What to do if you're suffering from severe burnout at work

Burnout is a tricky time to navigate, and more of us are at our wit's end than ever before

Woman suffering from burnout
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you're working as hard as you ever have, but your output has drastically decreased, your happiness levels have gone down and you're working longer hours, you might be suffering from burnout. 

COVID has meant that many of us have had to change our working environment, some of us now on a permanent basis. For those that are working from home, you might have picked up one of the best office chairs or a home monitor, but home workers often feel isolated, especially in the midst of lockdown, which is a factor that can lead to burnout. Front line, customer-facing workers have it even worse, dealing with panicked patients and shoppers. 

Burnout is described by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, as a "psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job". This could manifest as overwhelming exhaustion, or feeling detached or apathetic about your job There are many reports of burnout cases rocketing: A poll of employees conducted by LinkedIn shows US burnout cases rose 33% from the onset of the pandemic to October in 2020.

So, what can you do when suffering from burnout? 

Woman at laptop suffering from burnout

(Image credit: Getty Images)

1. Recognise burnout is NOT depression

If you feel drained and apathetic in relation to your job, and you're worried you could be suffering from depression, it might just be a case of burnout. Even though the symptoms can be very similar, it's the causes (and thus the remedies) that are very distinct from one another: the Berkeley study says "burnout is job‐related and situation‐specific, as opposed to depression, which is more general and context‐free."

If you make some changes in your working environment – resetting your employer's expectations, a new job, or a lateral move to a new project – and you find your symptoms improving, it could be you were suffering from burnout rather than depression. However, mental health issues are notoriously difficult to pinpoint with accuracy, so make sure your first priority is self-care. 

2. Prioritise self-care

Even though external factors in the workplace are causing your burnout, you can still optimise the time you spend at home to beat back the symptoms of burnout, such as lethargy and low mood. That means eat healthily, sleep eight hours a night when possible, and exercise regularly. Bonus points if you can get out for a run outdoors, as just 20 minutes in nature lowers our levels of the stress hormone cortisol, according to Harvard University

We know, it sounds flippant to say you can fix burnout by eating healthy, sleeping right and exercising, and we're aware burnout and symptoms of depression aren't "cured" by small lifestyle changes. However, they do help, according to research, and you should be making time to take care of yourself, ensure your body isn't suffering as a result of your job, and give your mind a fighting chance while you pursue longer-term solutions. 

Running also allows you to chase that elusive, euphoric "runner's high", a big dump of naturally-produced "endocannabinoids" into the bloodstream, according to research from the Georgia Institute of Technology and John Hopkins University. Yes, you can quite literally get a huge mood boost from running: all you need is some of the best running shoes for men, or best running shoes for women, to get you started. 

3. Identify and change external stressors

For people in high-stress positions like healthcare, or self-employment this is easier said than done. It's sad to say the human body was not designed for constant levels of anxiety, or late shift work under halogen lights, or grab 'n' go junk food and long hours to make ends meet. All this will contribute to burnout. 

If it's high performance markers in a regular job that's stressing you out, Harvard Business Review recommends targeting "high-value activities and relationships that still trigger unhealthy stress" to deal with the cause of burnout. For example, if you're not getting on with a team leader at work, consider submitting an application to be moved to a different team or department. 

If changing the source of your burnout is impossible in your current role, time away to reset or a job change might be on the cards. 

Matt Evans
Matt Evans

Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and Channel Editor at Fit&Well. He's previously written for titles like Men's Health and Red Bull, and covers all things exercise and nutrition on the Fit&Well website. 

Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen kickboxer and runner. His top fitness tip? Stretch.