Burnout – Round 1: who’s a candidate?


Burnout has become a bit of a catch phrase, and, unfortunately for those who have suffered from one (or two, or several, as is often the case), it is still, for the medical community, more a collection of symptoms (a “syndrome”) rather than a full blown pathology. It therefore often gets misdiagnosed – or rather goes undiagnosed, full stop. The burnt out person will be told that they are depressed (which they may well be, though there are good reasons for that, as we’ll see later) or simply need a holiday; they will tell themselves that they are weak and only need to pull their socks up, that they’re exaggerating, or that they simply need a holiday. And a holiday (a blackberry-off, early sleep, healthy food kind of holiday) may well be part of the solution for some. For others, more radical changes are necessary.

The following few articles draw from various sources (there is a wealth of good websites on the subject) and try to give you the tools to assess what’s going on if you’ve been feeling more drained, stressed or ill than could rationally be explained by a bout of bad weather. I focus a lot on the physiological symptoms, because they’re the easier to catch early, and also because burnout often gets confused with other ailments of the mind. Burnout is not depression – depression would rather be one of the many consequences of burnout. People often tell themselves – “I’m strong and determined, so that can’t happen to me” – when in fact the best candidate for burnout is the strong-willed, the ambitious, the go-getter (no matter what the signs, they just don’t give up). How do I know? well…

A typical candidate: profile
Burnout can happen at any stage in life, and be triggered by almost anything – and it doesn’t even have to have anything to do with the underlying causes, it’s just the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. Positive or negative, the triggers are generally fairly emotional ones though (loss, breakup, engagement, disease, birth of a child etc.).

People prone to burnout will have led a high-energy, over-actively social, ambitious, enthusiastic life until that one thing happens; they are capable, work hard and have a tendency to be unable to leave things unfinished or imperfect – not matter what the cost to themselves. They do not actually see the costs, more often than not, but derive an immense sense of pride (if not their entire identity) from being able to “hold the fort”, to be the one person that can fix things, that other people come to in times of need, that their boss can count on at any time of the day or night to do a good – a perfect – job. The other side of the coin is their need to be needed, approved of, “special”. They overdo and overgive to ensure that need is fulfilled at all times. That need generally goes back a long way to their childhood – burnout adults were often quite responsible children…

The Future Visions website (a great source of free resources on many topics, from stress management to leadership or work-life balance) says that the area in which we eventually burn out, whether at work, with our children or parents, in an intimate partnership, in a social or political group or elsewhere, has two defining characteristics. It is where:

We invest our creativity, our passion, our heart and/or our ability to contribute

We earn a sense of identity, value, belonging, purpose and/or meaning.

Burnout happens when the investment becomes too great, or is directed at the wrong thing, or person. When the frustration for not getting the thanks or recognition the burnout candidate thinks they deserve becomes unmanageable – and is probably also disproportionate. Something breaks (unconsciously at first) and it progressively becomes clear (certainly to the people around them) that something has to change – that they are doing themselves a lot of harm and cannot carry on that way.

Unfortunately, because they are in a sense built to never give up, because they think they could not take what would seem to them to be too great a failure, rare are those who listen. Most of them keep going, thinking that denial is the surest way forward. They know deep down that recognising their contradictory needs might lead to all hell breaking lose – Pandora’s box opening – so they push on down, bottle on up. The uncertainty of a future without what they know (or think they know) they are good at is unimaginable, the fear of losing what they’ve worked so hard to achieve too great.

Their lack of imagination is staggering. My lack of imagination, my inability to see that what I didn’t know could actually be better than what I knew still dumbfounds me. That my health (and life, and people I cared for) had to suffer so much for me to realise that the new way could only be better – that’s actually quite sad, for someone who thought she was quite sensitive and had things so figured out.

The autopilot you are on finally breaks down, because (without wanting to sound pompous, hippy or “enlightened”) head, heart and body are no longer working together or towards the same goals. Your head wants to keep going, refuses to admit that your smarts can be outsmarted. Your body works hard at making you stop (you become more prone to immunity breakdowns, your nervous system is overloaded at the tiniest hint of stess, your skin protests by catching all kinds of rashes, your neck aches, your sleep doesn’t rest you anymore, your memory deserted you a long time ago etc.). Your heart weeps.

At this stage, I think a burnout saves your life, rather than anything else – if you won’t listen to your heart, friends, or family – then a physical breakdown is the only thing that can get in the way of your ego.

So what are the signs? watch out for a quick and easy test in my next post – by no means meant to replace a medical diagnosis, but only to raise awareness, because for many people things needn’t get this far!


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