It’s important to know what burnout symptoms are, what causes it, and what to do should it happen to you or someone you care about.

There are 32.8 million people employed in the UK.[1] Looking at different sources, you find different figures related to workplace stress.

One source reports, 7% of people feel stressed every day in the workplace.[2] While that might seem a small figure it works out to around 2 million people. What’s interesting is that other surveys report much higher figures for burnout (more on this later).

Burnout is mainly linked to chronic job stress. Sadly, it’s a condition that reduces the quality of life across the board. The risk of burnout is increased if you ignore early signs, so learning a bit about what the signs are helps equip you to manage the situation successfully.

What is Burnout?

A woman with her hand over her face

Burnout is a type of exhaustion that permeates all areas. It’s caused by prolonged stress. In most cases, it’s associated with the workplace and briefly put is characterised by exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced professional ability.

What needs to be remembered is that burnout can occur for people in connection to environments that aren’t work-related. Parental, student, and caregiver burnout are also other situations where it occurs.

Burnout was first described by psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger, in 1974. He described it as the state of “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources” in the workplace.”[3]

People who experience it tend to feel overwhelmed, drained, and unable to rise to challenges. It’s a condition that results in a lack of motivation and productivity.

As well as this, people can seem to have complete changes in their personality. For example, the once optimistic person feels extremely hopeless and becomes cynical.

What’s useful to note is that wherever burnout might initially stem from, it gradually takes over all areas.

What are the Symptoms of Burnout?

Person in bed with duvet cover

Herbert Freudenberger stated that “burnout is characterized by physical symptoms such as exhaustion, fatigue, frequent headaches and gastrointestinal disorders, sleeplessness, and shortness of breath. Behavioural signs include frustration, anger, a suspicious attitude, a feeling of omnipotence or overconfidence, excessive use of tranquillizers and barbiturates, cynicism, and signs of depression”.[3]

As you can see, it’s a serious condition that has both physiological, psychological, and social effects.

One of the most stressful things about it about a person’s personal life is that despite how work might be the cause of the condition, people feel trapped because of their financial situation and the need to support their household.

It’s useful to be aware of the warning signs. While everyone has an off day, burnout is revealed by the fact that every day feels challenging. If this feeling occurs then you could be suffering from burnout.

Here are some of the signs to look out for:

  • Loss of motivation in and out of the workplace
  • Mental exhaustion and general fatigue, leading to issues such as fogginess
  • Emotional exhaustion, which might be demonstrated through feelings of overwhelm, anger, irritability, or tearfulness
  • Finding it impossible to find pleasure in things
  • Impaired sleep and insomnia
  • Feelings of helplessness – feeling negative and as though life is too much every day

There are also signs around your physical health:

  • Fluctuations in appetite and weight
  • Gastrointestinal problems (i.e. irritable bowel syndrome)

Increasingly, burnout is characterised by the feeling of “not functioning normally“. This makes sense because of how mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion impacts brain functioning.

People can start to suffer from cognitive impairment. This means their memory is impaired, their problem-solving and decision-making skills are reduced, and they might suffer from confusion, a lack of imagination, and good humour. Not only does this impact family life, but it also affects employment.

More About Job Burnout

some women at work

As mentioned earlier, some reports tell us that burnout is much more common than you might think.

In 2021 Mental Health UK stated that 46% of UK workers felt “more prone to extreme levels of stress” than in 2020.[4]

This seems a huge amount, until spotting the HR News article that reported a staggering 88% of the UK workforce as experiencing burnout in the last two years.[5]

It’s clear that the situation is serious and millions are affected. Unsurprisingly. Workers spend the majority of their waking hours in the workplace. If it’s not an enjoyable place to be for whatever stress-related causes, it’s only a matter of time before burnout occurs.

