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What is burnout? 5 signs stress has gone too far for too long

Dr Tim Sharp

How to tell when work stress has become burnout

A stressed woman holds her head in her hands as she stares at her laptop screen while surrounded by papers
A stressed woman holds her head in her hands as she stares at her laptop screen while surrounded by papers

Many of us are familiar with juggling tight deadlines, an overflowing inbox and an ever-increasing to-do list, but when high-octane work pace becomes unrelenting and breaks are few and far between, we’re at risk of burnout.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional or mental exhaustion, defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

WHO has added burnout to its International Classification of Diseases, helping allow healthcare providers to better address the symptoms. The trouble is, many people simply don’t realise when they’re at risk of work burnout.

Causes of burnout

According to Dr Tim Sharp – positive psychologist, founder of The Happiness Institute and Adjunct Professor of positive psychology at RMIT and UTS – burnout often stems from unrealistic demands (or too many of them) and feeling out of control.

“These are especially common in workplaces that are understaffed or have poor management practices,” he explains. “Further, the ‘always on’ culture in some organisations and the expectation of responses 24 hours a day, seven days a week, can be highly problematic.”

And, although we’re known as ‘the lucky country’, Aussies aren’t resistant to the effects of burnout. In fact, a survey revealed that 25% of Australian workers take time off each year due to stress.

A man laying on a couch rubs his eyes

Signs and symptoms of burnout

Tim confirms that the majority of burnout symptoms are similar to those of depression:

  • Significant change in behaviour or personality

  • Change of appetite or sleeping patterns

  • Irritability and/or

  • Social withdrawal or a loss of interest in activities you previously found enjoyable

Related: The physical and mental effects of stress on your body

Other, more subtle warning signs of burnout include:

1. You keep getting sick

When we feel stressed our body releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, firing up the part of the brain called the amygdala, which triggers a fight or flight response. It’s an ancient warning system that’s designed to help us escape physical threats – such as predators – so as well as raising our heart rate (which redirects blood flow and energy to the limbs), our body also takes its attention away from other systems.

This includes the immune and digestive systems, which is why periods of stress can make you more vulnerable to illnesses such as the common cold and gastroenteritis.

2. You feel increasingly pessimistic

Because of the toll prolonged stress can take on our bodies, it can often manifest in a low mood, decreased satisfaction with life and a tendency to be pessimistic.

Studies suggest that those on the road to burnout tend to be pessimistic, meaning they catastrophise and expect more bad things to happen than good.

Related: 6 ways to get help for mental health – and you won’t have to pay for a thing!

3. You keep getting headaches or dizzy spells

When our bodily systems become deprioritised for too long, we can experience additional physical symptoms including headaches and heart rhythm disturbance. Listen to your body!

4. You feel drained

Feeling emotionally exhausted is a clear sign of impending burnout.

“If or when these feelings are becoming overwhelming, impacting significantly on your ability to function in the world, or if you’re having difficulty concentrating or making decisions and can’t see a way out, then it’s definitely time to take action and seek professional help,” advises Tim.

5. You can’t get it together at work

Chronic stress can significantly impact the way the brain functions, interfering with memory, creativity and problem solving.

If you find it’s taking you more time and energy to accomplish less than usual then it’s a sign you need to take a breath or a day off and change tack. “Try to clarify your priorities and focus on what needs to be done, which also involves determining what can’t be done or what you can leave,” advises Tim. “Make sure you prioritise sleep and rest. And focus on what you can control, trying to worry less.”

Stress can make you more vulnerable to illnesses such as the common cold or gastronenteritis

How to deal with burnout

If you can get on top of stress, that can help prevent it leading to burnout.

“We can’t always manage life on our own. So it’s very important to be prepared, at times, to reach out and ask for help,” says Tim. “This might involve talking to a friend or colleague; or it might require talking to a professional like your GP or a psychologist.”

Burnout can become a serious mental health issue, so if you have an urgent need for help - contact one of the helplines below.

National helplines

  • Lifeline (24 hours): 13 11 14

  • Kids Helpline (24 hours): 1800 55 1800

  • MensLine Australia (24 hours): 1300 78 99 78

  • SANE Helpline (mental illness information, support and referral): 1800 18 7263

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

Dr Tim Sharp aka Dr Happy smiling at the camera while wearing a navy suit and glasses

Dr Tim Sharp

Dr Tim Sharp is Australia’s very own ‘Dr Happy’ who is at the forefront of the positive psychology movement with three degrees in psychology (including a PhD.). Dr Happy is a passionate professional with a wealth of experience both in the field and the media, and is the founder and CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) of The Happiness Institute, Australia’s first and best known organisation devoted to enhancing happiness. Tim really loves coffee; maybe a little too much...