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  • Writer's pictureAntonia Higgins

What is burnout anyway?

Burnout is a serious problem, but it’s one that can be prevented. It is something that comes into my counselling room often, and the interesting thing is how often it goes unrecognised for long periods of time by the person experiencing it. Hearing the word ‘burnout’ can come as a real surprise to clients, who have previously put this state of exhaustion down to just not being good enough/capable enough/strong enough to manage an unmanageable situation. By taking steps to manage your stress and take care of yourself you can avoid burnout and live a happier and healthier life.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of extreme exhaustion caused by excessive, prolonged stress. In today’s fast-paced and demanding world, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and stressed. In the book Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski describe people with burnout as “...overwhelmed and exhausted by all they have to do, and yet still worried that they are not doing enough.” There is no one single type of person, or one single profession that is affected. Burnout takes no prisoners - anyone can experience it.

When you are constantly bombarded with demands and expectations from employers, family, friends - even the technology in your pocket with its constant pinging notifications - it can be hard to keep up and maintain a healthy balance in your life.

How do I recognise burnout?

If you are walking through life in a haze of exhaustion, lack energy, notice you have less enthusiasm or motivation than usual, have lower tolerance that you’re used to, feel drained or ‘wiped out’ and these things are not easing up, these could be a sign of burnout.

The term ‘burnout’ has been around since 1975, and three components of burnout were identified:

  • Emotional exhaustion - the fatigue that comes from caring too much, for too long

  • Depersonalisation - the depletion of empathy, caring and compassion

  • Decreased sense of accomplishment - an unconquerable sense of futility: feeling that nothing you do makes any difference

If any of that sounds familiar it’s worth taking some time to think about all the things you are carrying in your life right now, and whether there are any of these things that you can put down to lessen the load and find space for healing to begin.

I have first-hand experience of burnout from an earlier time in my life when a toxic working environment had me experiencing all of the three components listed above, leaving me unwell and broken for a long time. I thought burnout was something that happened to high-flying CEO’s and the movers and shakers of the corporate world. I couldn’t conceive of it being something that could happen to me. But it did.

At that time I truly did believe that I was just not good enough, capable enough or strong enough to do my job. It took months of being off work, eventually leaving the job, and a lot of personal work in therapy to help me to see that I had been a victim of bullying and harassment, unrealistic expectations and constantly shifting goalposts . This unmanageable situation and a toxic work environment had been what created my stress, anxiety and a sense that I could never do anything right. I was not incapable - though me holding that limiting belief was helpful for other people.

There are a number of factors that contribute to burnout, including:

  • High workload

  • Being in a caring position

  • Poor work-life balance

  • A feeling of having a lack of autonomy and control

  • Lack of boundaries

  • Feeling like you are the go-to person to deal with everyone else’s worries

  • Feeling a need to meet other people’s expectations

  • Not having enough time for yourself or your personal life

What can I do to help myself?

If you’re feeling burned out it’s important to take steps to prevent it from getting worse. Here are a few tips:

Work out your stressors

What is a breeze for one person is a struggle for another so it’s very possible that your energy zappers aren’t the same as your friend’s or colleague’s. Maybe you know that tech glitches are your energy vampire but being with people recharges your energy, while your friend loves getting stuck into solving a computer problem but can’t ‘people’ for long without feeling drained. It’s different strokes for different folks, so tuning into your energy levels and the stressors that cause them to fluctuate is really important for managing your mental and physical health and your general wellbeing.

Set boundaries

It’s important to set boundaries between your work life and your personal life. This might mean not checking work emails or taking work calls outside of work hours; not overloading yourself so that you have to start work early, leave late or work all day without a break and not allowing yourself to be pulled into matters which are not within your remit that you don't have the mental, emotional or physical capacity to deal with. Work to live, don't live to work is a helpful and self-compassionate mantra, should you need a reminder.

Take breaks

It’s important to take breaks throughout the day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. A quick Google search for productivity and breaks brings back a wealth of information about how breaks increase productivity and are good for wellbeing. Even ‘microbreaks’ of a minute or less seem to make a difference. So get up and stretch, move around, make a cuppa or step outside for some fresh air. And make your lunch breaks sacred (and if possible, away from your working environment, whether that’s an office, shop, ward, classroom, surgery, vehicle, or wherever).


If you have too much on your plate, don’t be afraid to delegate tasks to others with more capacity who are able to help. This might take some negotiation - how often have you had to resort to bribery to get the kids to contribute to the housework effort? - but it’s worth it if it can help to lessen your mental and emotional load. If this is proving difficult in your workplace, seeking help from your manager to decide what’s important and what can be shelved, dropped or given to someone else could be a helpful strategy.

Say no

It’s ok to say no to requests, especially when you are feeling overwhelmed, overtired or overworked. This doesn’t make you a bad or unhelpful person. This is about you honouring yourself, your health and your wellbeing. Neither do you have to feel that you must justify your ‘no’ to meet another person’s expectation. Knowing your limits is healthy, and good self-care. Speaking of which…

Self-care is essential

Make sure that you are looking after your mind and body on a daily basis - take time to do things you enjoy, eat well, get enough rest and sleep, move your body and have some fun. These things will help you stay physically and mentally healthy. And on top of all that, everything in this ‘What can I do to help myself?’ section falls under the self-care umbrella too.

Seek help

If you’re overwhelmed and can’t seem to cope don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Counselling can help you to understand your situation and develop coping strategies to manage stress, as well as helping you to explore past issues and traumas to make sense of them and heal from them.

I hope you find these blogs interesting and helpful. If you’d like to read more of my musings you can subscribe to my blog at and follow me on Facebook at

Useful Resources

Burnout: Solve your stress cycle ~ Emily and Amelia Nagoski

Contact me

Contact me at to discuss how counselling might be helpful for you. I work face to face from my therapy room in Falkirk, and online.

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