Careers advice

Signs of burnout and how to avoid it

25% of job hunters feel burnt out in their current position, our experts are here to help.

3 May 2023

You’re not alone if you’re feeling burnt out at the moment. According to Trade Me Job’s 2023 Employer & Job Hunter Intentions report, one in four job hunters said they felt burnt out in their current positions, meanwhile, 33% left their previous role due to lack of flexibility or burnout.

What is burnout?

Dr Frances Pitsilis, is a burnout specialist and author, who’s suffered burnout herself. She defines burnout as a condition where your resources are inadequate to handle what you’re dealing with at work. You have symptoms of depletion, and severe depletion can take months to recover from.

You’ve got to look at what’s causing burnout, she says. Is it overload or a bad manager giving you too much work? The work culture could be contributing, for instance, an unreasonable employer who says you’ve got to come into the office and doesn’t trust you to work from home. Or there could be a shortage of staff where you’re working, so you’re taking on extra tasks.

It could be that you’re not feeling appreciated, that the culture of the business, the nature of your work, the volume of it and how critical it is, are a problem. In a conventional workplace, if you’re a person who is quite happy not to be patted on the back, you could be fine.

If you’re in the right job, a round peg in a round hole, you’re unlikely to experience stress and burnout. If you’re taken on by a desperate employer and you’re not the right fit, then things can go wrong.

“Stress is an individual response,” she notes. “Some people can thrive in the same conditions, it depends on your makeup.”

“But workers who are high on detail, like being agreeable and can’t say no, they’re the ones who end up in trouble,” says Dr Pitsilis. “We have to teach them to say no, prioritise their work and accept mediocrity in areas that are not critical,” she says.

What’s happening physically when you’re burnt out?

When experiencing burnout, your brain is sending messages to your (autonomic) nervous system and it doesn’t know if it’s a real threat or not.

According to Dr Pitsilis, when experiencing burnout, your brain is sending messages to your (autonomic) nervous system and it doesn’t know if it’s a real threat or not. As your body goes into a flight or fight mode, your cortisol will go up to help you cope but if this goes on too long it will become depleted. Then what happens is you lose zinc, magnesium and hormones. The first thing that will happen is you can’t sleep, or you wake up with a busy mind really early and you don’t get a decent sleep. Then the fatigue kicks in, and if it’s very bad, you can’t think or remember, or you have difficulty working to the point where you don’t want to get out of bed. Some get anxious, depressed and become difficult at work, others become irritable and cynical, says Dr Pitsilis.

How long does it take to recover from burnout?

How long it takes to recover from burnout depends on your treatment, says Dr Pitsilis, who teaches doctors around the country how to treat patients with stress. The treatment she prescribes will include rest, vitamin C, fish oil, to test and correct iron levels. She also recommends B12, folic acid, zinc, copper, vitamin D if deficient, magnesium and Melatonin. In her practice, if safe she’ll recommend progesterone in women and testosterone in men. These will make a real difference to sleep, energy, physical and mental reliance as well as cognitive function and memory, says the stress expert. Each case is individual and requires a doctor’s opinion.

How can I avoid burnout at work?

Angela Butt, senior consultant of the leadership development consultancy Centre for Vision and Leadership (CVL), defines burnout as a catch-all phrase that describes a point of fatigue where there’s literally nothing left in the tank, those very words used by the outgoing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in January, 2023.

Identifying that burnout is a possibility can take real courage from an employee, says Ange. “It requires a skill set that’s often not taught.”

And it means having brave conversations with their leaders before things get too much, to be able to manage trade offs and to get clarity on priorities. They need to discuss the realistic expectations of the tasks in a role and have their employers help them to see what they can’t see.

Having a conversation with your manager is the best place to start.

What should you look out for if you think you might be nearing burnout?

The senior CVL consultant says getting enough sleep is massive to avoid burnout.

“This can be challenging for digital natives whose screen time is often way above healthy limits,” and though they know about the importance of switching off from phones and screens and blue lights, “it is too easy to ignore the recommendations,” says Ange.

