If you are a person with a ‘can do, go- go- go’ attitude at work and at home, then be warned – burnout could be coming for you. Because high-achievers are often so passionate about what they do, they tend to ignore the fact that they’re working exceptionally long hours, taking on exceedingly heavy work loads, and putting enormous pressure on themselves to excel – all of which make them ripe for burnout.

The physical effect of burnout

A popular myth is that burnout is psychological – it is not. Although psychological factors may contribute to the onset of burn-out, it becomes a physical problem. Burn-out is not ‘all in your head’.

The state of constant stress releases unacceptably high levels of cortisol and adrenaline into our bloodstream and this has a detrimental impact on us physically. Stress focuses our attention on fight or flight, so our body’s resources must be concentrated on the impending threat to our survival. Over time, the depletion of new and healthy cells erodes the efficiency of our immune system and this leads to the beginning of burnout.

Burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to:

  1. Physical and emotional exhaustion
  2. Cynicism and detachment
  3. Feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

Physical and emotional exhaustion

Elevated feelings of anxiety are common in the early stages of burnout. One who is unable to deal with issues on a day-to-day basis may fall to pieces at the slightest hiccup. Chronic fatigue and sleeping problems will arise, particularly early-morning waking. Forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating are also indicators that burnout could be on the horizon.

Physical symptoms may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting, and/or headaches, muscular pain and joint inflammation (all of which should be medically assessed). Loss of appetite is also common.

Feelings of unworthiness, being irritable and having angry outbursts will likely occur as you move closer to the edge of full blown burnout.

Cynicism and detachment

At first, this may present itself as negative self-talk, or a shift from a glass half-full to a glass half-empty attitude. At its worst, this may move beyond how you feel about yourself and extend to trust issues with coworkers and family members.

Next is the tendency towards isolation and feelings of detachment. Saying no to social engagements and feeling disconnected from your environment. The symptoms become more pronounced during the second stage with warning signs that include absenteeism, lateness or a don’t-care attitude coupled with constant complaints of being tired.

Feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

These feelings present as a general sense that nothing is going right or nothing matters. As the symptoms worsen, these feelings may become immobilising, making those suffering often ask the question: ‘What’s the point?’.

Procrastination, struggling to make decisions, becoming overwhelmed by your workload and starting to withdraw are all indicators. There is a danger too of substance abuse, particularly the abuse of alcohol, or over-the counter medication such as sleeping tablets, followed by another tablet to help you wake up in the morning.

During the third stage of burnout, the so-called classic burnout, the sufferer appears to be in a state of deep depression.

If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, this should be a wake-up call that you may be on a dangerous path. Take some time to self-reflect and assess the amount of stress in your life and find ways to reduce it before it’s too late.

How to stop burnout in its tracks

Start by tackling one problem at a time. Choose the problem with the highest burn-out potential that could be solved with concrete solutions. If you take action on one level, you might find an improvement in the others as well.

Involve your family in your striving for balance and share the daily responsibility you might be carrying on your own. Adopt healthy eating and exercise habits; and set boundaries both personally and in the workplace.

Studies have found that the consistent practice of meditation can reduce stress and anxiety as well as improve reduced immune function. All valuable anecdotes for avoiding burn-out.

Burn-out isn’t like the flu; it doesn’t go away after a few weeks. If you recognise that you are at risk, a good starting point is to find a mentor, a professionally trained coach or a trusted confidant to help you begin to examine and reframe some of the (probably untrue) assumptions that cause you to drive yourself beyond a healthy level of endurance.