Everything you need to know about burnout

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Our stressful lives and ideals have created a dangerous psychological malaise.

Burnout seems to have become a mass phenomenon, and people are starting to talk more about it. Absenteeism rates have increased due to burnout. It is still not clearly defined as an illness and difficult thus to differentiate from depression.

In the ’70s the term “burnout” was used to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in the “helping” professions.

Doctors and nurses, for example, who sacrifice themselves for others, would often end up exhausted, listless, and unable to cope. Nowadays, the term is not only used for these helping professions, or for the dark side of self-sacrifice.

It seems it can affect anyone, from stressed-out careerists and celebrities, to overworked employees and homemakers – because there is no clear definition of what burnout really is. As a result, it’s not clear exactly how it can be diagnosed. This makes it difficult to say how common the phenomenon is.

Sometimes your job can simply affect your health and happiness. Job burnout is a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion, combined with doubts about your competence and work value. If you think you might be experiencing job burnout, you need to recognise that there is a problem and take action before it affects your health.

Consult your doctor or a mental health provider to identify or rule out any underlying health conditions. A stressful lifestyle can put people under extreme pressure, to the point that they feel exhausted and empty. Stress at work can also cause physical and mental symptoms.

Possible causes include feeling either permanently overworked or under-challenged, being under time pressure, or having conflicts with colleagues. Extreme commitment that results in neglecting own needs may be at the root.

Here is a quote: “The average person may spend up to 50 years working to generate income. That’s a long time to dedicate oneself in an environment that may be killing your soul” (Khulukazi Fungiwe Dlakavu).


You might experience one or more of the following. Note that these symptoms can also indicate certain health conditions, such as a thyroid disorder or depression. It is important that you consult your doctor or psychologist to be sure:

  • You have become cynical or critical at work;
    You drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive;
    You become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients;
    You lack the energy to be consistently productive;
    You do not get satisfaction from your achievements;
    You mostly feel disillusioned about your job;
    You start using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better;
    Your sleep habits and appetite have changed;
    You start experiencing physical complaints such as unexplained headaches, backaches and muscle pain.


Job burnout can result from various factors, including:

  • Lack of control. You do not have the power to influence decisions that affect your job, such as your schedule, assignments or workload. Also, there is a lack of resources needed to do your work, while expectations are high.
  • Unclear job expectations. If you’re unclear about the degree of authority you have or what your supervisor or others expect from you, you’re not likely to feel comfortable at work.
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics. Perhaps you have a colleague that is a bully, or you feel undermined by colleagues, or your boss micro-manages your work. This can contribute to job stress. Also a workplace where fear, intimidation, stigmatisation, discrimination are rampant.
  • Mismatch in values. If your values diff er from the way your employer does business or handles grievances, the mismatch can eventually take a toll. Even a mismatch between your values and the company’s values can affect you.
  • Poor job fit. If your job doesn’t fi t your interests and skills, it might become increasingly stressful over time.
  • Extremes of activity. When a job is monotonous or chaotic, you need constant energy to remain focused – which can lead to fatigue and job burnout.
  • Lack of social support. If you feel isolated at work and in your personal life, you might feel more stressed.
  • Work-life imbalance. If your work takes up so much of your time and effort that you don’t have the energy to spend time with your family and friends, you might burn out quickly.


The people most at risk are:

  • ones who identify so strongly with their work that they lack a reasonable balance between work and personal life;
  • people who try to be everything to everyone;
  • work in a profession that requires them to care for others, such as health care or teaching;
  • feel that they have little or no control over their work;
  • and individuals who feel that their job is monotonous.


  • excessive stress;
    a negative spillover into personal relationships or home life;
    alcohol or substance abuse;
    heart disease;
    high cholesterol;
    type 2 diabetes, especially in women;
    obesity; and
    vulnerability to illnesses.


  • If you suspect you have burnout after reading this article, please get help and take action immediately.
  • Manage the stressors that contribute to job burnout.
  • Once you’ve identified what’s fuelling your feelings of job burnout, you can make a plan to address the issues. Have frank conversations with your supervisor or human resources manager and family.
  • See how you can work together with everyone to change expectations or reach compromises or solutions.
  • The workplace can look at job sharing as an option.
  • Is the workplace able to establish a mentoring relationship? What are the options for continuing education or professional development?
  • Work with a counsellor or psychologist if you’ve become cynical at work, consider ways to improve your outlook.
  • Rediscover enjoyable aspects of your work. Recognise co-workers for valuable contributions.
  • Take short breaks throughout the day. Spend time away from work doing things you enjoy.
  • It is important to reach out for support. Whether you reach out to co-workers, friends or loved ones, support and collaboration might help you cope with job stress and feelings of burnout.
  • If you have access to an employee assistance programme (EAP), take advantage of the available services.
  • Assess your interests, skills and passions. An honest assessment can help you decide whether you should consider an alternative job, such as one that’s less demanding or one that be er matches your interests or core values.
  • Get some exercise and eat healthy. Regular physical activity can help you to be er deal with stress. It can also help you get your mind off work and focus on something else.
  • Get some sleep. Sleeping restores well-being and helps protect your health. Aim for at least seven to eight hours sleep each night.

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Dr Dulcy Rakumakoe. Picture: Refilwe Modise

Dr Dulcy Rakumakoe. Picture: Refilwe Modise

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