Burnout in business is a big issue. The World Health Organisation recently listed it as an official medical condition, and last year in the UK, 15.4 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression and anxiety.

Overwhelm, stress, exhaustion and burnout exist on a continuum, and burnout is at the far end of it. A little bit of stress is not necessarily a bad thing; it can stimulate us if experienced in small amounts. We are not supposed to live permanently in the parasympathetic ‘rest-digest-heal’ state.

Similarly, people can recover from exhaustion fairly easily, but real burnout – a state beyond exhaustion, in which you deplete yourself to the point where you cannot adequately recover, and in which you paradoxically often keep going – poses an incredible threat to a person’s long-term health and well-being. As Anne Helen Peterson writes in her viral piece on Millennial burnout, it “isn’t an affliction experienced by relatively few… it is the contemporary condition.”

The Symptoms of Burnout

When an individual is in the throes of burnout, breaks are not refreshing, daily tasks feel overwhelmingly impossible, fun activities are rarely experienced as fun, and challenges begin to feel insurmountable. Your nervous system goes into overdrive and you may experience a chronic ‘buzzing’ feeling in your body or feel tired all the time. Here are some signs to watch out for in yourself, your colleagues or your loved ones:

Running on empty – or being precariously close to it.

Reaching for yet another caffeinated drink to get you through the next hour.

Being permanently tired.

Fighting the feeling that you’re on the verge of being out of control.

Regularly feeling overwhelmed.

Needing time off from work.

Fighting the thought that you’re barely coping.

Running on adrenaline, with stress a near-constant companion.

Being unable to switch off in the evenings or at weekends.

Not sleeping well.

Shallow breathing.

Poor digestion.

Feeling tense.

Regularly hitting the roof.

Numbing your emotions using alcohol, food, shopping or binge watching shows.

Working to a lower standard than you know you’re capable of.

An inability to focus.

Chronic health issues.


Making your colleagues feel like they’re walking on eggshells around you.

In isolation, these symptoms might not point to burnout. Taken together, they indicate a person whose mind, body and emotions are very out of balance.

The Difficulty and Dilemma of Burnout in Business

When we are under a bit of stress or pressure, many of us perform at our peak. A bit of adrenaline and cortisol (the hormones that kick in and create the fight/flight response) can spur us on – athletes and performers of all kinds know this well.

The issue in business is that where an athlete or performer will have the chance to rest and recover in between these high-stress moments, most executives in the corporate world are expected to be on top of their game 24/7, with little chance to wind down, unplug and recover – and this has only worsened as our working weeks have grown steadily longer, or for those in high-pressure professions.

Ultimately, of course, the long-term effects of burnout, which include being signed off work, sometimes for prolonged periods of time, or performing at a level far below what you are capable of, are hugely detrimental to business.

One of the reasons burnout is so widespread in part because of the increasingly fast-paced world in which the boundaries between work and the rest of our lives have become blurrier and blurrier.

Look out for my next article in which I will look at a number of practical ways that you can prevent and recover from burnout.


Elizabeth Reilly is an executive and leadership coach and co-founder of the Work Psychologists. Elizabeth’s commercial background allows her to quickly grasp the complexities of today’s organisations and bring clarity to the issues involved. Working in fast-paced and highly fluid environments – from entrepreneurial start-ups to FTSE 100 – she particularly relates to the challenges faced by senior executives and has supported business leaders and teams across a wide range of sectors, including advertising, banking and tech.