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Stress is a natural part of life. A little mild stress isn’t a bad thing – it’s what keeps us alert. A manageable level of stress also motivates us, helps keep us safe and encourages us work towards long-term goals.1

However, when we talk about burn out – we are talking about chronic stress which can leave us feeling miserable, overwhelmed and unable to cope with daily challenges.

So – what causes burn out?

The pressure to acquire new skills, make linear progress and constantly improve can weigh heavily on us.

Bad days are a part of life, and everybody feels challenged by their workload and responsibilities sometimes. However, perspective is important. Remember that it’s not normal to feel as though every day is a bad day.

If you feel this way – you may be experiencing burn out.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) now recognises burn out as a syndrome arising from ‘chronic workplace stress which has not been successfully managed.’2 Unfortunately, burn out is all too common in the UK. In 2015, over 50% of people self-reported anxiety and burn out in their current role.3

What are the signs of burn out?

Burn out comes with a range of physical and emotional symptoms.

Physical signs of burn out might include:4
  • Persistent headache
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Appetite or sleep changes

Emotional signs of burn out might include:

  • Feeling out of control
  • Experiencing self-doubt
  • Feeling hopeless and lacking in motivation
  • Experiencing anger and anxiety5
  • Feeling consistently underappreciated

What types of burn out are there?

There are broadly two main reasons people experience burn out.


The WHO’s definition of burn out refers to workplace stress.

This is something many of us can no doubt relate to. Smartphones and remote access mean that many of us are never truly ‘off the clock’.

Further, there is a culture of ‘presenteeism’ in UK workplaces – the invisible pressure to physically show up to the office even when productivity is low or non-existent.

Even worse, according to one study in 2019, more than 80% of British employees continue to attend work when they are unwell.6

How to address work-related burn out:

  • Talk to your manager if you feel you’re running the risk of burn out. You might think that your boss wants you to be working round the clock and available all the time. However, any good manager will recognise that burn out among employees is a disaster for productivity in the workplace. Speaking up might help others do the same, and a company-wide culture change might be in order to prevent and address burn out.

  • Work from home sometimes if you can. UK attitudes towards homeworking are gradually shifting in its favour. Obviously, some jobs cannot be done from home, but many can. Just ensure that you demonstrate reliability during working hours and have firm boundaries for when you’re ‘off the clock.’

  • Time off means time off. Few jobs are so important that you need to be constantly checking in on your annual leave. Let your colleagues know that you can only be contacted directly in an emergency – and you might be surprised how many problems work themselves out without your need to oversee them.

  • Look for another job if you truly feel that your workplace environment is causing you serious stress with no way out. Once you’ve found a new position, constructively let your employer know the reason you’re leaving is related to burn out – it might help those left behind.


Despite the official categorisation of burn out as an occupational phenomenon, family-related burn out is all too real.

This can be even more difficult than workplace-related burn out. While you can turn off your work mobile and shut your laptop, you can’t tune out demands from your nearest and dearest.

  • Set boundaries. We know – easier said than done if you have young children. Try to carve out some time for yourself, whether that’s time alone with a book or the chance to participate in a restorative hobby.

  • Let the small stuff go. It’s unlikely you’ll achieve a state of perfect cleanliness in every room of the house at once. A reasonably sanitary home full of items and people you love is a good thing to aim for.

  • Share the load – is your partner pulling their weight? Statistics show that the lion’s share of the housework often falls onto the female partner.7 Ensure you have a routine you’re both comfortable with, even if this involves re-vamping your existing arrangement. Get the kids involved, too. Older children can take care of pets, fold laundry, sweep and vacuum etc.

  • Manage your family’s expectations. You can’t be everything to everyone! Whether it’s your partner, kids, in-laws or your own parents – let them know that your time and resources are both precious and limited. When asked for a favour, instead of immediately agreeing, consider whether you have the capacity. Remember your family love you – and don’t want to see you run ragged.

  • Go back to basics. Whether that’s health, hobbies or quality time together, reassess what’s important to you and your family. See if you can streamline your time so that you’re doing more of the things you enjoy.
Find out how to truly relax, because everyone needs a break.

Last updated: 20 May 2020