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Therapist Are you burning out? Here are the signs to watch out for...

Linda Breathnach outlines what ways Burnout can present in our busy, ever-productive and switched on lives.

“THEY HAVE NO interest in me and how I am”…

Many years ago, I sat one day and listened as a teacher, who was attending my private counselling psychotherapy practice, ranted about his secondary school students.

His frustration and irritation was palpable. As a parent of four children myself, I was thinking to myself that they shouldn’t have to worry about him in his role. Yes, they should be courteous and respectful, of course, but they shouldn’t be thinking about him or his needs in any great detail. They are the children and he is the adult. He should be in the role of teacher and they should be in the role of student. It’s his job to be concerned about them but not the other way round.

I knew straight away that he was suffering from, or on the verge of “Burnout”.

Burnout is defined by the American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology as: “Physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance and negative attitudes toward oneself and others. It results from performing at a high level until stress and tension, especially from extreme and prolonged physical or mental exertion or an overburdening workload, take their toll”.

Burnout is something I am increasingly coming across as part of my work in both the Therapeutic and Corporate Spaces. According to the World Health Organization, three indicators of burnout are:

  • A sense of physical and mental fatigue or exhaustion;
  • Growing detachment from work, accompanied by negative or cynical attitudes towards it; and
  • A decline in job performance and effectiveness.

The second sign, which involves developing a negative or cynical attitude towards work that once excited and inspired you, is something I encounter frequently.

Work as the cause

Often people talk about how much they used to love their work, that it gave them meaning and purpose and that it felt like they were “making a difference”. This meaning and purpose ignited their commitment and enthusiasm to go “above and beyond” in what they gave to their work. Sometimes this might have been exploited by colleagues or managers, and other times it was escalated by the pressure and expectation that people put on themselves.

There is a lot that employers can do to improve the working culture of an organisation that will protect the mental health and wellbeing of employees and help prevent burnout.

It is important for employers to foster a positive workplace environment where work life balance is not only encouraged but also modelled as good practice from the top down. Providing support and resources along with ongoing Professional Development is also something that employers can offer. Employers have a responsibility to create a healthy workplace atmosphere with reasonable workloads and where good habits of exercise, nutrition and rest are valued as much as work.

Employees can also help themselves when it comes to burnout prevention. Often in therapy, when I would scratch beneath the surface with clients, we would realise that the expectation and pressure can be coming from within. A person’s perfectionism or commitment to a project might cause them to take on too much or expect too much of themselves and this sometimes isn’t coming from an employer at all. This can be difficult to face up to but also hugely empowering.


This is when I would support somebody to work on their own levels of self-care and self-compassion and what might be hindering them from this (e.g. Imposter syndrome, fear of failure or people-pleasing).

Kristin Neff defines self-compassion as “the process of turning compassion inward”. Often through this work, we will realise that we are much better at making allowances for other people and being kind to others than we are to ourselves. Self-care is sometimes confused with selfishness, but while selfishness is often about putting ourselves before others, Self-care is about bringing how we treat ourselves up to the same level as how we treat others.

So if you are starting to notice your own signs of Burnout, if you are experiencing more fatigue than usual, your productivity and efficiency in work are deteriorating and above all, you are now irritated and cynical about what used to light your spark, maybe it’s time to take some self-care steps.

This can include a longer holiday than usual in order to allow yourself to fully switch off, being as kind to yourself as you might be to a friend, noticing how much you have on your plate and making allowances for that and lastly learning to say the words “no”, “not now” or “maybe later”!

Talking to an IACP accredited therapist is a great place to start if you need support with your own work-life balance and burnout prevention and you can find a therapist near you on the IACP register

Linda Breathnach is an MIACP psychotherapist, lecturer, trainer and supervisor. For more, see

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