Coping with burnout

Do you feel tired and drained most of the time? Do you suffer from muscular pain and frequent headaches? Have you lost your appetite and is your sleeping pattern disturbed?

These health complaints may be signs of overwork, stress, or may be evidence of the mental and physical toll that coping with the Covid-19 pandemic is having on your system.

The sudden change in routine, the merging of family and work lives, the fear of contracting the virus or watching loved ones battle to survive, or the heartbreak of losing someone close to us are major stressors. Add to that the financial pressure, the absence of the social lives we took for granted, and the general uncertainty that hangs in the air and you may very well be talking about a recipe for burnout.

The build-up to Covid-19 related burnout or indeed any other type of burnout can be a slow process so it is important to recognise the warning signs. And to learn how to change course and create a better lifestyle for the future. Or if you already feel you have hit rock bottom and feel overwhelmed, dispirited, and permanently exhausted what is the key to recovery and reinvention?

Elaine King, a local psychotherapist and trainer whose dissertation for her Master's degree focuses on burnout, describes it as a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that results from chronic stress which has become unmanageable.

Burnout is an issue of concern throughout the world, including Ireland, she says. It is evident in workplaces, especially, and is highly prevalent in the caring professions. Considered a rapidly growing phenomenon, it is believed to affect many people before they even reach their 30th birthday.

"Dr Dina Glouberman, an expert on burnout, outlines that it has reached epidemic proportions and is increasing rapidly and dangerously."

What are the warning signs that you may be experiencing burnout? Many sufferers speak of feeling exhausted or depleted, they describe a lack of motivation and a loss of interest in work, according to Ms King who teaches courses (in person and online ) on living mindfully as well as stress management. She is currently working on programmes to help people recover from burnout.

"Alongside that, there can be feelings of ineffectiveness at work and in life and a lack of accomplishment. Left unchecked, burnout can impact your health - physical and mental - your job performance, your relationships, your quality of life, and happiness."

Workplace system

Burnout does not happen suddenly. It creeps up slowly over time, often a long time, she says. "This can make it much harder to recognise because sometimes the signs are subtle and that can make it more difficult to understand and to address. Yet, our bodies and our minds do signal to us that something is going wrong, warning us, asking us to make changes."

Many factors contribute to burnout, both internal and external. If you are experiencing workplace related burnout, for example, these factors may be part of the structure or fabric of the workplace system or may be motivated by more internal or personal factors.

Elaine King says external factors can include high or increased workloads, issues involving scheduling, or pressured assignment deadlines. Lack of clarity about roles or shifting goalposts regarding expectations and responsibilities at work can also create stress and lead to burnout.

"Financial pressures or a very strong work focus can also lead to overworking, including working overtime and therefore to burnout. Workplace conflict presents as stressful for many. Occurrences of bullying in the workplace are high and can lead to many unhealthy coping strategies.

"Work, on the one hand, repetitive, or on the other, chaotic, can be very stressful. Those in the caring professions rate high regarding burnout as do those that work in crisis or emergency response services. This opens up a conversation on phenomena such as post-traumatic stress disorder and compassion fatigue."

If you are struggling with burnout, it is important to remember that there is help available from health professionals.

"Burnout is a global concern and you are not struggling alone," says Elaine King. "Covid 19 brings additional stresses including a movement towards remote working. This adds different stresses. You may be isolated from work colleagues, working alongside a busy family life that needs your attention and can distract and interrupt your 'office time', motivation can be difficult to drum up, and discipline hard to maintain. Responding to work emails or finishing off that last piece of work can be tempting as it is within arms reach and you find your working day spilling into your life outside of work."

Work provides us with more than just an income. "It is not uncommon that we rely strongly on our work for feelings of security, pride, and self-esteem. This can put pressure on many people in work situations and can lead to automatic habits of consistently trying to prove oneself or measure up. This can be exhausting and because of unrealistic ideals, feelings of failure can become prevalent."

