how to spot and solve burnout

Close to burning out? How to spot the signs and take back control at work


While "burnout" can feel like a fairly new phenomenon, it's a condition that can last a lot longer than standard stress. Vhi Health Coach Dr. Diarmaid Fitzgerald shines a light on a uniquely work-based phenomenon and gives you the tools to find a clear route out of it.

“Burnout” has been officially recognised as a clinical condition since 2019, but it can still carry connotations of just being the latest buzzword for “stress”. In fact, it’s a unique phenomenon that allows us to get to the heart of a very modern problem. So, the first thing to know about burnout is that it comes directly from chronic workplace stress, even if its effects can spill over into the rest of your life.

It has three dimensions: overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of negativity or cynicism for the job, and reduced effectiveness at work. It’s normal to experience occasional stress if you’re particularly busy or facing looming deadlines. But true burnout occurs when your stress levels go beyond that point and simply won’t subside. It manifests as something you’re constantly carrying. It’s always there.

What symptoms should you look for?

Burnout can be tricky to pinpoint. It’s not necessarily something where you wake up one morning and realise you have it. It will manifest over time. So, if you think you might be on the verge – or in the midst! – of burnout, take a step back and ask yourself these questions:

  • Does work regularly make me anxious or stressed?
  • Am I reluctant to go into work?
  • Have I noticed a loss of energy or concentration at work?
  • Do I feel cynical or irritable when it comes to work?
  • Am I experiencing an overall lack of job satisfaction?

If it’s truly burnout, these negative feelings shouldn’t be pervasive throughout your life, although you might have issues with sleep.

What can cause burnout?

Genetics can play a role. Some people are naturally more prone to “melancholy” and this can impact how the condition affects them psychologically. Poor diet can compound the problem. For instance, an iron deficiency can make you tired and exacerbate negative feelings. The same goes for a lack of exercise, so lifestyle factors definitely come into play.

That being said, it’s important to understand that burnout is primarily a situational problem. Maybe you feel pressured due to a lack of resources. You’re dealing with mounting expectations and feel that you’re working beyond your scope, or competency. You may find yourself answering work calls when you’re playing with your kids in the garden. You could be facing a conflict with colleagues or even workplace bullying. There’s a whole host of scenarios that will be personal to you, but the roots of burnout will always lie in your job.

What are useful coping techniques?

There are ways to alleviate stress and gain some perspective, better placing you to make positive changes in the longer term. Meditation is really useful for this, and there are a host of meditation apps that are easy, accessible ways in for people who haven’t done it before.

There are other simple techniques that don’t require an app. Before work, or when you catch a break, focus on your breathing. The 4-7-8 technique prolongs your exhalations to alleviate acute stress, relaxing your body by activating your nervous system’s healing state (known as the ‘parasympathetic state’). It’s as simple as breathing in for a count of 4, holding the breath for 7, then releasing it over a count of 8. That should be effective in helping you reset in the short-term.

You can practice mindfulness by “grounding” yourself, getting you out of your head and into the present. So, sit quietly and think: what can I see? Focus on that. What can I hear? What can I touch? You can even do it while you’re eating, by being a bit more deliberate and focusing on what you can taste.

Building resilience – your mental toughness or ability to handle challenges – can better equip you to deal with burnout. Mindfulness exercises aid this, as will making sure your physical wellbeing is being looked after. So, try to find the right self-care routine, with a healthy diet, regular exercise and solid sleep hygiene. The latter means that, even if your sleep is disrupted, you’re sticking to a schedule, putting away devices and removing blue light in the lead up to bed, giving you the best chance for a restful night. Try to prioritise tasks so that, once you clock off, “work” and “home” won’t blend into one.

You can’t have resilience without the help of other people, either. This is where talking about your concerns is vital. Are there colleagues you can lean on? Do you have a support network that you can tap into? Things like employee assistance programmes can be of great benefit if they’re available. The main thing is to talk about your concerns, so chatting through your situation and overall health with your GP is definitely recommended.


Tackling the wider issues

As well as managing yourself in the moment, you need to think about the big picture. Remember: addressing burnout is not all about you. Consider the issue you’re facing, whether it’s increased workload, an overstretched team or a lack of support. Is there something you can do to take control of the situation? Can you get additional resources to help you solve the issue? Is it time to speak to your employer?

This can feel daunting but remember that we all experience work stress from time to time. List your responsibilities and workload beforehand – it will reinforce how your situation is unmanageable and give you the confidence to advocate for yourself. Be open about how you are feeling and what you need to overcome it. It will benefit both of you in the long run.

It can help to reflect on similar situations you’ve faced to figure out your next move and gain perspective. Think about your overall vision for what you want to achieve with your career. Is this a role that can give you true gratification? Ultimately, that’s what you should be aiming for. Through it all, remind yourself that you are not defined by a project, role or title. The world is bigger than just work. And there’s plenty of help out there if you need it.

Our experts are on hand to provide guidance and advice when you feel burned out. Find out more on our mental health supports page.

This content is for information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek advice from your GP or an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your health, or before commencing a new healthcare regime. If you believe that you are experiencing a medical emergency call 999 / 112 or seek emergency assistance immediately.

Meet our Vhi Verified Expert 

Dr. Diarmaid Fitzgerald

Vhi Health Coach

Physiotherapist, Vhi 360 Health Centre