Mentally Exhausted? You might be suffering from burnout

  • Defining burnout
  • Burnout at work
  • Dealing with burnout

Burnt Out Meaning

Burnout refers to a state of mental and physical depletion. Unlike many medical illnesses (e.g., heart disease), there is no definite diagnosis or test for burnout. Identification of burnout can therefore be a tricky task.

  • Exhaustion
  • Problems with concentration and other cognitive functions (e.g., attention, memory)
  • Negative emotions and attitudes towards work
  • Reduced productivity and effectiveness
Burnout is primarily characterised by exhaustion

Burnout Syndromes

Burnout is not an official diagnosis in the two major classification systems (DSM 5 and ICD-11). However, the condition has gained formal recognition in several countries. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also recognised burnout as an occupational phenomenon. Some of the reasons for the lack of formal status include persistent diagnostic ambiguity and difficulties separating burnout from other problems (e.g., stress).

Burnout vs Depression

It is vital to distinguish burnout from related conditions. One alternative possibility is depression. There has been confusion about the distinction between burnout and depression (3). But, burnout tends to feature exhaustion as the primary indicator. Furthermore, mood often improves through enjoyable (non-work) activities. Depression involves persistent low mood and/or loss of enjoyment.

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulties adjusting to major life events/changes

Burnout at Work

Burnout can happen outside of work (e.g., carers). However, we often focus on a person’s job. Burnout rates vary considerably between professions. Some of the highest burnout rates are amongst healthcare workers (5).

  • Physical environment issues (e.g., excessive noise)
  • Long work hours
  • Unclear and unreasonable job expectations
  • Lack of control or autonomy
  • Lack of fair reward and acknowledgement
  • Lack of social support

How to Recover from Burnout

Both organisational and individual factors require attention when dealing with burnout. Furthermore, most people need support to alleviate burnout successfully. This will often include help from colleagues. Some people also require input from an appropriate professional (e.g., psychologist).

  • Prevention: Good job design, adequate support, acknowledgement of efforts and performance, positive work culture
  • Intervention: Should feel comfortable raising issues with a supportive manager. You may need to consider external support (e.g., a union rep) and even leaving a job when work factors don’t change.
Burnout needs to be tackled on multiple levels
  • Exercise
  • Time away from work (or quitting)
  • Maintaining boundaries around work hours
  • Seeking support from friends, family and/or professionals
  • Meditation and mindfulness
  • Notice and name burnout
  • Address perfectionism
  • Assertiveness and communication strategies
  • Workload management
  • Addressing unhelpful thinking patterns
  • Plan to manage cognitive difficulties, such as mind blanking



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Dr Jason Spendelow

Dr Jason Spendelow

Coaching & Clinical Psychologist providing practical psychology with no mumbo jumbo