Often people will come up with physical solutions, like exercise, eating a better diet, and while those things are really good, they’re not enough, says the consultant.

Use mindfulness to hush your inner-critic

“It’s important to be aware of the neuroscience of brains and the importance of slowing down, using mindfulness to pause, meditation to help slow our reactions so people come off autopilot and are more considered with their choices,” explains Ange.

It’s a good idea to check on your mental and emotional well-being, she says. “I think it’s just stopping and doing a bit of a sense check on, ‘How am I doing?’’

“We all have an inner voice,” says Ange. “And if we’re constantly on autopilot, that inner voice becomes more of a critic than a measured reflection. With this critical and ruminating voice, you’re not taking the time to say to yourself, ‘Well that was the best thing I could have done at the time,’ keeping things in perspective, and knowing that this feeling is going to pass.”

One way to help quieten this loud inner-critic is to journal and identify what you’ve done well in the day, she suggests.

There are some great apps available, to help with managing anxiety and stress, says the consultant. The Groov is a favourite of hers, and has a number of meditation techniques and coping tools. One feature is a Worry Map.

“This helps people figure out the things they can control versus the things they can’t control, and the actions that they can take for the things they can control,” explains Ange.

Keeping perspective helps hold off burnout

It’s good to have someone you can talk to (in your organisation or outside) who can give you perspective on your work, says the CVL consultant. She feels lucky to have great people she can talk to at CVL and test anything she needs help with.

She suggests having a simple framework when going to have a tough conversation in the workplace with a manager if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Example framework for tough conversations:

  • Start with a positive intention: "I want to do a good job for you."
  • Followed by: "The reason I want to talk at the moment is there are so many things to be done, I am struggling and can’t do them all."
  • Finally: "I want to understand, what are the most important things?"

The senior consultant isn't a fan of individual Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), preferring team goals. “The most effective teams are ones that are able to be clear about what the most important things are and what it takes to do them well. Capacity, planning and resilience are key cultural capabilities and by resilience, I mean the ability to bounce back when something doesn’t go as planned, which is just a reality in today's complex world. People need to know that it’s a safe culture where, if things don’t go as expected, ‘we deal with it’, it’s not a blame culture.”

Working as a team builds resilience and a healthy workplace culture.

With team targets, people pick up the slack if someone can’t do their bit for some reason. Performance conversations only focused on individual targets can create more stress for people who are still learning and are unsure, or just might be struggling, says Ange.

Questions to ask a new employer as a job hunter who wants to avoid burnout

There are some good questions to ask at job interviews around work style and prioritisation, if you want reassurance that you’re going to a good company culture where burnout is less likely, says the CVL consultant.

  • How do you measure performance in the business? Can you talk me through a performance development review? What do you expect?
  • Describe the team’s ways of working and culture. Are people independent, or team-led? How do they cope when they don’t do well?
  • To leaders, ask: How would you describe your style, what’s important to you in terms of how we might best work together? How often will we be able to connect, will there be one on one meetings?
  • What is your plan for my first 90 days? What induction and socialisation will there be and what will you need from me?
  • If we’re celebrating my one year/90 day/six month anniversary and I’ve done a great job for you, what have I achieved?
  • What’s on offer at the company in terms of wellbeing and mental health support?

If you know you’re walking into a big job, prepare

If you know you’re walking into a job that’s going to stretch you, it’s about planning your life beforehand, suggests the CVL consultant. If it’s going to call for long hours, ask yourself: “How do I need to organise my life to make this work?’

“That might mean getting clear on the help you’ll need both at home and at work and thinking about how to structure your life to look after yourself as well as the new role. It’s about being deliberate about that in order to perform,” says Ange.

Planning and being realistic about what you can achieve will reduce your chances of becoming overwhelmed.

Advising a young aviation engineer, she encouraged her to be clear on her boundaries and the habits she needed to put in place to make sure she remained happy in the job. So, for instance, to protect her weekends from over-time and carve out time for exercise.

