaces and builds up over time. It's important to know what factors contribute to it, and what the symptoms look like. Making changes at work and looking after our wellbeing can help prevent burnout from happening.

Googling burnout can be pretty scary – there is so much content focused on the signs of burnout, but not on prevention and overcoming burnout. The great news is that much of what’s included in this article includes strategies that will both support us with the prevention of burnout as well as when we’re actively showing signs we’re burnt out. But firstly, let’s start with the burnout basics!

What is burnout?

Burnout is different from depression, but they are often linked. Psychiatrist Jessi Gold from the Washington University School of Medicine states that she considers “burnout a stepping stone to, but distinct from, depression. She explains that unlike depression, which may be caused by many different triggers, burnout is related specifically to the workplace” (Yoo & Yoo, 2021).

Burnout is a combination of being emotionally exhausted, feeling detached from people and uncaring towards them, and having a reduced sense of personal accomplishment (Yoo & Yoo, 2021) (Haas, 2023).

According to Young (2022), there are other signs and symptoms of burnout which can include: 

  • Vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue (working too much with traumatised people)
  • Caring less about our work or feeling less motivated
  • Always feeling distracted at work
  • Feeling short-tempered or angry
  • The quality of our mahi might be going downhill
  • Feeling hopeless about work
  • Not having the energy to care about others’ wellbeing
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Unexplained physical ailments
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Changes in eating habits or appetite
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension and pain
  • Digestion problems such as diarrhoea and constipation

If many or all of these signs or symptoms are present, then that’s a good time to start caring for our wellbeing and seek some professional support.

You can read more about the following symptoms on the Psychology Today website:

What is depression?(external link)
What is anxiety?(external link)
Appetite(external link)

Burnout doesn’t just happen

Burnout builds up over a long period of time but can often appear suddenly. How will we know if it might be happening to us? Look out for these signs that are contributing factors of burnout (Young, 2022):

  • Long and unreasonable working hours
  • Working within an organisation that feels dysfunctional and unhealthy
  • Feeling like our mahi isn’t making a difference
  • Having a lack of control over our mahi
  • Not being paid well enough or recognised for our mahi
  • A particularly stressful workplace

It’s important to note that many of the things that contribute to burnout are outside of our individual control, so it’s important to seek the support of your manager and/or supervisor. 

What we can do – the practical tips

If we look to the reasons above about how burnout occurs, it can be helpful to look for small ways we can control what might be happening to us. Try asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is there a way to decrease my workload? We can do this alongside our manager as well as considering what actually needs to be done. Sometimes we have to be ruthless in getting rid of things that aren't priorities! It might help to look at our to-do list and ask, "who might notice if that doesn’t get done?" or "how much impact will this have in 6 months' time?’ Add an autoreply to emails stating when they will be answered. All of this helps us figure out what we think is most important.
  • Can I influence changes in my workplace? If our workplace feels unhealthy and we aren't getting recognition for our mahi, we could think about how to communicate this to try and change it. We might just need to recognise that if we don’t feel it’s being managed well, we'll need a process to escalate the problems. Or, perhaps we update our CV’s and decide that if no change occurs then it's time to move on – we can't waste our precious time attempting to influence change if no-one is listening! You might like to read our article on using a strengths-based approach to support you in moving forward and ensure good wellbeing care while finding the next step.
  • Do I feel effective in my mahi? If we currently feel that our mahi is not making a difference it's helpful to recognise that we won't have always felt this way. It’s important to spend time looking back on our mahi to see just how much we’ve contributed and the difference we’ve made. Perhaps reflect on the times mahi has been enjoyable, which may provide some positivity and a way into finding the fun again. Also find ways to connect with the wider team and offer them praise (knowing it boosts your wellbeing when you do!) and look for ways to work together and create a sense of community. 

How to structure your day to feel less stressed | Greater Good(external link)

What else can we do?

  • Plan downtime over the weekends or holidays – do enjoyable things.
  • Go back to doing things that support your wellbeing that may have been dropped off because work commitments have taken over.
  • Find some things that provide a complete escape from work – that means our focus shifts to something completely different – it may be tramping, visiting new places, learning something new, finding the ways we enjoy playing. You can find this great list of 'play' ideas on our website.
  • Connect with friends and whānau to take time out, and ask for support as needed with household chores, time to rest and childcare.

And if further support is needed your health practitioner is the best person to help.