Health Agenda

Mental Health

Beyond work burnout: How to spot it, beat it and reignite

Aussie research shows work burnout is most common in people with ‘caring’ roles. Here’s a guide to identify whether you're burnt out and what to do next.

Living with COVID-19 for more than 2 years has changed job landscapes and permanently shifted the way we work. And, with the separation between home and work shrinking (not to mention the juggle of home schooling), plus the stress over our health and our families, it’s not surprising the term “work burnout” has hit the headlines. 

But in Australia, burnout isn’t listed as a formal medical condition. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) positions it as an “occupational phenomenon”, rather than an official diagnosis. 

But what exactly is work burnout, how do you recognise the signs of it and, more importantly, how can you avoid it?

What is work burnout?

WHO defines work burnout as a syndrome resulting from “chronic workplace stress”, and identifies its symptoms as exhaustion, poorer work performance, and increased negativity and mental distance from a person’s job. 

Australian psychiatrist, Professor Gordon Parker, says this model of burnout is built on a tool from the 1980s: the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). 

Together with researchers from UNSW’s School of Psychiatry and the Black Dog Institute – a facility that works in the identification, prevention and treatment of mental illness – Prof Parker ran 2 major Australian studies in 2020 that looked at over 1,000 adults, and found a far broader range of symptoms. These were then collated to produce the Sydney Burnout Measure (SBM), a new checklist to help identify burnout. Some of the symptoms they found include exhaustion, cognitive impairment (such as forgetfulness, struggling to focus and difficulty retaining information) and a “loss of lust for life”, says Prof Parker.

As well as affecting work performance, Prof Parker and his team found these symptoms resulted in psychological symptoms like increased anxiety and insomnia, despite feeling tired all the time. Adults in the study were also more likely to report symptoms of depression.

Burnout can also lead to more physical symptoms, including a suppressed immune system. In her 2014 book Thrive, Arianna Huffington describes experiencing severe burnout to the point of collapse, resulting in a broken cheekbone and stitches. Others describe lying down one day and not feeling able to get up.

Is burnout the same as depression?

Prof Parker – who founded the Black Dog Institute – says burnout and depression can overlap. However, he describes burnout as a sense of helplessness rather than the hopelessness of depression. He contrasts the loss of zest with depression’s inability to feel pleasure in life. “With burnout, people say, ‘Nothing gives me a buzz these days.’”

Artist and university lecturer Yvette Watt, who developed burnout in 2020, says she resisted when her GP wanted to prescribe antidepressants. “There were times when I felt a kind of depression, but never that it wouldn’t lift,” she recalls. “It was more being demoralised than being depressed.” 

There are also biological differences between the 2 conditions. In her 2012 study Burnout and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease, Dr Sharon Toker found depression marked by an elevated level of the stress hormone cortisol (hypercortisolism) while burnout was associated with a deficient stress response (hypocortisolism), where the stress hormone is lowered.

What are the signs of burnout?

Signs of burnout can include:

  • withdrawal from friends
  • diminished productivity
  • lowered concentration
  • a sense of stagnation at work
  • constant worrying
  • taking longer to complete tasks
  • not feeling refreshed by sleep.

“You become an unrecognisable version of yourself,” says Yvette. “You go from being productive, capable and somebody who's proud of their achievements to [someone for whom] an achievement is getting out of bed.”

Which jobs are most likely to lead to work burnout?

In Prof Parker’s studies, work burnout is more likely to affect those in caring professions – doctors, nurses, teachers, police, veterinarians, clerics – and dutiful occupations, like lawyers. “Burnout is distinctly overrepresented in reliable, conscientious, dutiful and perfectionistic people,” he says.

At 28, Vicky Dawes was a doctor doing her speciality training in the emergency department at a Sydney hospital. She loved the thrilling combination of unpredictability, mental challenges and making a real difference in people’s lives. But in 2008, she started to feel “a dread bordering on terror” at the thought of going in to work. She felt both disconnected from her body: “numb, but also wired”. A peer had taken his life a year earlier, and she was withdrawing socially. “It was as if my ‘fight or flight response’ dial was stuck on ‘max’,” she recalls.

“The sad aspect is that burnout is much more likely to afflict ‘good’ people,” says Prof Parker. “People who work hard at their job, people who care for others for endless hours.” Studies have shown burnout is more common among women than men too, while outside of the paid workforce, carers are also susceptible to burnout.

Is burnout an employer’s responsibility?

“Broadly speaking, Australian employers have a legal obligation to minimise workers’ exposure to work-related factors that can increase the risk of stress,” says Stephanie Kok, an employment lawyer with online law firm Sprintlaw. As a result, high workloads and job demands need to be recognised and managed effectively within the workplace. 

Prof Parker advises any concerned employer spotting signs of distress or reduced performance in their staff members to ask open-ended questions about what they’ve noticed. “Because if you ask someone, ‘Are you OK?’, you will get a monosyllabic ‘yes’.” Likewise, he encourages anyone feeling burnout to consider having an open conversation with their boss and to talk through options.

Many major companies use preventive programs because they understand that losing staff to burnout costs money. In fact, the World Economic Forum prices it at US$322 billion each year.

How do you treat work burnout?

According to Prof Parker, who treats burnt out public servants, his approach is 3-fold. “In my view, you have to get them out of that job, get them to have a decent break, then come back refreshed in a totally different job,” he says. “But because they're perfectionists, they want to hang on to that old job.”

“If I left medicine altogether, who was I, if not a doctor?” Dr Dawes says she asked herself after leaving her job in 2009. She says hiking and camping rejuvenated her and, after completing her masters in counselling, Dr Dawes now has a private practice, counselling doctors and university students.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, recovery from burnout can include:

  • taking time off to rest and recharge
  • asking for help
  • considering changing jobs
  • ensuring you have regular breaks
  • meditation to help develop de-stressing strategies
  • exercising regularly
  • starting a hobby
  • getting enough sleep 
  • enjoying a balanced and healthy diet
  • avoiding a ‘perfectionist’ mentality and practising acceptance
  • seeking professional advice.

“You have to be forgiving of yourself,” says Yvette. “You have to accept that you’re not the productive person you were. I’ve removed the word 'should' from my vocabulary – you do what you can and learn to cut yourself a lot of slack.”

If you want help with burnout or if you're struggling with depression or anxiety and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by Alison Boleyn
First published April 2022

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