Burnout Series Part I: What is Burnout?

Burnout Series Part I: What is Burnout?

We work with many people at Peak Resilience who are experiencing burnout - and as counsellors we’re very active in preventing burning out ourselves. This article is part one of a three part series exploring burnout. Let’s start with outlining what burnout actually is…

Burnout can be defined as emotional and physical exhaustion that results from cumulative stress. It is characterized by a lack of motivation, cynicism, and detachment that makes it difficult to function both at work and in your personal life.

Burnout is situational and contextual, meaning that there is nothing inherently bad or weak about someone who experiences it- anyone can experience burnout. It tends to develop gradually over time rather than having an acute onset, and it can sneak up on people working in any type of profession.

Some signs of burnout:

  • Greater irritability or anger

  • Greater emotional and physical fatigue

  • Feeling numb or that emotions are blunted

  • Feeling detached or disconnected

  • Feeling helpless or hopeless

  • Experiencing a lack of motivation

  • Increased use of numbing behaviours (substances, food, social media)

  • Lowered immunity to illness (getting sick often)

  • Insomnia

  • Feeling less invested in relationships

  • Isolating yourself socially

  • Not enjoying previously pleasurable activities

  • Impaired concentration

  • Becoming more pessimistic, cynical, and bitter

  • Increased inefficiency in completing tasks

If you’ve gotten this far and you’re thinking, “oh no, that’s me! What do I do!?”

You don’t need to panic, burnout is reversible! It’s a good idea to start with a basic inventory of how you’re doing with regard to input and output to see if there are any simple changes you can make.

Input (Things we do that are replenishing, and may leave us feeling more energized):

  • Sleep

  • Eating nutritious and satisfying foods

  • Moderate exercise

  • Rest, and time to reconnect with ourselves

  • Connecting with social supports (eg. friends, family)

  • Connecting with work supports (mentors, supervisors)

  • Connecting with caring professionals (counsellor, massage therapist)

  • Time for play and activities you enjoy

Output (Things that are depleting, and may leave us feeling more tired):

  • Unclear expectations at work

  • Rarely feeling appreciated at work

  • Sustained boredom at work

  • Spending a lot of time doing work, or thinking about work

  • Taking on more responsibilities than you can manage

  • Spending a lot of mental energy going over past interactions

  • Spending a lot of mental energy worrying about the future

  • Having unattainable expectations for yourself

  • Frequent conflicts with others

  • Being in high-pressure environments/managing crisis

Many of us struggle to identify the things in our lives that are especially depleting when we experience them all. the. time. Our tendency to overestimate how much we are engaging in healthy behaviours like exercise, and the optimism bias may prevent us from engaging in healthier behaviours.

Where to begin? Ideally you can get help finding objectivity in your input and output inventory. Explore your inventory with a friend, a counsellor, or other supports to get some perspective. If you see a mismatch between your inputs and outputs, give some thought to anything you can do to decrease stress, and implement some more self-care time.

From your inventory it may be clear that there are some small changes you can make that may be helpful, like cutting down on Netflix time and going to bed earlier. But for many it won’t be that clear and simple, or small changes won’t be adequate. If going through this inventory left you seeing some imbalances, but you’re uncertain how to fix them, you might want to read part 2 in this burnout series all about why it’s SO hard to find balance. Coming soon!


Jen Vishloff is a Registered Clinical Counsellor, and creates and facilitates workshops on burnout, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and supporting those working in helping professions.

Is my problem really that important?

Is my problem really that important?