“The key thing is understanding what their boundaries are, and how to set those up and enforce those with some flexibility,” explains the leadership consultant.

A support group can help you with boundaries. Ange connected the young engineer with some senior female engineers who were experienced in the industry. “The gold she got from those women on how to thrive as a woman in a very male-dominated culture was remarkable,” she says.

Your job should bring you joy

When helping people with career transitions, Ange says she’ll ask them, what do you love, what brings you joy?

“When you’ve had a really good day, what was in the day that got you out of bed bouncing in the morning?”

“Be clear on the work that gives you energy as well as those things that you do well,” says Ange. She recommends Clifton Strengths Assessment to identify your natural strengths, the skills that build energy and the skills that drain your energy.

The CVL consultant points to an article published in the Harvard Business Review about the importance of at least part of your job giving you joy.

Marcus Buckingham, head of research at ADP Research Institute (ADPRI) says: “If you’re doing work you love, work becomes, not a source of stress but rather a source of energy and resilience.”

ADPRI’s engagement data says that people who feel love, strength, joy and excitement doing what they do every day are much more productive, stay in their jobs longer, and manage to overcome the inevitable challenges of a job.

And it doesn’t have to be loving every task you do all day. Drawing from research done at the Mayo Clinic in 2009, it found with physicians and nurses experiencing burnout, that if they enjoyed 20% of their work, this was the best way they could derive resilience in the workplace.

If you know you’re making a contribution

“It’s awful to hear of people losing their joy. You should go home from work better than you arrived in the morning,” says Anna Campbell, an independent culture and transformation director.

“Be very clear about your purpose, then link the work you’re doing to the change you make in the world. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it’s about making the connection. That’s what brings you joy, that’s the fulfilling part,” she says.

Making a contribution is a very important part of feeling good about your work and not getting burnt out, Anna says.

We know where people feel heard and supported, where their opinion is valued, they are more engaged, says the former Chief People Officer of The Warehouse Group. It makes sense for organisations, fresh thinking is so valuable for them.

With 33% of job hunters citing burnout or lack of flexible working as the reason they left their job in our Trade Me research, it’s a good thing people are starting to feel more comfortable about admitting to feelings of burnout, says Anna. Five years ago, she doesn’t think that would have been the case.

And employees have higher expectations of companies and leaders now, says the consultant. “They expect to be treated with trust, support and empathy and where that’s not happening, it adds to the stress,” she says.

Our report also found that millennials valued flexibility more than other age groups (42% vs 22% for 26-35 year olds).

She agrees that it’s younger workers who are feeling burnout more in the workplace. “For young people adjusting to work, it can be hard for them to find the right role.”

The culture consultant also believes that women going through menopause are another group feeling stressed and burnt out in the workplace. These women are too embarrassed to ask for help and feel negatively impacted, says Anna.

When looking for your next job, the culture expert suggests asking the company what it’s doing to support staff at all the different phases of their life.

“You want to see that they’re acknowledging that men play a parental role as well as women, and that they’re supporting menopausal women, for example,” says Anna. Do they have leave for mental wellbeing, an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) and are they demonstrating support at stressful times in people’s lives?

Good habits of a corporate athlete

Organisations and people should be putting strategies in place before getting to the point of burnout, the People Experience consultant advises.

“It’s about building good life habits when you’re well, being a corporate athlete,” says Anna.

Serious sports athletes need rest, nutrition and sleep and they do different exercises to prevent injury. The same should be the case to those in the workplace. Have some meditation, good meals, (and exercise) so when the pressure does come on, you’re more equipped physically and mentally, she suggests.

It’s okay to say no

And get better at saying no, says the culture expert. Or rather, say, when asked to do something at short notice, respond, “Yes and these are my priorities, so I can do that by Wednesday, not right now.”

“It’s about managing expectations, being really clear and having honest communication with your manager so they know the things happening in your life, what works for both of you, and the plans you have in place to manage them,” says Anna.

Read the full report
Trade Me's annual review of Job Hunter and Employer intentions.
Download now


Gill South
Gill South