Watching Out For Burnout

Posted in : HR Updates on 24 September 2020
Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive
Issues covered: HR Updates; Covid-19; Work-related Stress; Burnout.

For many, work is challenging - as we try to balance the ever-increasing demands of our role with our own and our families’ needs.  Mobile phones and 24/7 access to email mean that many of us spend our lives in ‘standby’ mode, rather than deliberately choosing to be in ‘on’ or ‘off’ mode. This pre-existing level of stress has been compounded by the impact of Covid-19 - the need to work from home, the phased return (or not) to the workplace, the lack of control we have over what the next few months will bring, the fear of redundancies/restructuring and the constantly moving goalposts.  It is no wonder that many of us are feeling exhausted, anxious and overwhelmed. 

As managers we need to be alert to burnout in our team members, to spot the signs and to encourage open conversations to try to address the issues and provide supportive strategies to help.  Remote working has added to the challenge of seeing the warning signs of burnout and taking action to stop its onset.  Equally important, we need to be mindful of our own emotional health and be prepared to open up if we are struggling.  For too long, managers have felt that they need to be strong, resilient, and capable of handling whatever comes their way. 

The Guardian states ‘Often the only people who don’t recognise burnout are those who are exhibiting all of the symptoms, because highly motivated, driven, high functioning, ambitious people can have great difficulty believing they are breakable’.

As managers, what we need to do is to be authentic and open - setting an example for staff that it is okay to speak up if we are struggling and to ask for help and support.

In May 2019 the World Health Organisation recognised burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’, defined as 

‘A syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.  It is characterised by three dimensions: 

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy.’

So what does that look like ? There are a range of symptoms including being irritable, insomnia, feelings of anger or resentment, being tearful, feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope, having a brain that cannot switch off, difficulties being present with family/friends, failing to find joy in things you normally do, difficulties concentrating, muscle tension and pain, anxiety, isolation, lowered immunity and frequent illness. 

So how is burnout different from stress?

The Help Guide Network for Good states: 

‘Stress, by and large, involves too much - too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and mentally. ....Burnout, on the other hand, is about not enough ...feeling empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation and beyond caring’.  

Central to this is that while you’re usually aware of being under a lot of stress, you don’t always notice burnout when it happens.  It is a gradual process.  Indeed, it may be that your friends, family or colleagues realise that you are burnt out or running headlong towards it, before you can see or accept it. 

Does any of this ring true for you or any of your team ? What, as managers, can we do to support any of our team who are experiencing this – or to support ourselves ?

There is no easy, quick remedy but there are many possible strategies to help reset and build resilience to burnout.  Each person has to determine what is right for them.

Strategies for Avoiding Burnout

The first step is to open up and talk about how you are feeling - either with a manager that you trust, a family member or with someone external to your work or home, such as a coach or counsellor.  Thinking of ways to address burnout can in itself seem overwhelming and exhausting, let alone then taking action - that’s why it can be helpful to talk to a coach or someone who can help you to explore  possible strategies or solutions. 

Some of the useful strategies to consider are:

  1. Explore contributing factors and sources of stress in your life

  2. Focus on things you have control over – this is critical

  3. Learn to set boundaries, such as deciding what time you finish and leaving work at work.  For ‘people pleasers’ this is a hard task but learning to say ‘no’ allows you to say yes to yourself more often – to the things you want to do that recharge and restore your energy, not deplete it.  This becomes all the more challenging when we live and work in the same space, but it is critical in terms of safe guarding time to recharge and relax

  4. Practice self-compassion - talk to yourself as you would to a friend.  In the same circumstances you would show a friend empathy and kindness – you certainly wouldn’t tell them they are pathetic, a failure. Notice the word ‘practice’ – this is a choice you have to make daily

  5. Learn to let go of perfectionism and accept that “good enough’ is good enough 

  6. Prioritise relaxing and restful activities – schedule these in your diary and stick to them.  Select what is right for you - such as a massage, yoga, music, reading a book, a lunchtime walk

  7. Use your leave.  It may not be possible to take a long break, but perhaps a series of long weekends will help to break the cycle

  8. Calm your mind – consider a meditation app, yoga or mindfulness

  9. Try to build in some daily physical activity and fresh air

  10. Review your nutrition – perhaps consider taking less caffeine and alcohol, minimise sugar and refined carbs and consider taking more omega 3 to help boost your mood

  11. Look at ways to improve your sleep – such as meditation or switching off all digital sources a couple of hours before sleep

  12. Try and focus on the present moment, getting totally involved and engaged in something that gives you pleasure - crafts, music, nature, exercise

  13. Have a digital detox. Ron Friedman, founder of ignite80 consulting states ‘it’s because we are surrounded by devices that are designed to grab our attention and make everything feel urgent.’ Be selective about what apps you have and mindful of when you reach for your phone

  14. Take regular breaks in your working day

  15. Ask for support with what you are doing – such as additional resources or tasks being delegated. Don’t make assumptions – unless you talk about how things really are, solutions won’t be found

  16. Monitor how you use your time.  What are your current commitments – are they supporting you?  What can you drop or reschedule?

  17. Reframe how you look at your work and where you get your sense of worth and value.  Comparing yourself to others (‘they can cope, why can’t I?) or wearing your busyness as a badge of honour can only impact negatively on your feelings of self-worth and emotional health

Taking time to look at the way you are leading your life, the choices you are making, how you use your energy and how you are thinking about yourself will help you to identify the pressure points and to take action to support yourself, rebuild your resilience and bring joy, energy and enthusiasm back into your working life. 

Fundamentally, you may have felt that you had no control over how you got to this point of burnout, but what is critical is that you recognise that you have the power to take back control over how you chose to live your life and move out of burnout. 

So, how do you deal with burnout  - reach out to someone struggling, or speak out.


This article is correct at 04/11/2020

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive

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