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Buffering burnout (as an individual)

It is World Mental Health day on Saturday 10 October 2020, so I thought it might be apt to discuss how each of us can buffer the risk of burnout – a phenomenon which has been on the rise in recent months (and years). Bupa’s Global Executive Wellbeing Index published in September 2020, found that 78% of leaders had experienced poor mental health during the pandemic. At least 40% of those responding to the survey had experienced high rates of fatigue, a lack of energy, lower motivation, as well as anger, impatience, disturbed sleep and mood swings, which we can probably all agree aren’t optimum for leading others. In terms of burnout specifically, the survey identified that at least 10% of leaders had experienced burnout during the pandemic.

For those of you not familiar with the concept of burnout, it is an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress, which has not been successfully managed. In plain English, it means we experience too much stress and not enough rest and recovery from that stress. We experience burnout when the demands placed on us, whether they be tight deadlines, working hours, toxic relationships, psychologically unsafe work environments and other stressors outstrip the rewards, recognition, social support, sense of meaning and relaxation we need to sustain ourselves. Over time, people will experience reduced energy levels and an increase in unpleasant emotions. In addition, experiences which would usually elicit joy, will begin to feel joyless.

The most common signs to look out for are:

· feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

· increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of cynicism related to one's job; and

· reduced professional efficacy.

There are various online tests you can do to identify whether or not you may be experiencing burnout. A free to use test has been designed by Dr Marie Åsberg who is based at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. She is one of the leading researchers into workplace burnout. You can access the test here. If you are concerned that you may be experiencing burnout or know someone who might, you should contact your GP or other healthcare professional. At work, you may also have access to an Employee Assistance Programme or Private Medical insurance.

Before I set out what you can do to buffer the effects of burnout, I want to make clear that workplace burnout isn’t just about an individual in isolation. It’s highly likely that the culture (or system) that the individual works in is contributing to the unmanaged chronic stress that they may be experiencing. However, there are things that people can do, at an individual level, to help buffer the risk of burnout, much of which is based around self-care and setting sustainable boundaries.

For example, many of us are now finding ourselves working longer and harder than before the pandemic. According to research by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which studied 3.1 million people from 21,000 companies across the world, the pandemic has increased the average workday by 48.5 minutes. People are working more and resting less.

Create sustainable boundaries

It can be easy to convince ourselves that we just need to get through this next busy phase (whether that’s the next few days, the next week, month, or year or, perhaps even this pandemic). While it’s ok to drop the occasional self-care engagement, it is never sustainable to replace rest and play altogether, other than in truly exceptional circumstances. We’ve seen from the research that part of the challenge of edging closer to burnout is that we forgo the very things that replenish our energy, spending more and more time on those things that deplete it i.e. overwork. Mark Williams and Danny Penman note in their book, Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world, that “often, the very first things we give up are those that nourish us the most but seem ‘optional’, and the result is that we are increasingly left with only work or other stressors that often deplete our resources, and nothing to replenish them”.

When we stop prioritising self-care, we rapidly increase the risk of us experiencing burnout. What may start off as a few late nights, can readily morph into something far less sustainable if we are not careful. Human beings don’t function particularly well without sufficient sleep, regular exercise or good quality nutrition. We also crave social interaction with loved ones. We often believe that all of the time we spend working is productive time, but research has demonstrated that working in an exhausted state is a bit like being stuck on a dial up internet connection, whilst believing we are working at the speed of fibre broadband.

To effectively buffer burnout, we need to be steadfast in our belief that, to perform at our best, we need to put some of our most basic needs first and to do that requires us to create defined boundaries e.g. not working past a certain time, ensuring you give yourself an eight hour sleep opportunity most nights, carving out time for friends and family time etc. Of course, there will be exceptions, but those exceptions should never become the rule. When we don’t prioritise our most basic needs, everything else suffers, including our work, our relationships, our health and our wellbeing. Setting sustainable boundaries, is also about being clear with other people about the treatment you do and don't find acceptable. That may well require some courageous conversations to be had, but the pay off for your mental health could be significant.

Seek support

One thing which I believe people still find extraordinarily difficult, whether at work or in life, is to ask for the help or support that they need. I suspect in large part due to the stigma that still persists in asking for help when we need it. I think many of us believe (rightly or wrongly) that we risk being seen as less than capable or even weak if we show vulnerability. From my own experience I know that, for a long time, I believed that resilience was a measure of individual toughness. That it was something we did alone without recourse to anyone else’s support. Essentially, to ask for help would mean that we weren’t resilient enough. This belief permeates most of society and our workplaces to this day. Yet, when we look at what resilience actually is, we realise how that singular definition causes us so much harm.

We are far stronger, collectively, than when we attempt to overcome our struggle alone. We experience less pain, less stress, less burnout, our wounds heal more rapidly, and we see challenges as less intimidating when we are surrounded by people who care for us. The greatest strength we can possibly have is to ask for help when we need it. It may take courage to overcome some of our entrenched beliefs about what asking for help actually means, but it will enable us to bounce back far more quickly.

Give yourself a break

One thing that the pandemic has highlighted is how extraordinarily resilient all of us have been. I think we are often quick to dismiss our efforts, choosing instead to continue ploughing on regardless. However, we’re in the middle of a pandemic – it’s an ultra-endurance event not a 100m sprint. It’s really important for each of us to acknowledge how far we have come, what we have overcome and how we have grown in recent months. It might be tempting to berate ourselves when our productivity or mood dips, as it invariably will every now and then, but we should learn to give ourselves a much-deserved break. The expectations that we might have had for ourselves before lockdown likely aren’t realistic anymore, at least not in the short-term. As human beings we adapt and we bounce back. It’s in our nature. However, we also need to be able to flex our aspirations with the environment we find ourselves in. So, yes, we need to learn to give ourselves a break every now and then.

This article is one of a series of blogs focused on burnout. They are excerpts from a detailed guide on burnout that was published in September 2020. If you are interested in learning more you can request of a copy of our detailed guide, by contacting us. We have also devised a number of webinars to help better support people's wellbeing at this time for more information, please get in touch.

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