Burnout at work: Don’t ignore the signals

Burnout is a physical, mental and emotional response to constant levels of stress

Stressed at workWith lives being lived on a burner, especially in metropolitan cities, it’s no wonder that our minds and bodies feel the impact of its fury. Burnout is the body’s response to constant levels of high stress and produces feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, cynicism, resentment and failure. Stagnation and reduced productivity are its by-products too.

“Typically burnout victims define themselves only by the work they do. That is the first stage of this symptom” says Dr Anjali Chhabria, a leading psychiatrist and psychotherapist. “They are unable to derive pleasure from any other activity or situation, and even if they sit at home, they tend to revolve around their work. They think and talk about their work most of the time. And suddenly they may experience symptoms of anxiety – they might not want to work at all, which leaves them shocked. They need to stop and refuel. These people need to stop and look where they are going instead of just walking aimlessly.”

It doesn’t happen overnight

In most cases, burnout is the result of unrelenting stress. Victims typically take on more work or commitments than they can realistically handle, creating a high pressure situation. With its continued and insistent impact on the mind and body, this overload sucks away all the pleasures of work and living, leaving behind only a residue of exhaustion, anger, cynicism and despair.

Deeply ingrained attitudes to work, habits of working, and faulty notions of success drive victims to get scorched.

So how do you know you are on the brink of burnout? How do you know you have reached a point of no-return – that if you don’t mend your working ways, things will not work for you anymore?

Hallmarks of burnout

Characteristically, burnout has three hallmarks: extreme exhaustion, increased social withdrawal, cynicism and decreased productivity.

Here are some tell-tale symptoms: You feel physically and mentally drained. You eat too much or too little. Same is with sleep. You are suspicious, uncertain, flare up quickly and take increased risks. Frequent headaches or gastrointestinal problems are also some of the symptoms. Generally you feel as if you are losing control over all areas of your life.

Research indicates that highly demanding jobs with constant crises, multiple responsibilities and lack of organisation support mechanisms cause job burnout. However, work with no challenges and variations also leads to the same effect.

Working conditions like corporate expectations, role ambiguities, lack of occupational feedback and recognition can and do drive people to the edge. But personal factors like low self-esteem, mental rigidity and poor management skills along with one’s financial and marital stability also play a vital role in tilting the scales towards burning out slowly and stealthily.


Coming home from work irritable, snapping at anyone who’s in the firing range, watching television mindlessly, staring into space, finding fault with most things are some of the unsuccessful ways the victims deal and cope with their feelings of powerlessness.

Vijay Bhand, a leading corporate trainer is periodically called by several organisations to help people overcome burnout situations. “We assist people by stress management workshops or counselling sessions. However, people can also help themselves by diverting their minds and pursuing other interests or setting and achieving other priorities.”

Prevention is better than cure

While burnout treatments include medication and intensive counseling, you can prevent this modern day disorder from knocking your door. You can either change the situation at your workplace, or alter your state of mind.

These tips will help you do so:

  • Change your job profile or simply switch jobs. Clarify job responsibilities and expectations. Stick to them.
  • If you think you genuinely need a break, take it – go on a vacation, catch up on movies, read books – recharge, refuel and keep your mind as calm as possible.
  • Demarcate time in the day when you can unplug from all work related activities. Actively stick to it or get someone to reinforce the same.
  • Work on personal growth – both at home and on the job. This includes cultivating other interests, practicing stress reducing techniques like meditation and exercise.
  • Accept that you are burnt out – do not deny or fight the fact. Only by dealing with it in a constructive way will you be able to actually get better.
  • Cultivate a support system – colleagues at work, personal friendships, someone with whom you can vent out and discuss the issues that plague you. Try resolving the issues.
  • Commit to leaving work at office – do not bring it home. Even in your mind. Simply the act of “switching-off” everyday will rejuvenate you.

As technology shrinks the world, and more can be accomplished in a shorter span than before, ironically, it has spawned situations that affect the human psyche at detrimental levels.

Job burnout is a new age disorder – but one that has an age old remedy. So chill out.

Sharmila Bhosale
Sharmila Bhosale is a Mumbai-based health writer and her interests include parenting, relationships. lifestyle, spirituality, corporate culture, people and trends


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