How To Identify And Prevent Burnout

Burnout, can feel like it sounds.  Your energy is spent, used up and you have nothing left to give yet the fire still demands fuel. If you’ve literally no fuel left to give, your body and mind will eventually crash. Burnout can happen to anyone of any age, but it’s most well researched in caring professions, where compassion demands are high yet organisational support is low, and you have to keep on giving regardless of your personal circumstances.

How To Spot Burnout

Burnout is literally where you have given energy to a role or person at the personal expense of your own wellbeing and you are showing signs that your not able to carry on without a cost. If it’s about a job, you might find that you take more frequent sick days, feel more irritable, get into spats with colleagues or lose focus on your role. There are signs of burnout and they’re different for everyone.

Emotional Exhaustion

Is about feeling literally drained of your resources and feeling such a lack of energy that nothing seems to replenish you. You might feel like you cant face doing much, helping anyone else or listening to someone else’s story. Sick days, fatigue, physical pain without cause are all signs.


This can look to someone from the outside like your a grumpy git, but actually you’re detaching from others as a strategy to protect yourself. Feeling negative towards others, cynical or lacking in shits to give, is a result of not noticing how emotionally exhausted you’ve become. It can become more serious if you ignore it.

Reduced Personal Accomplishment

Feeling less productive, incompetent or inadequate at work or in general is linked to depression and indicates that you’re unable to cope with the demands placed upon you. Sometimes in burnout this results in a person experiencing feelings of failure rather than acknowledging they might need support.

What To Do About It

What we’re talking about here is burnout and not individual situations where a person might be experiencing specific mental health illness. Deeper philosophical/existential questions of the human condition go beyond the scope of this blog post. If you’re feeling really depressed,  hopeless or suicidal, please call the Samaritans free on 116123 (UK) or contact your local counselling service. Barnstaple has an excellent counselling service called Clarity who offer low cost services.

For those of you who need some practical tips on staying mentally well, read on.


Boundaries help us know ourselves better. They help us establish how we feel about stuff, what we intend to say, do and what we will accept from others. Knowing these things keeps us, and others safe. For example, if you’re in the middle of doing something, and a person comes up and interrupts you, asking if you can do something else, boundaries will help you notice a few things. They’ll help you notice that you’ve been interrupted, that you’ve been asked to do another task on top of the one you’re involved with. It will help you stop and ask yourself: can I do this without feeling overloaded, and if not, can I say so?

Boundary setting can feel very strange if you’ve not done it before, and it takes practice. Without boundaries self worth can suffer, so it’s something worth thinking about.

Set boundaries by:

Considering what your ‘core values’ are. What is of critical importance to you and what will you not compromise on in terms of behaviour and speech. This might be ‘when I come home from work I need 30 minutes to destress before mingling with family’ or ‘I don’t gossip about people’. The following worksheets are really helpful and freely available on the web

Kids and boundaries

Creating Healthy Boundaries

Making Effective Boundaries

Establish Good Support In and Out of Work

If you’ve set your boundaries you can begin to take on board what you’re responsible for and what’s outside your control. Sometimes this alone is enough to take of the pressure and alleviate feelings of burnout. Having someone or somewhere to go to deload or have a good rant is really useful too. Support doesn’t have to be formal and intense, it can be a call to a friend or a natter to a neighbour. You might not even need to mention the reason why you feel stressed, because chatting about something off topic is therapeutic too. Talking for its own sake, without problem solving is as useful as anything, and often when people try to ‘fix’ stuff for you, it can be irritating. If you need to talk without solution, say ‘I need a rant, please don’t solve it for me is that ok?’.

Sometimes professional support is critical, and if you need organisational help, corporate counselling or a line manager to hear you, find someone who has the interpersonal skills to help.

Relationships at work are the make or break of a job, and you don’t have to suffer bullying or harassment at the workplace.

Identify your ‘feel good’ list

It’s easy enough to take the path of least resistance and habitually go to pastimes that help us ‘check out’ of life. Drinking, smoking, sitting down in front of the telly, eating, social media, porn: all these offer relief from the daily grind but do they really offer sustainable strategies that cultivate resilience and positive mental health?

Make a list of things that really make you feel good. Not the things you do on autopilot, or stuff you’ll feel a bit guilty about, but the stuff that gives you physical or psychological feelings of ‘well, that’s really quite nice’. These might be:

  • Taking a bath
  • Reading a book/magazine/listening to podcasts
  • Dancing/exercising
  • Going to a movie
  • Cooking
  • Massage

Immediate Strategies

It’s worth noticing if you’re the kind of person who can’t say no or works long hours without a break. Get up from your desk by setting an alarm on your phone ever hour. Walk to natural light and take a few deep breaths, drink something and stretch your legs.

If your at home and can’t leave, lie on the floor and close your eyes. Breathe and feel it going in and out, and just be for a few minutes. Put something heavy on top of your body, like cushions, and feel weighted down, grounded and heavy.

If you’re busy and cannot stop, just acknowledge to yourself how you feel and notice your inner narrative. Be aware of the voice that says negative things, and replace it with phrases that are more compassionate. ‘You’re useless, why can’t you do this?’ Could be replaced with ‘you’re doing ok, the best you can and you’re due a break right now’. How we talk to ourselves is how others will treat us. It’s worth being your own best friend.

The Take Home

Self care can sound a bit fluffy but actually the ability to take care of yourself shows real resilience and adulting. If you can take care of yourself it doesn’t mean you don’t need others, but that you’re able to identify when you’ve exhausted your own resources and need some support. Humans are social beings, and in most cases thrive in environments where mutual respect, safety and support are a given. Take a minute to consider your own approach to self care and how you can be your own best friend.