Those with a strong sense of dedication to their work tend to burnout more often as initial enthusiasm may lead to overwork and exhaustion, she maintains.

A tendency to neglect our personal needs, emotional, physical and spiritual, is connected to incidences of burnout. Conflict at home and changes in life circumstances such as illness and death in the family, are also linked with episodes of chronic stress.

The telltale signs of burnout


You may feel tired a lot of the time or even all the time. This exhaustion may be emotional, mental, or physical. You may feel that you do not have enough energy to do anything.

Lack of motivation

You may find it difficult to find the motivation or enthusiasm to do even simple chores. Getting out of bed in the morning may be a major challenge.

Negative emotions

Irritability, impatience, disenchantment, and pessimism are some of the emotions associated with burnout. "You might feel less and less satisfied or that your feelings of enjoyment or contentment are beginning to disappear," she says. "You may feel disillusioned with everything or feel more pessimistic, more negative than you used to. You might also notice that your confidence or self- esteem is beginning to suffer. Although we all feel these things from time to time there is a tipping point and these feelings can become more commonplace, as they do in an experience of burnout. In this situation they can have a serious impact on how we see the world and how we feel about ourselves in it."

Cognitive issues

Concentration difficulties may also be a sign of burnout. Both these and chronic stress can impact on our ability to focus and pay attention. When we experience stress, our attention is drawn to what we experience as a stressor or a threat, explains Elaine King.

"Our nervous system, our brain, and our bodies are designed to do this, but only for short periods of time. When this 'fight or flight' response continues for a long time, our entire system becomes exhausted, stress becomes chronic, and we have difficulty focusing. This impacts our concentration, our problem solving abilities, and our memory."

Physical symptoms

Long-term stress can reduce our capacity to truly rest. This can impact our ability to recover from stressful situations and to sleep. Many long-term and serious health implications can arise from this, she says. "These can include headaches or stomach problems, among others, and can lead to health problems such as heart and auto-immune diseases. Inability to rest can contribute to anxiety and depression, also."


Symptoms may become more embedded the longer that burnout continues. Many people resort to unhealthy coping strategies which create more unhappiness in the long-term. These can include over/under eating, exercising excessively or being too sedentary, drinking too much, smoking, or increasing dependence on sleeping tablets or other medications.


Oftentimes as people's energy levels decrease they withdraw from social contact and become more isolated. Some experience conflict with co-workers or family.

How to avoid burnout

The best safeguard against burnout is to listen to your mind and body. Be vigilant for signs that all is not well, that you feel consistently tired, overwhelmed, fed-up, and no longer find joy in things or situations which previously brought you pleasure.

Listen to your body

Elaine King says staying "tuned in" is important. "We don't burnout overnight. Pay attention to what is happening on a physical, mental, and emotional level. The symptoms may start off subtle but over time become more chronic. Our nervous system often knows when something is wrong before our minds do."

Do enjoyable things

"It is important to engage in things that we enjoy and to enjoy them - watch out for that habit of doing things because they are good for us otherwise they will become just another obligation. Take time to see what you actually enjoy, this can be different at different times. Following enjoyment enriches us and helps our nervous system to regain balance."

Confide in others

Confide in family, friends, or trusted colleagues how you are feeling. It is harder to ignore the symptoms when we speak about them aloud. Talk to a professional, if necessary.

Take time to rest

Many of us actually need to learn how to rest. Our nervous systems are often overactive and primed for action. Learning to unwind and to slow down takes time and ultimately helps us to manage stress better. Taking time to rest is not being lazy!

Get a good night's sleep

Lack of sleep undermines our ability to manage stress and to stay healthy and enjoy our lives. People may find it difficult to sleep when they are stressed. Good sleep habits can be learned and can help address the build-up of stress.

Adopting a healthier lifestyle, putting rest and relaxation high on your priority list, and being vigilant for signs that you are feeling overwhelmed are all helpful strategies to avoid burnout in the long term and to lead a better, more balanced, and meaningful life now.


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