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What is burnout?

Laura Harcourt

Written byLaura Harcourt

Male standing on roadside with arms in the air. Posture suggests feeling free and alive
Identify the tell-tale signs of burnout, discover the factors that can lead to emotional exhaustion, and ways to find relief if you're feeling burnt out.
Work can often be a stressful place, with everyone facing pressure no matter what their job title, age, or level of experience is. Most of the time a little bit of pressure can motivate us to be more productive and tick those tasks off our to-do lists, but what happens when work pressure and stress get too much?

With stress and other mental health concerns accounting for 51% of all sick days taken in the UK in 2022, it’s clear that too much stress at work can really affect your physical and mental health.1

Chronic long-term stress can lead to burnout, a feeling of complete exhaustion that affects every aspect of your life.2  We’ll delve deeper into what burnout is, how to recognise the signs of burnout, and the steps you can take to tackle the symptoms.

What is burnout?

Burnout was coined in the 1970s by American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger and is defined as a state of physical and emotional exhaustion that results from long-term work-related stress.3,4

It was originally used to describe the effects of intense stress amongst those with high-pressure jobs, like doctors and nurses selflessly dedicating themselves to the well-being of others, only to find themselves utterly drained, devoid of energy, and unable to cope.4

But nowadays, burnout has stealthily crept into the lives of many of us, from ambitious career-driven individuals to tireless homemakers, with around 50% of all workers in the UK feeling burnt out and like they’re running on empty.5

Burnout isn’t just limited to those already in the workplace though - studies have shown that students can experience symptoms of burnout too.6  With the mounting pressure to perform academically and the stress of exams, alongside social changes like leaving home for the first time and struggling to make friends, many students find themselves feeling distressed, even wanting to drop out.7

What are the symptoms of burnout?

Being able to recognise the signs of burnout is a great first step in tackling its effects. But it can be hard to identify the symptoms of burnout as they’re often mistaken as symptoms of anxiety or depression.8

Whilst they may appear very similar, each condition is very different. Anxiety and depression are conditions that can have a variety of triggers, often specific to each person.9 On the other hand, burnout has a very clear cause – exposure to unrelenting, unwanted stress.10
There are many burnout symptoms, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) describe burnout as having 3 main characteristics that set it apart from other mental health conditions. These include:10 
  • Feeling exhausted all the time 
  • Negative emotions towards your job/work
  • Being less productive 
Other common signs of burnout can include:10 
  • Feeling helpless or trapped 
  • Feelings of loneliness 
  • Self-doubt 
  • Feeling overwhelmed 
  • Procrastinating tasks
It is essential to seek help from your GP if you find yourself struggling with work pressure, stress, and any overwhelming feelings. Your GP will help you determine the cause of your symptoms, advise you, and offer treatment options if necessary.

How long does burnout last?

How long burnout lasts depends on everyone’s situation, but recognising the symptoms of burnout sooner rather than later will allow you to seek help faster. Burnout will continue, and possibly get worse, the longer it goes unaddressed.12

What causes emotional exhaustion?

Whilst the WHO defines burnout as an occupational hazard, there are a variety of other factors that, perhaps when combined with work-related stress, can cause burnout or emotional exhaustion.11

In a recent 2020 study, Mental Health UK found 9 other factors that can contribute to burnout, including:12 
  • Worrying about money 
  • Working from home 
  • Worrying about job security 
  • Loneliness and isolation 
  • Poor health 
  • Sleep problems 
  • Relationships 
  • Caring for others 
  • Home-schooling children

How to recover from burnout

Recovering from stress or burnout requires a combination of learning what works best for you and putting that into practice. It can take time and should never be rushed, but it is important and shouldn’t be ignored.

Think of it like this: when a professional athlete suffers an injury, they must take time off the field to rest and recover, so that they can return to their sport healed and ready to perform as well as they can. Recovering from stress and burnout should be seen the same way so that you can return to your daily activities as your best self.13

Sometimes, we can feel guilty for taking time off work to recover when we feel stressed or burnt out, or we might feel that we can’t take time out because we have too much to do. This is what researchers have called the recovery paradox.14

The recovery paradox suggests that when our minds and our bodies need time to recover, we’re less likely to be able to do something about it.14 So, when we feel stressed and work is demanding, we tend to start taking fewer breaks and working longer hours to get things finished. This leaves us feeling even more exhausted and less motivated day after day.14

Effective burnout recovery is extremely important for your mental and physical health, your relationships, and your performance at work.13 Whilst it may feel like a daunting or impossible task, there are steps you can take to help you recover:

1. Recognise that you’re burnt out

The first step to recovery is to recognise exactly how you feel and accept it - you won’t be able to recover effectively without first acknowledging your situation.15

Take time to think about what is making you feel burnt out by keeping a stress diary. Not only is keeping a diary a great way to get negative thoughts out of your head, but a stress diary can also help you keep track of what makes you feel stressed each day. You can then look back and see if there’s a pattern.16

If you decide to seek professional help, they may ask you to keep a diary. So being one step ahead and taking your diary with you can help your therapist or doctor better understand how you feel.

2. Speak to someone

Once you’ve recognised your feelings, telling someone is an important next step. Whether it’s your manager at work, a loved one, or your GP, vocalising your feelings will make others aware of how you feel and signal to them that you need support.

Telling someone that you feel stressed, worried, or burnt out is important for your mental well-being as it can help take some of the weight off your shoulders.17

We’ve all heard the phrase “a problem shared, is a problem halved” and that is certainly essential for burnout recovery.

