Eyes on wellbeing

Managing burnout

Burnout is the WHO-defined “occupational phenomenon” that has the potential to drive us to exhaustion. Here is what you need to know

Pexels/Nataliya Vaitkevich

April is Stress Awareness Month, an event that has been taking place for 21 years – although the conversation around the causes of stress and its impact in both the short and long-term has become more pronounced over the past decade, and even more so recently as a result of COVID-19 pressures.

It might be a common topic of conversation – who hasn’t pressed a hand to their temple and muttered “I am so stressed out” on a hectic Tuesday afternoon? – but the reality and nuances of stress make it a broad subject, and one that can often feel too nebulous to practically contend with.

In order to try and address at least part of this huge and difficult subject, as Stress Awareness Month 2023 dawns the AOP and OT have turned their attention to a particular consequence of stress: burnout, which the World Health Organization (WHO) defines as an “occupational phenomenon.”

85% of UK adults

correctly identified symptoms of burnout (source: Mental Health UK)

By classing it in this way, the WHO categorises burnout as a factor that influences health status or contact with health services, but not as a medical condition. It further defines it as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Burnout, the WHO goes on to say, is defined by “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion,” “increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job,” and “reduced professional efficacy.”

Mental Health UK adds feeling helpless, or of being overwhelmed, trapped, defeated, detached or alone, having a cynical or negative outlook, experiencing feelings of self-doubt, and procrastinating or taking longer to get things done, to the list of common signs of burnout.

Mental Health UK also emphasises that burnout is not something that goes away if ignored – in fact, it is likely to worsen if the underlying issues aren’t addressed.

One in five people

feel unable to manage stress and pressure in the workplace (source: Mental Health UK)

Ignoring the signs could “cause further harm to your physical and mental health in the future” and could lead you to “also lose the ability and energy to effectively meet the demands of your job, which could have knock-on effects to the other areas of your life,” the charity said.

With the accepted definition unequivocally tying burnout to work and workplace pressures, the AOP will be running a webinar on 16 May, entitled Burnout to balance: recognise, prevent and recover from burnout.

Ahead of the webinar, here are three tips from the NHS on managing the stress and burnout that you might be experiencing:

  • Split up big tasks: this will help to break down feelings of overwhelm that you might have about completing things that might seem unmanageable
  • Use self-help (cognitive behavioural therapy) CBT techniques: the NHS has a page that can give further information on how CBT might be beneficial to you
  • Speak to someone: in the first instance, it is likely to be friends or family that you turn to to discuss how you are feeling – but as burnout is work-related, speaking to colleagues or your manager about workload and particular pressure points is the only way to address what you are dealing with head-on.

Mind, the mental health charity, also lists advice for avoiding and dealing with burnout specifically. They include: 

  • Making sure you get enough sleep
  • Finishing work on time
  • Ensuring you take all of your annual leave
  • Taking time off while experiencing burnout, rather than trying to power through
  • Asking for help.

Mind’s workplace mental health guidelines can be found on its website

If you are an employer or practice owner who is mindful of the impact of burnout on staff, Mental Health UK advises creating a wellbeing plan, which can be downloaded from the charity’s website, and sharing it with the team. A resource to help create a stress risk assessment, which could avoid instances of burnout occurring, can also be downloaded from the same link.