Work-related stress is mainly associated with the following causes:

  • A disparity around expectations, those that are expected of you and those you have of the job.
  • How much autonomy you have, being micromanaged can be extremely damaging. Also, there’s the topic of how much authority you have over your work as well as about coworkers.
  • A unhappy workplace linked to bullying, harassment, lack of social connection, and working hours (i.e. too many hours, or no flexibility).
  • Feelings around a lack of accomplishment whether it’s connected to burnout or lack of opportunity.
  • Job boredom or on the other hand the job being too challenging or the workload being too full.
  • An unhealthy work-life balance so time spent outside of work is still focused on the job, or perhaps you don’t have much free time outside of work,

What Can You Do About Job Burnout?

Workplace Mental Health Screening

There are a few things you can do if you’re experiencing job burnout. Firstly it’s helpful to talk to a supervisor about the negative impact of work on your stress levels. You can discuss expectations, negotiate solutions, and set new goals.

Secondly, looking at the workday, it’s important to structure the day, follow a plan, and take regular breaks.

Thirdly, seek advice and support from others; friends, colleagues, and maybe a counselling service. These are quite often invaluable sources that offer alternative perspectives which can help you think about and approach the situation with renewed ideas.

Finally, prioritise relaxation and exercise as a way to unwind, look after your health and take your mind elsewhere.

All this being said, it’s also the responsibility of the employer to be aware of burnout and how to approach and support their employees. Prevention strategies should, theoretically, be in place, as well as guidance on how to support employees in this situation.

The 5 Stages of Burnout

man sat on bench with head in hands

There are 5 stages of burnout. Knowing what these are can help you identify where you or someone you love is. Once you know where you are, you can think about the level of support and input you need.

  1. The Honeymoon Stage – Here you’re full of energy and optimism
  2. The Onset of Stress Stage – Here, you experience some stressful days and might start losing the ability to concentrate
  3. The Chronic Stress Stage – In the workplace, burnout starts to affect your work, you might procrastinate, and start being late. Outside of work, you might start withdrawing from friends.
  4. The Burnout Stage – Here you’re impacted in and outside of work. You’re struggling to function. There’s a lack of productivity and you might experience feelings of numbness and self-doubt. The behavioural changes linked to impaired mental health affect your job performance.
  5. The Habitual Burnout Stage – This is a prolonged period where burnout leads to mental health conditions such as clinical depression and anxiety. It’s in this space that you might lose your job or be diagnosed with a medical condition.

Negative Health Effects of Burnout

A man reading in bed

Knowing about how burnout affects physical and mental health is critical. It helps put into context just how serious stress-related conditions can become.

When a person experiences excessive stress levels, it leads to the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. When these hormones are at a high level for a prolonged time it’s severely detrimental to health.

There are long-term effects on the brain and body. You can experience the following:

  • Tension headaches and muscle pain
  • Increased colds, flu, and higher risk of disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart problems

The psychological and emotional effects include:

  • Reduced self-worth and/or feeling like a failure
  • Feeling detached and alone
  • Becoming increasingly resentful and negative
  • Developing an addiction to food, substances, gambling, sex, porn, shopping, etc.
  • Developing a mental health condition (i.e. depression)
  • Psychological breakdown

Burnout and Substance Misuse

woman holding spliff to her nose

At OK Rehab, we’re particularly interested in supporting people who have developed substance use as a way of managing work-related stress and burnout.

When this occurs, it’s typically that you’re using alcohol or drugs as a way to self-medicate; to try and ease feelings of stress, low mood etc.

If a person feels stressed they might turn to alcohol to relax, if they’re feeling irritable they might use cannabis, a person with chronic fatigue might be drawn to the stimulating effects of cocaine. Some people might develop a cycle of using a stimulant during the working day and then turning to sedatives as a sleep aid.

Unfortunately, substance use comes with serious health risks and tends to exacerbate burnout. As well as this, coming to rely on drugs or alcohol greatly increases your risk of addiction and/or dependency.

Become Self-Aware To Reduce Burnout

Knowing what the early symptoms of burnout are helps you to address them more effectively. Doing so as it first develops reduces problems at work and improves your health outcomes in the future.

Ignoring burnout can lead to major breakdown and that’s really what you want to avoid.

What You Can Do About Burnout


Firstly, concentrate on self-compassion. Freudenberger described people who were inclined to experience burnout as being “dedicated” and “committed”. It’s a condition that arises from a noble place.

