Archive for assessing burnout

Just Needing a Holiday or Burnt Out

The word burnout is one of the buzz words of 2021. I hear it from clients in coaching sessions. I hear it from organisations concerned at the demands COVID has placed on its’ people.  It is hardly surprising. COVID has placed people under multiple life pressures,  with boundaries between work and home broken, and no certainty about what will follow. The word signals that people are reaching their energy limits, but does it mean you are burnt out? You may be pressured; you may be stressed but are you burnout?

It was in 1974 that Dr Herbert Freudenberger coined the term. He saw it as a chronic affliction of the overachiever: people who are so driven to achieve that they work to the exclusion of other parts of their life, denying signs that their way of working is detrimental to their physical and mental health.  Tim Casserley, who himself burnt out whilst working for a global consultancy, concluded in his book, ‘Learning from Burnout’, that it is caused by a collision of individuals with high needs to achieve, being attracted to environments which make high demands and which reward excessive levels of commitment.  Are you that person?

Is Burnout Just Exhaustion?

Burnout is more than exhaustion, though this is often how people talk about themselves in relation to their work.  We can be exhausted by an intensive period of work, and recover through taking a holiday or working on a less demanding project. Burnout is more.

When the World Health Organisation defined burnout in 2019, it drew attention to 3 dimensions that need to be in place:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s work.
  3. Reduced professional performance.

It is the coming together of all 3 that leads to burnout. Being overextended in one’s role can lead to exhaustion.  Being disengaged from one’s work can lead to cynicism. Being out of one’s depth leads to reduced performance. It is when all 3 come together that a red flag is waved.

The Body Control  If the Head Cannot

Those most at risk of burnout are often skilled in ignoring the signs that all is not well. The signs build slowly as the body recognising that the person is operating under stress,  engages the sympathetic nervous system to put the body into a state of fight or flight. The pituitary gland is signalled to send the hormone ACTH to the adrenal glands, which then allows for the release of adrenalin and cortisol. These provide the short-term stimulus the body needs to deal with the immediate stressor, but these hormones are only intended for short term use. They are not designed to be engaged day after day, week after week, month after month. Over time, the adrenal glands become exhausted and unable to respond. It is at that point that the physical signs of burn out start to appear:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability and anger
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Weight gain around the middle
  • Lowered immune system showing up in viruses and frequent colds
  • Headaches, stomach, digestive and bowel problems
  • Type 2 diabetes

All of these symptoms can be challenged by the use of drugs, alcohol, medication, eating sugar laden foods, withdrawing from contact with others, whilst continuing to work to the same pattern.

As the individual notices that they are finding it more difficult to concentrate or that they are achieving less, the solution stays the same – work harder.  As they notice that they are exhausted, the easy solution is to cut out anything which takes energy away from work. As they notice that they are feeling less connected to their work, the satisfaction that came from their efforts is taken away, so putting in that effort becomes more tiring.

Burnout often has to flare to an inferno before the body takes control forcing the individual to take a physical break, as their body protests that it can no longer support this way of living. In taking that break, the opportunity is given to re-evaluate and to make changes to how one engages with work. This can be a powerful wakeup call, as Dina Glouberman’s book, ‘The Joy of Burnout’, argues.   Some, once recovered, simply return to the same pattern, with the same results, and the cycle repeats itself


Are you at risk of burnout?

Dr Freudenberger suggested the following as signs of the risk of burnout. If you fear you may be at risk then ask yourself these questions:

  1. Are you tiring more easily?
  2. Do you feel fatigued rather than energised?
  3. Are people annoying you by commenting that you don’t look well?
  4. Are you working harder and accomplishing less?
  5. Are you increasingly cynical and disenchanted?
  6. Do you often experience unexplained sadness?
  7. Are you forgetting deadlines, appointments or personal possessions?
  8. Have you become more irritable?
  9. Are you more short tempered?
  10. Are you more disappointed with people around you?
  11. Are you seeing family members and close friends less often?
  12. Are you too busy to do routine things like make phone calls or stay in touch with friends?
  13. Are you experiencing increased physical complaints (aches, pains, headaches, lingering colds)?
  14. Is joy elusive?
  15. Does sex seem more trouble than its worth?
  16. Do you have very little to say to people?

If you find yourself answering ‘Yes’ to 5-7 of these then your stress is starting to show. If 7 or more then you are a candidate for burnout and it is a signal to take action.

Can Burnout Be Avoided?

So, is it inevitable that high achievers will burn out if they work in environments which reward intense effort? Of course, the organisation has a role in this, and some organisations are beginning to look at how their working norms contribute to either illness or the loss of staff through burnout.

Relying on an organisation to reduce workloads, to increase resources, or slow the pace of change will help, but it does not guarantee that the same person with the same drivers will not repeat the pattern unless they change their relationship with work.

