People from all walks of life are being diagnosed and treated for burnout these days; but it is not a modern phenomenon. It was first identified in people in the helping profession in 1970, by American Psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger. I have been noticing it more and more these days. When you ask someone how they are doing, the inevitable answer is most likely: “Tired” or “Stressed out”.

The real problem is that, when you ask these tired and/or stressed out ones how they are sleeping, more often than not, the reply is that they do not sleep well; even terribly. How do they function without any rest? It must be most horrible to start every day tired. Life basically becomes a process of digging a hole instead of soaring to new heights. I used to be a terrible sleeper, but recovery has blessed me with the tools to deal with that. I now enjoy the gift of great sleep and I treasure it dearly. I really have sympathy for people who struggle with sleep. Finding it difficult to fall asleep or waking up early is a symptom of burnout. I believe that many people suffer from burnout, without even realising it.

What is burnout?

Burnout can be described as a condition where the sufferer, as a result of chronic stress, is in a constant state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. One is most likely overworked and feel unable to meet life’s demands. Feelings of being overwhelmed regularly manifest. Time pressures can lead to conflict with colleagues and loved ones. A general absence of motivation to do something or lack of interest in anything can occur.

Burnout mostly affects highly driven people who are normally known for their efficiency. These people are invariably self-reliant, put pressure on themselves, work long hours, accept heavy workloads and are passionate about what they do. Over-commitment in life can lead to people neglecting their own needs. As burnout is predominantly caused by stress, it can debilitate anyone, at any level in society, in any profession.

A problem with burnout is that one does not see it coming. It develops over a period of time, slowly creeping up on its victims. That does not mean that we cannot spot its warning signs, which are:


You may experience physical symptoms like, chest pain, dizziness, constant headaches, heart palpitations, fainting and shortness of breath. Stress breaks down your immune system, increasing your vulnerability to disease, like infections, flu and colds. Other indications include:

Fatigue Lack of energy; feel tired a lot Total exhaustion; depleted; dreading life
Concentration A bit forgetful; lack of focus Incapacitated; seriously affects work
Insomnia Frequent trouble falling asleep or staying asleep Sleeping problems is a nightly occurrence and over-tiredness makes it worse
Appetite Not hungry, skip meals Complete lack of appetite and consequent weight loss
Anxiety Feeling tense and worried Extreme anxiety with resultant loss of concentration with negative professional and personal consequences
Anger Regularly feeling irritable Anger outbursts, lots of arguments and even thoughts of violence
Depression Feeling sad, guilty, worthless and hopeless Feeling severely depressed, as if there is no way out

Detachment and alienation

Pessimism Negative self-talk and looking at life more negatively in general Feeling very bad about yourself and life. Lack of trust in people. Sense of loss, as you feel you cannot depend on anyone
Detachment/ Disconnection More absent from work and less present in life. Isolate Absenteeism increases; no will to have outside contact resulting in not answering emails and not taking calls
Isolation Less socialising and spending more time on own Change routine to avoid interaction and anger when forced to interact
Lack of enjoyment Starts off as not wanting to do things you used to be okay with or enjoyed Wide and general lack of interest in things you used to enjoy and avoiding situations you do not want to deal with

Feelings of uselessness and reduced performance

Irritability Often caused by sense of uselessness, due to feelings of ineffectiveness and inefficiency
Poor performance Chronic stress kills productivity. Despite long hours, no real progress in getting on top of things and to-do-list only grows
Hopelessness Feeling that everything is wrong and nothing is going right. Can become immobilising

These symptoms are to be seen as lying on a continuum. At the low-end, they represent stress and the worse it becomes the closer we move to burnout. At its furthest point you will probably look at a diagnosis of depression.

If we can learn to identify the symptoms early on, we can prevent burnout. It will not just go away. It needs to be treated. If anything, it will get worse and could lead to depression.

It is difficult to diagnose burnout. Many symptoms that are a result of burnout can be caused by something else, like certain physical-, mental- or psychosomatic illnesses. So too can medication, anxiety disorders, depression or chronic fatigue syndrome contribute to a false burnout diagnosis. Results of on-line tests, or as I like to call it “Dr Google”, should be used with discretion and any such diagnosis should be backed up by an appropriate professional. Self-diagnosis, in the case of burnout and other medical conditions, both physical and mental, can lead to a lot of time, energy and money being wasted on inappropriate treatment. If you are very curious and want to do a self-test, I found this test that seems to cover burnout well: Burnout self-test. I repeat; if the test proves that you may suffer from burnout, consult an appropriate professional, like a Counsellor, Psychologist or Psychiatrist, for a formal diagnosis and the correct treatment.

When it comes to burnout, most of the causational problems are work related. Make a point of being honest with yourself in assessing your stress levels at work and how that affects your life in general. Stress levels can be reduced. This will limit the chances of developing burnout.

Treatment of burnout

Although certain diagnostic tools do not classify burnout as a separate mental illness, it is real and many people suffer from it. Burnout can be treated. If you think you may have burnout, consult someone who knows burnout and can treat you.

It is important that, once you have been diagnosed with burnout, you get appropriate information about it, so that you can get to know your illness better and know what to expect from treatment. Treatment will mostly focus on understanding your stress, learning what your triggers are and teaching you coping mechanisms.

When I work with burnout, my clients and I work together to reduce their stress and I teach them new and more appropriate ways of reacting to stressful situations. We not only create healthier coping habits to address the current burnout, but we also work on preventative measures for long-term stress reduction, preventing them from developing it again.

To give you an idea of what to expect in treatment;

  • We shall work on your self-esteem. It sounds unrelated to stress, but our poor self-image contributes to unhealthy coping mechanisms. You are going to learn how to be kind to yourself and how to have your needs fulfilled in life.

  • A healthy mind in a healthy body. We shall investigate your current relationship with your body and see how we can improve that.

  • Writing about what is going on for you. To inventory your day and even your life is a marvellous tool of processing and learning. We shall go on a journey of self-discovery, which will help you in getting to know yourself better. This will enable us to critically evaluate where you are in your life, where you are going, where you want to go and how to get there.

  • Feed your soul. Work will be done to increase your emotional intelligence and we shall investigate appropriate ways to connect with your soul and spirituality. Our fast-paced lives easily drive a wedge between the aspects of us that need to be connected. We are mind, body and spirit and to function effectively, we need to ensure a balance between these.


It does not matter how hopeless one feels when suffering from burnout, there is hope. Treatment is available. All you need to do is ask for help and be willing to get better.