How To Avoid Burnout (Or Recover From It)


Oct 27, 2015


A 25-year-old man reported feeling lethargic and low-energy, and dissatisfied with work. He felt constantly exhausted and cynical about life.

The client was dealing with occupational burnout.

What is Burnout?

According to Christine Louise Hohlbaum, author of the book, The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time in Our 24/7 World, “Burnout is a silent condition, induced by chronic stress, that is characterized by physical or emotional exhaustion, cynicism and lack of professional efficacy.”

As the definition suggests, burnout is used as a general term to suggest a prolonged state of exhaustion. This could stem from one’s professional roles, or from lifestyle or circumstances. Everyone – from the stay–at-home mother, to the 9-to-5 professional, to college students, to psychologists and doctors – can fall prey to burnout.

Some of the most  common symptoms of burnout are:

Physical symptoms of Burnout

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Nausea, dizziness, palpitations, headaches or bodyaches
  • Difficulty falling asleep/ disturbed sleep/ not feeling refreshed after waking up
  • Changes in appetite/ overeating

Psychological symptoms of Burnout

  • Lack of motivation to go to work/ study/ participate in daily activities
  • Less interest in activities that were previously enjoyable
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased dissatisfaction
  • Increased cynicism, pessimism and disengagement
  • Anxiety

What Are Causes of Burnout?

While these symptoms are often common across cases of burnout, there is no single, uniform definition of the condition. Often, the diagnosis is based on a client’s symptoms in the context of his or her own ecosystem. And while many of the symptoms of burnout look similar to those of depression, here, they stem from stress.

There are various personality traits that predispose people to burnout, including unrealistic expectations of one’s self, perfectionism, an inability to delegate work, and a predisposition to think negatively. The well-known Type A personality – the high-achieving workaholic – is also at greater risk of burnout. Finally, a lack of self-care rituals can also contribute to burnout.

But burnout is also influenced by external factors. Underappreciation at work, work overload, a lack of incentive, unclear job expectations, and an unsupportive superior and colleagues can contribute to burnout. Research shows that conflict between one’s value system and the organizational ethos of one’s employer can also contribute to burnout.

You might wonder how this is different from the general ups and downs of life and work. Burnout can lower work productivity, lead to absenteeism, and impact overall quality of life. Stress and burnout can prevent people from being mindfully present for each other, instead responding either by withdrawing or displacing their negative emotions on close relationships. Research shows that burnout can lower immunity and, in turn, leave sufferers physically vulnerable. And finally, if ignored, burnout can give rise to depression.

How to Recover From Burnout

Only if we take time and choose to listen to the signals describe above, can we learn to manage or avoid burnout. Therapy can help train clients in this process, but it’s doable on your own, too.

Christina Maslach, of the University of California, Berkeley, says the antithesis of burnout is engagement. Unlike burnout, engagement requires a degree of involvement, heightened energy and interest in life activities. Engaging in self-care rituals that rejuvenate you can be a good starting point. (Read more about self-care on The Swaddle.) Research has shown that learning to relax, take adequate breaks, and sleep well are factors that add to our wellbeing and recovery from burnout. Practicing mindfulness, exercising, cutting down on online time, and setting appropriate work-life boundaries can also help. Finally, choosing to form healthy relationships outside of work and seeking social support can serve as a buffer against burnout.

A young mother to a 3-year-old boy speaks about her heightened frustration and emotional exhaustion. She further describes herself as being dissatisfied and unmotivated. She mentions that she is the sole caretaker for her child and refuses to get help with childcare.

Classic burnout. We focused on teaching her to be kind to herself, to delegate yet supervise, to lessen her inner critic, and to slow down.

Burnout isn’t fun. But it can be a reminder to re-examine your life and goals, to be in touch with your own self, and to find anchors within and outside that contribute to your emotional well-being – and ultimately lead you to find a happier, more balanced life.


Written By Sonali Gupta

Sonali Gupta is a practicing clinical psychologist with 10 years of experience. She conducts workshops to enhance the emotional well-being of couples, parents and children. She can be reached at sonaligupta297@gmail.com. You can find more of Sonali’s thoughts on Twitter (@guptasonali) and on her website, guptasonali.com


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