The Place of Resilience in Preventing Burnout

Individuals need to be their own smoke alarms. To be able to recognise the signs of danger and to be able to respond in ways which enable them to stay engaged, energised and performing.  This is where resilience has a key role.

In a study in The Lancet in 2016, the authors concluded after looking at multiple studies on burnout in doctors that the key to combatting burnout was the cultivation of resilience that focussed on 3 key areas:

External Resources:  Having strong connections with friends, family and in their professional relationships.

Internal Resources:  Having coping mechanisms and stress management skills

Extrinsic Resources:  Being able to reflect on their experiences and to derive meaning from the work that they do

Burnout is too serious a condition to use the word simply to signal that a holiday would be welcome. It is a condition that impacts on the psychological and physical wellbeing of the talented to the detriment of themselves, their relationships, their ambitions and the organisations they work with.

Resilience building is a key component in ensuring that the desire to perform well is not undermined by lacking the resources to manage a healthy relationship with work.



Casserley, T and Megginson, D. Learning from Burnout: Developing Sustainable Leaders and Avoiding Career Derailment, 2009, Elsevier.

Freudenberger, H.J.,   Staff Burnout  Journal of Social Issues, Winter 1974

Glouberman, D, The Joy of Burnout: How the End of the World Can Be a New Beginning, 2019, Skyros Books

Regehr, C et al, Interventions to Reduce the Consequences of Stress in Physicians, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 2014, vol 202, 5, pp353-359

West, Colin P et al, Interventions to Prevent and Reduce Physician Burnout: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, The Lancet, vol 388, no 10057, 2016, pp2272-2281


Are You Burnt Out or Just Needing a Holiday?


You feel tired, you can’t wait for the pressure to reduce but are you really burnt out, or just in need of a break.

The distinction is important because burn-out is recognised by psychologists as a very particular condition, which is the result of the toxic combination of individuals who are driven in their work finding organisations which reward them for that over-commitment. Author of “Learning from Burnout” Tim Casserley ( who owns that he was burnt-out) draws a dramatic analogy between burn out and addiction.  The employee is addicted to work.  They get a high from pushing themselves hard, and from seeing that they are doing more, achieving more, competing harder than those around them.  And, then like all fixes, there is a come down.  Work becomes joyless and only doing more, competing harder will meet the need.

For a time it seems to work, the individual will report being able to work punishing hours, but while they are unaware of the impact on them, their brain is not.  The brain recognises the stress on the system, and kicks in the adrenal glands: the glands sitting on top of the kidneys which secrete the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol.  To the adrenal glands, the message is that the individual needs to be prepared for fight or flight, so it releases hormones in order to raise the pulse, increase focus, send blood to the muscles, raise the blood sugar levels and prepare you for escaping or facing off immediate danger.  However, when the brain is sending the same message again and again, the adrenal glands become tired and less effective at secreting hormones.  As the supply of the emergency hormones reduces the individual starts to notice they are getting more and more tired, They may notice they are less resistant to colds and other bugs, they may notice that their blood pressure is low because they get dizzy at times, or that they need to boost their sugar levels regularly, but they do not connect this with how they are working.  The brain and body have lost sight of each other.

What they often do not notice, but others around them will, is that they are becoming less effective at what they are doing.  What they may register but suppress are feelings of low connection with their work .  What they experience but may not admit is that they feel disconnected from people.


Torben Friis

Anyone watching the last series of Borgen will have watched the gradual burn out of Torben Friis, the driven TV news producer, who sees his life fall apart, when the total commitment he has given to his work over his home life, is shown to be faulty when  a new young Head of Programmes challenges his capability.  Suddenly, his total commitment to the news department offers no reward, and he is left visibly shaken and stressed.   While he seeks an immediate fix in a clumsy affair with a member of his team, that affair in itself is an indicator of his disconnection to others. He has no sense of her emotional needs.  For him it is simply respite before going back into the fray again.


Many of us complain of being burnt out at times, but as Ayala  Pines, a researcher on burnout writes,

“In order to burn out, one has first to be on fire”. The Torbin Friis’s of the world continue fuelling the fire until it burns them out.  At that point they are faced by existential choices about how they want to live their lives going forward.  They are asked to confront issues they have avoided about purpose, about what success really means, about whether the price of success is worth it, and about the value which they put on themselves and relationships.

So if you think that you are in danger of burnout ask yourself these questions:

  • How much of my identity is tied to the work that I do?
  • How rewarded am I by what I do relative to the time I am giving to my work?
  • How often do I find it difficult to get out of bed because I feel exhausted even after a good night’s sleep?
  • What ways am I using to boost my energy levels, legal or illegal in order to keep going?
  • How connected do I feel to people who are key parts of my life?

Your answers may reveal that you are simply in need of a holiday, but if you find that there is a correlation between how much you are giving to your work, and how much it is depleting you, then it is time to take time out to create a space for personal rehab and renewal.