It can be difficult to have a positive attitude when amid burnout. Developing a set daily routine can be helpful.

This will include small goals such as waking up at a particular time, having a shower, eating breakfast etc. It’s important to follow this new routine and reward yourself for following parts of, or all of it when burnout can make that difficult.

As well as this, you can implement the following:

  • A healthy well-balanced diet. Eating well increases your energy levels, boosts your immune system, and improves mental health.
  • A bedtime routine to support sleep. Have a set time and choose relaxing things to do before bed so the mind calms (turn off any blue screens). Reading a book or having a bath before bed can help relax the nervous system.
  • A meditation, mindfulness, and/or grounding moment each day. It might be linked to deep breathing or using the senses to become present in the moment.
  • An exercise regime. This can be anything from running to yoga to swimming to martial arts. Getting back “into the body” can support your mental space.
  • Put time into your social relationships; those with family and friends. Being in a nurturing space with people who care does wonders for your emotional health.
  • Face your emotions. Doing so helps you to process them and stops things from building up inside. You can do this through doing mental “body scans”, identifying where in the body you feel a sensation and then labelling it, sitting with it and doing something to process it such as creating art in the “colour of the emotion”, or you might do a grounding activity such as deep breathing into the “space” or a guided visualisation.
  • Enjoyable activities. Doing things you enjoy that activates the parasympathetic nervous system supports mental, emotional, and physical health. Activities might include singing, cold exposure, spending time in a natural environment, hiking etc.

Professional Treatment for Burnout


If you’re experiencing overwhelming stress or burnout, you can contact your local GP for advice. They might also provide a general health assessment at the same time which can be quite useful.

If burnout has developed, your psychological health might require more input. In such cases, you can opt for private therapy or you might go through your place of work and access occupational health psychology options.

Whatever you decide it’s important that if you’ve noticed the key signs of depression or any other mental health condition, it’s best to get in contact with mental health professionals to get the support you need to recover.

Treatment For Burnout and Substance Misuse

Two women talking and looking at a tablet

There’s a link between burnout and substance use. Some professions are at more risk than others. Physicians, for instance, are reported as being at much greater risk of alcohol use disorder than the rest of the population.[6]

If burnout occurs alongside substance misuse it can be an extremely difficult time. Finding support from professionals who understand addiction in both a personal and social context is beneficial. Doing so also gives you access to the physical and psychological treatments to quit substances successfully.

If you’re interested in rehabilitation options, please contact us at OK Rehab for a chat. We can explain what private clinics are available in your local area.

Final Thoughts…

woman looking away

While burnout is usually associated with the workplace, it also affects other groups of people. The most common signs of burnout include lower levels of energy, exhaustion, cynicism, and a reduced ability to be productive.

Long-term burnout can be especially worrying because of how it impacts physical, mental, and emotional health. People are at more risk of disease and developing mental health conditions.

In some cases, people turn to substances to self-medicate around burnout. This, however, makes the situation worse as it impacts cognitive functioning and can lead to addiction.

Recovery from burnout is best supported through an active approach. There are things you can do to help yourself in the early stages but if the condition has been with you a long time, professional input is advised.


1. How do I know if I’m experiencing burnout?

You’re likely experiencing burnout if you’re feeling exhausted, cynical and resentful, and are less productive than you have been in the past.

2. What are the causes and symptoms of burnout?

The causes of work burnout are usually linked to workload, work challenges, and workplace dynamics. Symptoms include insomnia, fatigue, irritability, headaches, and muscle pain.

3. How can we recognise caregiver burnout?

Caregiver burnout is recognisable when the person is exhausted, feeling numb or expressing extreme emotional reactions, where they seem confused or foggy, and if they’re starting to self-neglect or use substances.

4. Autistic Burnout: How do you recognise it, and what do you do to recover?

Autistic burnout is recognisable when a person is exhausted, isn’t functioning as well as they usually do, and if they’re struggling to tolerate stimuli. To recover, you can identify causes of stress, increase helpful resources, take breaks, and make plans for a less stressful life.