Dealing with burnout before the blisters form

Just say 'no'

According to The Humour Archives, the number-one sign of being burned out at work is when someone thinks how relaxing it would be if they were in prison right now.

For people suffering burnout, quitting their job isn’t always an option and going to prison is probably a bit extreme. So the only answer is to address the issue.

According to Holly Moore, burnout is: “mental and physical exhaustion that results from long term stress, overwork and the unhealthy condition of spreading yourself too thin."

Moore advises people to learn to say “no,” noting that we're often asked to do things that don't really fall under our job description.

“Whatever the reason, we often agree to do extraneous tasks that add to our daily grind. Practice saying no.”

Moore says if people can’t say no immediately, then they can at least say they will think about it and respond later.

“If you decide that accepting the new responsibility would overload you, contact that person and calmly say, ‘Thanks for the opportunity, but it just doesn't fit into my schedule right now.’ This response is diplomatic and shows that you at least gave the idea some thought.”

Another tip is to take your full lunch break every day (and eat a healthy lunch) and physically leave your work area.

“Leave the building if you can — the further, the better. After enjoying your meal in peace, do something else that takes your mind off work, such as reading a chapter in a favourite book, grabbing a quick nap or exercising.”

Moore also says that being on edge for long periods can be damaging, so try to maintain a sense of humour.

“Find the absurd in whatever stressful situation you're facing and share your thoughts with a trusted co-worker.”

Another important tip from Moore is to develop a support system — not a group of people who sit around complaining, because that will only make it worse.

"Do share your frustrations, but be careful how you do it — the trick is to not allow the sharing time to turn into a broken record of complaints.”

Other tips including exercising, finding a hobby and meditating.

If people want to be on the lookout for workplace burnout, Mary Rau-Foster, writing on, says symptoms include emotional and physical exhaustion, insomnia, gastrointestinal problems, sadness and depression, negativity, increased cynicism, decreased creativity, quickness to anger, defensiveness, edginess and quickness to blame others, detachment and loss of satisfaction or sense of accomplishment.

She says burnout has been identified as a prime factor in turnover, absenteeism, reduced morale and various kinds of personal dysfunction.

She says it can be traced to “perfectionism (trying to do too much because they expect it of themselves), business hero complex (feel that others expect it) or poor communication (failure to clearly define their limits to clients, co-workers, employees and others).”

You may not need to leave your workplace to deal with burnout, but you have to address where it’s come from, she says.

“If your corporation expects that you must continue working as you have — and if there is not an appreciation or acknowledgment of your current condition, it may be necessary to change your environment. However, it would be an unusual corporation today that is unaware of the effects that prolonged demands are having on employees.”

Rau-Foster recognises that people will feel nervous effectively telling their boss they can’t handle their job.

“However, unless burnout is addressed and treated, the effects will continue to erode away at your job productivity, the quality of your work and your attitude about your job.”

Companies can try implementing a burnout avoidance programme. This involves monitoring employees who look at risk of burnout (the types who try to “conquer and master all in an unrealistic time frame,” Rau-Foster says).

“Traditionally, the workplace has rewarded that type of employee behaviour by pats on the backs, promotions or other forms of recognition," she says.

"The message is subtle but clear: We like that kind of attitude and action. But will it feel so good when the employee flames out?”

Mills is a Dunedin writer. Contact her at

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