Burnout: How to spot it and what to do to relieve it
Chronic stress can be hard to address once it becomes a normal part of everyday life. But failing to take preventative steps will have short- and long-term consequences for our emotional and physical health.

How much stress did you experience at work yesterday? According to Gallup, we were all a lot more stressed in 2022 than we were back in 2009 when the research firm first started monitoring global employees.

Its annual State of the Global Workplace survey revealed that 44% of workers experienced stress the previous day in 2022 up from 31% in 2009. And it is far worse in certain parts of the world.

East Asia tops the rankings on 55%, followed by the US and Canada on 50%. Australia and New Zealand come in at 47%, while Europe fares much better at 39%, as does South East Asia on 31%.

Research firms regularly cite East Asian cities such as Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong as the most overworked globally. Their citizens are at a much higher risk of burnout, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) defines as chronic workplace stress that is not successfully managed.

We all know the allegory of the candle that burns out faster when it is lit from both ends. The human body experiences a similar degenerative process if the brain fails to activate the off switch.

What happens when we are stressed?

When our brain senses danger, it sends signals through the sympathetic nervous system to the adrenal glands. These release a number of fight-or-flight hormones including adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol and glucocorticoids.

This causes blood vessels contract so that our bodies can pump more blood to key organs, while air passages dilate so that the latter get more oxygen too. Glucose also floods into the bloodstream, providing key organs with more energy.

Our hearts beat faster, our pulse rate and blood pressure shoots up and we start to breathe more rapidly. Cortisol also increases our appetite.

When the danger passes, a second part of our autonomic nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system kicks into gear. This releases a hormone called acetylcholine, which calms everything down again.

This physiological response to stress not only protects us from harm but also enables to achieve certain objectives, whether it is delivering a keynote speech, or winning a new client.

Problems occur when the accelerator (the sympathetic nervous system) remains permanently switched on, ever alert to danger, real or imagined. It is a state that goes far beyond the everyday tiredness we are all prone to from time-to-time.

Chronic stress and the resulting burnout put sufferers at a higher risk of a host of diseases. This is frequently exacerbated by poor lifestyle choices relating to diet, sleep, exercise, and after-work activities.

Health conditions linked to chronic stress include:

  • Autoimmune diseases such as arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular diseases (constant adrenaline surges is a risk factor for heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke)
  • Diabetes (excess cortisol is also associated with weight gain)
  • Digestive issues (ulcers and irritable bowel disease)
  • Reproductive and sexual issues (from impotence to irregular periods)
  • Skin conditions (eczema and psoriasis)

How to spot stress

One of the biggest issues with chronic stress is that it can creep up on people until it becomes normalised. Or perhaps we get so busy, or overwhelmed that we feel we do not have the time, or the ability to tackle it.

Stress can also manifest itself in different ways depending on age, or personality type. But there are some common telltale signs to watch out for:

  • Addictive behaviour: excessive intake of addictive substances, or repetitive behaviours
  • Brain fog: finding it hard to concentrate, or take information in, procrastinating over previously manageable tasks
  • Digestion: changes in appetite and weight, stomach upsets
  • Mood: swings in emotion, persistent low mood, or angry outbursts
  • Pain: generalised, or specific pain, dizziness or tingling
  • Self: low self-esteem, panic attacks, lack of self-care
  • Social life: feeling disconnected from friends and family, losing any sense of joy in previously pleasurable activities
  • Sleep: too much or too little

How to relieve chronic stress

Once stress has reached chronic levels, taking the occasional day off is generally not going to be enough anymore. This is the point where professional counselling can make a big difference.

Here are a few other suggestions for creating the building blocks of a healthier and happier life.

1. Do not feel guilty about switching off

One of the first steps to creating better balance in life is finding the time for pleasurable activities and not feeling guilty about it. This downtime is crucial not only to switch off from work, but also during it.

This is because when we complete a cognitively demanding task, the brain needs space to effectively transition to the next one. The Irish neuroscientist Elaine Fox calls the space between the two as the “productive void”.

Filling this productive void might entail stepping out for a cup of coffee, or a quick walk around the block. Either way, it enables the brain to make an effective switch between tasks.

How we re-charge our batteries away from work is also generally linked to whether we are an introvert or an extrovert. The former typically regain energy by spending time alone, while the latter do so among other people.

2. Create boundaries

One issue that stressed workers frequently report is their difficulty in creating a clear and distinct line between work and home in a world of 24/7 communications. This has become even more difficult as the result of the rise of home working during Covid-19.

Steps that help home workers to enforce a sense of separation include: having one distinct place to work at home, managing the transition from work to home by going out for a walk at the end of the day and turning devices off for set periods of time in the evening, or at weekends.

An increasing number of countries are also legally enshrining the “right to disconnect,” prompting companies to produce written policies governing expectations about working during leave, or outside office hours.

However, McKinsey recently reported that many companies are still placing more emphasis on wellness programmes to relieve stress rather than tackling the underlying causes – always feeling on call, or swamped by an unreasonable workload.

3. Connect with others

Studies show that many employees still feel uncomfortable discussing mental health in the workplace despite the efforts that companies are making to de-stigmatise the issue and provide access to counsellors.

Employment Hero’s 2022 Wellness at Work Report found this was an issue for 47% of the 6,000 employees it surveyed across Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Malaysia and Singapore.

In addition to talking to a professional, study after study shows that taking steps to increase social connections whether with loved ones, or through wider society helps to protect us from the impact of chronic stress.

4. Invest in our health

Chronic stress and lack of self-care can become self-reinforcing to the detriment of our long-term health. We all know that we should aim to get eight hours sleep, eat a balanced diet and get enough physical exercise, ideally outdoors to absorb more vitamin D.

Eating a balanced diet means replacing ultra-processed meals and snacks with whole foods.

Certain vitamins and minerals are also associated with reducing stress. Magnesium, for example, can help to reduce cortisol levels. Food sources include: avocados, bananas, broccoli, dark chocolate, seeds and spinach.

Studies also show that foods containing choline can help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and the release of the hormone acetylcholine (hyperlink 7). This list includes beef, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli and cauliflower) eggs, nuts soy and seaweed.

It is often difficult to overhaul a bad lifestyle overnight, particularly if we are under continual stress. However, making a few key changes, or starting with incremental change can help to break a downward cycle and replace it with a positive upwards one.


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