Understanding burnout: high expectations, need for recognition and suppressing needs can lead to it

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Illustration. Photo by Getty Images.
Illustration. Photo by Getty Images.
  • Burnout is a psychological syndrome developing from prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors in occupational or work setting.
  • It can lead to unhealthy mental habits that cause negative personal and professional consequences.
  • There are practical steps one can follow to improve mental well-being. 


The pressure to perform at your optimum at work can lead you to unhealthy mental habits. It is essential to understand what burnout is because it can affect anyone. As the holiday season approaches, year-end fatigue, which has amplified the adjustment of working from home, has not made work-life easy. 

Stikland Hospital clinical psychologist Zanele Thobela says workers need to know that they are not alone when they experience burnout. 

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"There are several factors that can contribute to burnout, and, if not managed well, these can have significant negative personal and professional consequences. Internal factors contributing to burnout include personality characteristics like high expectations of self, intense feelings for recognition and suppressing your needs," Zanele says.  

What is burnout

Burnout is a psychological syndrome developing from prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors experienced in the occupational or work setting. It consists of different dimensions: emotional exhaustion, cynicism and depersonalisation, reduced professional efficacy and personal accomplishment. Burnout can occur in any profession.

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Signs of burnout

Warning symptoms: Loss of energy, depletion, debilitation, fatigue, reduced quality of sleep, headaches. 

Reduced commitment:   This includes having a negative or inappropriate attitude towards clients or co-workers. Irritability, loss of idealism, anger, frustration, apathy, cynicism, feeling threatened or pressured.

Reduction in cognitive performance: Reduced personal accomplishment, reduced productivity capability, low morale, escapist activities, chronic sadness, chronic physical and mental fatigue, depression.  

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"It would be recommended for someone to get help if they are struggling with burnout. The impact of burnout can have significant professional consequences. An example of this would be workplace errors that could lead to a malpractice suit. Such consequences increase vulnerability to depression," Zanele says.

If you're experiencing the symptoms of burnout, there are easy and practical steps you can take to improve your mental well-being.

Boundaries: Learn your boundaries or limits. Understand that work is an aspect of your life. You have a life to live.

Delegate: Learn that you are replaceable at work, and there will always be someone to do your job. It's okay for others to take over. Learn to share tasks and ask for help. 

Breaks: Take your tea and lunch breaks. Don't feel guilty for taking leave. 

Lifestyle choices: Practice good health, exercise, do activities that are not work-related and connect with others.

Sources: Western Cape Government

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