Burnout refers to a sense of having no energy or commitment for your work.  It is a debilitating condition and often hits us suddenly - as the name suggests, it’s a state of ‘after the fact’ depletion. As though you have gone through a very challenging time which has not been overcome and leaves you winded.  It is a feeling of powerlessness and fatigue/exhaustion which results in having to remove ourselves from the pressures facing us. This often means seeking medical help and taking sick leave.

It is conceptualised as being a mixture of three different interacting features. These are,

  • increase in cynicism,
  • reduction in enthusiasm, and
  • reduction in sense of self efficacy or feeling of being able and competent.

Stressors vary for each of us, but bereavement, financial worries, change, loss and conflict are all known causes of high stress levels. However, burnout is mostly associated with workplace stress as that is where it is usually played out, or where it manifests. Like everything, burnout is mediated by certain personal and situational factors which make it easier or more difficult to manage. If we are practiced at coping, self-management and taking time out, we can prevent burnout form developing in a serious way. If not, we might ignore the signs and end up regretting it.

The three dimensions which characterise burnout are associated with the following emotional states:

  • Feelings of exhaustion or energy depletion.
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job.
  • Reduced professional (work-related) efficacy/ability.

Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life. It is not classified as a medical condition and should not be confused with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

How do you recognize burnout at work?

Common signs of burnout:

  1. Feeling tired or drained most of the time.
  2. Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated.
  3. Feeling detached/alone in the world.
  4. Having a cynical/negative outlook on things previously of interest.
  5. Self-doubt prolonged, about areas of previous competence.
  6. Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done/indecision.
  7. Feeling overwhelmed and lacking the usual powers of self-regulation.

There are many causal factors at play in Burnout. No one aspect of work life causes it, but various interacting pieces. Some of the causal factors for a case of burnout are:

  • Loss of control/power.
  • Increase in demands and task complexity.
  • Shorter deadlines and increased task demands.
  • Perceiving an unfair allocation of work and rewards.
  • Letting smaller regular stresses build up without addressing them.
  • Ignoring your inner warning signs that you are not coping.
  • Lack of support and/or guidance and collegiality.

Burnout self-check 

  1. Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  2. Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
  3. Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  4. Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  5. Do you find it hard to concentrate?
  6. Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  7. Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  8. Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to not feel anything?
  9. Have your sleep habits changed?
  10. Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?

For anyone who feels they are burnout, consider talking to a medical doctor or a mental health professional – seek only properly registered professionals for psychological assistance. These symptoms can also be related to longer term clinical health conditions, such as depression.

Tips for dealing with stress which can lead to burnout

Evaluate your options. 

Discuss specific concerns with your employer/manager. Maybe you can work together to change expectations or reach compromises or solutions.

Goal setting

Try to set realistic goals for what must be done and allocate a future time for what can wait.

Seek support. 

Whether you reach out to co-workers, friends or loved ones, support and collaboration might help you cope. If you have access to an employee assistance program, take advantage of such services.

Try a relaxing activity.

Explore programs that can help with stress such as yoga, meditation choir, or some other passive form of unwinding.

Get some exercise. 

Regular physical activity can help you to better deal with stress. It can also take your mind off work.

Get some sleep. 

Sleep restores well-being and helps protect your health.


Mindfulness may help. It is the act of focusing on your breath flow and being intensely aware of what you are sensing and feeling at every moment, without interpretation or judgment.

Time out

For those who are completely burnt out, you need to take time out – a holiday or annual leave, or possibly other leave arrangements can be made so that you entirely remove yourself from the source of distress, even for a week or two. 

If you are struggling with burnout at work you should talk to your manager or employer. You can also seek support from your local GP or medical practitioner. 

Further supports are available at:

HSE’s www.YourMentalHealth.ie  

Pieta House – www.pieta.ie / Freephone 1800 247 247 every day 24 hours a day / Text HELP to 51444 - standard message rates apply.

Samaritans - www.samaritans.org / Contact jo@samaritans.ie  / Freephone 116 123 every day 24 hours a day