What is burnout?

Burnout can be described as a state of emotional, physical, and psychological exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. While it’s not a mental health condition, left unmanaged, it can cause someone to develop depression, anxiety, or other emotional wellbeing issues.

As with many issues, burnout doesn’t happen overnight but takes time to develop. In its earliest stages, someone might feel lacking in energy, low in mood, frustrated and unable to focus as they usually would. Over time, if the source of the stress is left unmanaged, the person may find it difficult to complete even the most basic of tasks without a huge amount of physical and psychological effort.

What causes burnout?

Burnout results from exposure to extreme and chronic levels of stress. Whether the source of the stress is connected to work, home, or both, someone who is experiencing burnout has been living in a stress-state for a long period of time. Burnout can take months or even years to develop. Chronic stress is one of the most harmful types of stress and can result from long-term situations including:

  • Too many demands at once which feel never-ending
  • Being bullied at work or home with no resolution in sight
  • Working too hard and for too long without time to step back
  • Taking on too much and not being able to ask for help
  • Being the person everyone relies on for emotional support.

Unless the source of the stress is addressed, an individual can get to the point where he or she cannot see an escape and may ultimately give up on seeking solutions. When an individual lives with chronic stress, their responses become ingrained due to a change in the hardwiring of the neurobiology of the brain and body and they can find it hard to choose different ways of reacting even though they may want to.

What are some of the signs of burnout?

By the time someone has reached burnout, they are likely to be experiencing many – if not all – of the following:

  • Physical exhaustion. Someone experiencing burnout may feel physically spent much of the time. They may have little to no energy and may also encounter stress-related physical health problems such as severe colds, weight gain or loss, stomach troubles, and skin problems. It’s typical for someone who is experiencing burnout to either sleep more than they usually would or find it difficult to sleep at all.
  • Emotional depletion. Burnout can cause people to find it difficult to feel their usual range of emotions. Neither happy nor sad, someone who is in burnout may feel nothing at all. This can feel very frightening as if they are underwater and unable to connect with the world around them.
  • Lacking in focus. Even the act of reading a magazine, watching television, or writing a simple report for work can feel impossible. Someone’s attention to detail may suffer, and basic mistakes or misunderstandings can become the norm. This can feel very frustrating which in turn makes the individual even more stressed.
  • Denial. People at any stage of burnout may deny to themselves and others that anything is wrong. This is a natural response when life feels overwhelming.
  • Detachment. Even though an individual might really enjoy their job, and have good relationships with friends, family, and colleagues, over time they can begin to feel as if these parts of their life offer little to no pleasure. This can in turn lead to a sense of hopelessness.
  • Self-isolation. Some people experiencing burnout find that even a casual chat to a friend or colleague can feel totally overwhelming. As a result, they may avoid other people and go into their shell for fear of having to engage with others.
  • Escape fantasies. Burnout can cause some people to fantasise about running away from everything including their job, their friends, and their family. These feelings can cause someone to feel extremely guilty which only compounds their distress.
  • Self-medication. While not the case for everyone experiencing burnout, it’s not uncommon for people to misuse alcohol, drugs, or food as a way to manage their feelings. Of course substances only make things worse and self-medication can become a vicious circle.
  • Irritability. Burnout can cause people to feel frustrated to the point where they may become very snappy, especially when plans go awry. What someone usually would cope with well, for example, a traffic jam, can become so overwhelming that it feels insurmountable.

Help for people who are experiencing burnout

Practicing self-care, getting a good sleep every night, following a healthy diet, staying physically active, and addressing with stressors as they arise offer some insurance against developing burnout.

However, if you are currently heading towards burnout, or are even in the midst of it, there are steps you can take to recover.

1. Acknowledge the reality. This is the first step to taking control. There is nothing to feel ashamed about – burnout isn’t an indicator that you’re not a resilient and capable human being, but simply a sign that you’re feeling overwhelmed.

2. Write a list of everything that you’re feeling stressed about. This could include money worries, a relationship problem, a bereavement, work-related demands, or anything else that you’re dealing with. You don’t have to address stressors all at once but writing them down can help you to really focus on the priorities.

3. Speak to your GP. While burnout is not a mental health problem it can lead to depression, anxiety of other emotional wellbeing problems over time, and can also affect your physical health. Letting your GP know how you’re feeling is a good first step in recovering.

4. If work is causing you unmanageable levels of stress, speak with your manager and ask for support. You don’t have to share anything that you don’t want but it’s important that you let him or her know that things are not easy for you at the moment.

5. Contact the Retail Trust to speak in confidence with an advisor who can help you to sort out your thoughts and feelings in a way that feels comfortable for you.

6. Don’t try and please everyone. This is an impossible bar to set and will only cause you to feel even more stressed. Delegate chores at home to others if you can and take steps to manage excessive work demands with the help of your manager.

7. Look after your body as well as your mind. Practice good sleep hygiene, get at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day, and eat foods that will support both your physical and mental health.

8. Reduce or avoid alcohol while you’re recovering from burnout. Alcohol can disrupt sleep, lower mood, and make us less resilient to everyday stressors.

9. Take time to recover. This might mean taking unused holiday, ensuring that weekends are free of multiple demands, or using your downtime to take up a new hobby. Self-care is different for everyone – just make sure that you’re doing something that you enjoy and offers you a sense of calm.

10. Know that nothing is forever. This will pass with the right support from friends, family, your workplace, your GP and the Retail Trust.


Further information:


Sleeping well

Physical wellbeing