Working Around The Clock: Burnout

Come back!” the Caterpillar called after her. “I’ve something important to say.” This sounded promising, certainly. Alice turned and came back again. “Keep your temper,” said the Caterpillar.” ~ Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

Break Stock Image By Salvatore Vuono from:
Break Stock Image
By Salvatore Vuono

There is a difference between healthy stress and burnout: stress is usually good for us as it motivates us to do things, run from danger and have things done on time for deadlines. Burnout, on the other hand, usually happens when we become disillusioned or extremely frustrated because of circumstances we cannot control: it may happen if stress is out of control and when we are overwhelming our basic systems: our bodies, brains and souls as well as our supporting systems: our relationship with family, friends and the community…

I have been close to burnout many times: it is said that burnout is challenge #1 in the helping professions such as community/social worker, healthcare worker, educator, etc.

It also affects volunteers, immigrants and refugees, people who have experienced great stress, long-time job seekers and people involved in causes such as climate change, environment and so on…

Burnout is experienced by the body:

  • Feeling exhausted all the time
  • Aching everywhere without apparent causes
  • Falling sick very often
  • Insomnia or oversleeping
  • Headaches
  • Overweight or underweight

It is also experienced by your brain, emotions and spirit:

  • Feeling frustrated or upset
  • Feeling angry with people and workplace for little things
  • Memory loss, confusion
  • Negative feeling s and thoughts about work, life in general or relationships
  • Cynicism when there was inspiration and motivation before
  • General disengagement with people, processes and places, apathy

And it usually manifests in certain behaviours:

  • Avoid meetings and other events
  • Being late for work and other commitments or not showing up
  • Working slow or in a clumsy manner with many projects undone
  • Unhappy reactions towards people and other subjects of your work

If not acknowledged on time, burnout may lead to many devastating results, from being lay off to heart attack, clinical depression, bad decisions in life, illnesses and addictions, among other things.

Luckily for me (and for those around me) I am fast in identifying burnout. In the past, I have changed jobs and even entire careers because of this and the strategy usually works well: because burnout is also a reaction to boredom or to not being taken seriously in your workplace, volunteering or community group…something employers, volunteer coordinators and group members and leaders should consider if they don’t want to lose valuable people)

Why does burnout happen?

Burnout is not the same for everybody because the threshold is different for each person and each situation, but in general, burnout has similar causes:

  • A real or perceived lack of control over the situation, place, relationship or person/people involved
  • Overworking: working too hard without the necessary resting time and relaxing (same with studies)
  • A real or perceived neglect or abuse from the part of others towards you and what you do: feeling disrespected, not listened, not appreciated, not supported by those you care for
  • Real or perceived inefficiency and/or ineffectiveness of your efforts: this is very common when you work with people and people do not react as you were expected no matter your investment in them)
  • Real or perceived disillusionment from a cause o goal that used to be very important for you
  • Too much stress caused by the environment around you (physical or psychological, such as too much heat, mess, dirtiness or lack of resources or too much “bad energy” from others, excess of emotionality, etc.)
  • Too many negative circumstances happening at the same time in your life: from war and coup d’états to food, water and energy shortages; from the death or illness of a loved one to financial instability in your household…but it can also be the end result of years dealing with a broken relationship, abuse, neglect, poverty, etc.


There are times when I long to sweep away half the things I am expected to learn; for the overtaxed mind cannot enjoy the treasure it has secured at the greatest cost. … When one reads hurriedly and nervously, having in mind written tests and examinations, one’s brain becomes encumbered with a lot of bric-a-brac for which there seems to be little use. At the present time my mind is so full of heterogeneous matter that I almost despair of ever being able to put it in order. Whenever I enter the region of my mind I feel like the proverbial bull in the china shop. A thousand odds and ends of knowledge come crashing about my head like hailstones, and when I try to escape them, theme goblins and college nixies of all sorts pursue me, until I wish – oh, may I be forgiven the wicked wish! – that I might smash the idols I came to worship.”

~ Helen Keller, The Story of My Life

What to do if you think you are experiencing this:

As an ex psycho-pedagogue and current counselor and somebody who has experienced burnout I have some experience and tips to share, hope they help.

The key is “resilience” and understanding the “Epidemiologic Triangle through Infectious Disease” (used by specialists to determine the probability of epidemics/diseases)


Resilience works differently for different people and relates to many factors such as:


  • Knowing yourself, your boundaries and your pet peeves (what are your triggers)
  • Having a support network or “guild”: people around you who care about you and can provide support, listen or just be there for you
  • Being physically and mentally/emotionally/spiritually strong

The triangle says that for you to get sick (or, in this case, to become burned out) you need three factors to be present at the same time:

  • The host (you)
  • The environment (what is around you and happening to you including support networks or the lack of them)
  • The agent/pathogen (or, in this case, the cause for burnout, such as lack of control over the resources behind your work, lack of control over other person’s behaviour, etc)

Knowing the above, it becomes easier to know how you can manage burnout:

  • Remove one of the factors in the triangle: either you remove yourself from the situation or you remove the “pathogen/agent” or you change the environment
  • Become physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually stronger by exercising, eating well and healthy, drinking lots of water, taking breaks, relaxing and practicing meditation or mindfulness, etc
  • Making conscious efforts to understand who you are, where are you going, what moves you and why are you doing what you are doing…including your limits, values, ethics, priorities, etc
  • Consciously and carefully building a guild or network and caring for its members: creating community, family and friends relationships

Other tips may include:

  • Take time for yourself: better if it is once a day, but you can schedule it at least once a week if your circumstances don’t allow you for more: go somewhere beautiful, natural, if possible a forest, beach or other place that inspires you. Free and natural is better than costly and artificial
  • Assess the situation and make a “site analysis” with emphasis on assets: what are the positive things from the current situation?
  • If taking time off and relaxing don’t work, consider changing places, relationships or workloads, even going away for some time if you can afford it
  • Remember that all in this life is a cycle and a system: everything passes and this is not exception…in many cases, you can be the decisive factor for this to change
  • If nothing works or you are too overwhelmed, ask for help

I leave you with this:

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

By Portia Nelson


I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.


I walk down another street.

(Copyright (c) 1993, by Portia Nelson from the book There’s A Hole in My Sidewalk. Reproduced with kind permission from Beyond Words Publishing, Hillsboro, Oregon.) (source: )

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