Burnout. Reasons & Recovery

Traditionally, the first quarter of the year is renowned for personal and organisational goal setting, vision casting and planning. As noble as these are, the exclusion of buffers and safety nets to prevent burnout can derail the best of intentions. Burnout is a real-life experience that compromises potential, production, processes and purpose, irrespective of the industry.

What is Burnout?

Burnout is not a medical diagnosis. Given the interest in the subject, it is unsurprising that it has attracted several definitions over the years. This is since American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberg, coined the term in 1974. Freudenberg had used it to describe the consequences of severe and high ideals in ‘helping’ professions. Most recently, The World Health Organisation defined burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” (2019). Another popular definition is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by a long term involvement with situations which are emotionally demanding (Mateen & Dorji 2009).

It occurs when an individual feels overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to meet the constant demands of their job or endeavour. Burnout can affect anyone, from the high-flying Chief Executive, to the overworked employee, stay at home parent; and the clergy or lay preacher. Interestingly, it is never a sudden, but always insidious event. The progressive nature can make it difficult to identify and easy to accommodate. That is, until the inevitable happens- complete inability to function in one’s role.

The three core features of burnout are emotional exhaustion, emotional distancing and reduced professional efficacy. Emotional exhaustion manifests as the feelings of being emotionally overextended by one’s work (or ministry) with a pervasive effect on the ability to carry out work effectively; and associated negative impact on relationships and life outside work. Emotional distancing is marked by unempathetic, unfeeling, and impersonal responses or feelings of negativism or cynicism about work. Ultimately, this results in a progressive reduction in professional efficacy.

What More?

The features of burnout can be physical or behavioural. Easy and chronic exhaustion, frequent headaches, gastrointestinal problems, insomnia and shortness of breath can be associated symptoms. Feelings of frustration, anger, resentment, suspicion, or overconfidence and invincibility or omnipotence are other red flags to watch. Damaging coping attempts such as the use of alcohol, illicit substances, and sedatives; are not uncommon. The Mayo Clinic have on its website www.mayoclinic.org a helpful 10-item checklist for self-assessment.

At risk?

According to Freudenberg, burnout is more likely in occupational contexts that require a significant amount of emotional work and empathy, personal involvement; and intrinsic motivation. The other risk factors that have been named include – heavy workload and long hours. On a BBC TV Question Time in January 2023; Prof Clare Gerada (President of the Royal College of General Practitioners) disclosed that the confidential mental health service for UK doctors and dentists now sees as many professionals every week, as they were seeing every year, when it was commissioned in 2008!

Other vulnerability factors include work-life balance struggles, working in a caring profession, feelings of little or no control over work; and personality traits of being perfectionist. Committed and dedicated workers who have no boundaries in place are also at risk.

Working for employers with no clear job expectations and social support for employees, hostile, dysfunctional workplace and disregard for employee work-life balance can make one prone.


The recovery process starts with first identifying and admitting the condition. Denial and feelings of invincibility can be hindrances. The role of empathetic managers, seniors, mentors and family members can not be underestimated to flag this up. Speaking to a healthcare professional such as the General Practitioner or occupational counsellor may be necessary. Anxiety and depression are common co-existing conditions with Burnout; which may require independent interventions.

Gaining as much control over work is key. Working from home, reduction of contracted hours, ring-fenced mid-week rest days ( for ministers) and prioritisation of regular rest breaks and holidays are within this remit. Cultivating calmness in the work space using plants, furnishing, colours and decluttering has a place. Prioritising self-care in terms of adhering to adequate sleep, exercise and dietary regime can be of benefit. Putting accountability processes in place to embed these changes may be required. Taking a personality test can be informed as to the cause of the Burnout. www.16personalities.com offer a free test. Assertiveness training could shed light on the need and how to set boundaries. The use of coaches and career mentors can offer an unbiased view and a fresh insight into the approach to work. Ultimately, a change of job role or employer or retraining is a last resort. The way to see it is, Burnout is heavily expensive. No job, vocation or ministry is worth the price of losing your physical, mental or family health.

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