Burnout: Are you vulnerable and how can you prevent it?

The syndrome is debilitating for sufferers and has a high business cost, but there are ways to prevent it.

Burnout — the term sometimes used as slang to describe being exhausted — is not in itself a medical condition as defined by the World Health Organization. The WHO definition also limits it to the work context rather than to other parts of people's lives.

That doesn't make it any less important or debilitating for those suffering from what the WHO describes as "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".

It's also an issue for businesses and their leaders. "It undermines effectiveness — people are not very innovative when they are burnt out, and sustainability [is an issue] as people leave and go off sick for three or four months. … You lose a lot of value … as burnout attacks intellectual capital," according to author, executive coach, and clinical psychologist Mike Drayton.

Because of its high human cost, leaders also have a moral responsibility to ensure the risk is minimised, he suggested.

Who's vulnerable?

Drayton spoke at a September Association of International Certified Professional Accountants' SME conference and is the author of Anti-Burnout: How to Create a Psychologically Safe and High-Performance Organisation. He warned that all workers are at risk — whether they are executive leaders or interns. However, some people are more vulnerable, including workers with these traits:

  • High conscientiousness and perfectionism.
  • High introversion — especially introverted high achievers.
  • High agreeableness and hating conflict.
  • Over-identifying with the job role.
  • Idealism, perhaps with unrealistic expectations.

Drayton described burnout as "a systemic issue" that arises from chronic workplace stress that is poorly managed, rather than a reflection of personal weakness.

Burnout affects people's state of mind: Pessimism can lead to depression, and people can become apathetic, exhausted, and anxious and have a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

"People who are burning out are very irritable, on edge, and snappy, which can move over into aggression at times," Drayton said. Other symptoms include workplace cynicism, which can lead to anger and employees being hyper-critical and blaming other people for their own problems.

Those suffering revert to simplistic thinking in "black-and-white concrete terms — they can't embrace complexity", he explained. "They are not interested in listening to other ideas or new ideas because they already feel overwhelmed or overloaded and they don't have any mental space to think about things." Routine tasks can also be a struggle for those suffering from burnout, he added.

Warning signs

Drayton said that work colleagues need to be aware of burnout symptoms they see in other employees, including sickness absence. Burnout can show itself in physical issues such as back ache, neck ache, and headaches, as well as mental distress, including depression. Employees making repeated or careless mistakes or not talking or contributing at meetings can also indicate burnout.

In addition, workers may start to "take things personally" and perceive every comment about their work as critical or hostile. People experiencing burnout become anxious and see the world, their colleagues, and their manager as a threat. There may also be a return to bad habits — problems at work that have been overcome in the past resurface.


Drayton emphasised that the only really effective solution to burnout is to change the way work is organised by not overloading employees, reducing meetings and distractions, and building in strong boundaries between home and work. Quick and easy fixes such as wellness programmes or stress management workshops have very little effectiveness, he said.

He suggested five ways to avoid burnout, especially when working remotely:

Develop a disciplined way of managing your day. This is especially important when working remotely. Put in place clear boundaries and have a proper start and finish time for your schedule. It is critical to switch off at the end of the day.

Block out time in your calendar for certain tasks. This is preferable to the to-do list, which can be overwhelming and never achieved, Drayton said.

Take regular breaks and minimise work interruptions. Consider looking at emails at certain times of the day if practical. The most effective way of working is in short intense bursts of communication, followed by longer periods of deep work, Drayton advised.

Take on volunteer work. As well as developing new skills and broadening your network, working as a volunteer outside the workplace can help anti-burnout efforts. "Encouraging employees to do voluntary work … reduces the occurrence of burnout. … You are attacking the cynicism [part of burnout]," Drayton said.

Increase your resilience. There are many ways to do this, including finding the meaning, purpose, and value in your work, which increases resilience and minimises the probability of burnout.

Oliver Rowe ( is an FM magazine senior editor.