3. Take time to detach your mind from your work

Especially important if you work from home, setting clear boundaries and detaching from work during your personal time is crucial for your mental health as it allows you to give your mind a break.18

Often, if we’re stressed at work, we can find ourselves worrying about it in the evening or during our personal time too. Finding an activity or a hobby that allows you to ‘switch off’ your thoughts about work helps to distance your mind from your work stressors.

Studies have shown that even thinking about your work can hinder your ability to recover, and sometimes, even having your phone with you can stop you from detaching from your job in the evenings.19,20

Try dedicating time in your evening (it doesn’t have to be long) to a non-work-related activity like reading, playing games, or doing some exercise. Exercise in particular has been proven to boost your mood by releasing endorphins and serotonin, also known as happy hormones.21,22,23

Practising mindfulness is another fantastic stress management technique recommended by the NHS and NICE, that allows you to train your brain to focus on the present moment and detach from other goings-on24,25 Over time, practising mindfulness helps you manage your thoughts and deal with issues productively.

4. Take regular breaks

Research has shown that taking regular, mini breaks throughout your workday is really effective at helping you manage your workday and the stress it can bring.26

Taking short moments to relax, meditate, have a healthy snack, read, or go for a walk, has been proven to help you feel more motivated, boost your mood, improve your concentration, and give you more energy.27

Combining shorter breaks with longer ones has been shown to be even more effective than a few short breaks throughout the day – so try not to miss that lunch break!28

5. Find the right hobby

Finding the right activity to help you switch off after work or on your lunch break will help you recover from stress and burnout.

We all fall into the trap of chilling out in front of the TV after work. However, doing more active hobbies, like going for a brisk walk or a swim or doing more mind-stimulating activities, like learning a language or practising an instrument, are actually thought to be more beneficial for recovery as they help boost your cognitive health and reduce stress.29,30

Doing gentle activities for stress like yoga or meditation is great for recovery too, but why not mix it up with something more stimulating every now and again?

For your lunch break, don’t feel pressured to socialise with your colleagues or to skip your break and work instead, if you find it draining (or simply don’t want to). Studies have shown that those who felt forced to socialise or work through their lunch breaks felt that their energy was gone by the end of the day.31

Take the time to do what you find relaxing!

6. Consider taking time off

There is no shame in taking time away from your job to work on your mental health. Try to speak to your manager about taking a few days away from the stress of work or book some annual leave and use this time to formulate a recovery plan and start putting it into place.

Studies show that taking a vacation from work can help to reduce stress and even benefit your heart rate.32 In addition, time away from work will help to give you the distance you need to detach and relax, away from the pressure of tasks and deadlines.

While your work may be waiting for you when you get back, taking some time off can help you rest, start recovering, and put a long-term plan in place.

How long does it take to recover from burnout?

There are no rules or guidelines on recovering from burnout and chronic stress, but many experts believe it is a continuous, dynamic process of finding the right techniques for you.33

It is a slow, steady process that shouldn’t be rushed – take your time and find out exactly what works for you.

How to prevent burnout

Whilst stress might not always be preventable, stopping it from causing burnout can be.34

Here are 7 easy things you can do to help prevent burnout:35 
  • Do regular exercise 
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet 
  • Get plenty of good sleep 
  • Ask for help when you need it 
  • Switch off after work 
  • Find a hobby 
  • Take breaks throughout the day

How to help someone with burnout

Perhaps someone you know has come to you and told you that they’re feeling burnt out or stressed and that it is affecting their day-to-day life. Knowing that a friend, loved one, or colleague is struggling can be really hard – especially if you’re not too sure how to help.

While there’s no way to take away all their stress, there are some things you can do that will help. 
  • Lend an ear: before jumping straight to a conclusion, take the time to listen to them. Sometimes, just having someone to talk to can really help unburden some difficult feelings, and it often takes a lot of courage to speak up.36
  • Offer help where you can: if it’s a colleague, perhaps taking a task off their hands can help, or if it’s a loved one, you could try helping them with household tasks if they’re feeling too overwhelmed. 
  • Offer kind gestures: help to remind them they’re not alone by sending a thoughtful text message, sending flowers, or even a card. People going through burnout can feel lonely and often underappreciated, but this can help remind them that they have support.37

The bottom line

 Exposure to continuous stress can cause us to feel anxious, exhausted, isolated, and eventually burnt out. Often confused with anxiety or depression, burnout is its own condition.

Whilst it is often referred to as an occupational hazard, there are other situations that can lead to feeling burnt out that shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed.

Learning ways to prevent burnout is vital, as is knowing how to recover effectively. But remember to always seek help if you find yourself feeling really stressed out and overwhelmed. Whether it’s a loved one, your manager or your GP, they’ll be able to offer you support and help you feel yourself again.


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37. Wood RE, Brown R, Kinser PA. The connection between loneliness and burnout in nurses: An integrative review. Applied Nursing Research [Internet]. 2022 Aug 1 [cited 2023 Nov 10];66:151609–9. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0897189722000519

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Copyright © Holland & Barrett Retail Limited, 2024. All rights reserved. hollandandbarrett.com is a trading name of Holland & Barrett Retail Limited,. Registered office: Samuel Ryder House, Barling Way, Nuneaton, Warwickshire CV10 7RH. Registered in England: company no. 2758955. Registered VAT no. 211727395.