Spotting the symptoms of burnout

Spill's qualified therapists answer real questions from employees struggling with burnout.

I think I might be starting to burn out, and I'm worried not only for myself, but that it sets a bad precedent for the team as I'm a senior leader. What can I do to stop it before it gets worse?

Our first therapist suggests...

Set clear boundaries — immediately

It’s interesting that you feel acknowledging burnout sets a bad precedent as a senior leader because I think that the opposite is actually true.

Nobody, no matter what their level of seniority, their skill level, or amount of experience is immune from being in a position where the demands on them exceed their capacity to cope.

It is a show of strength to the rest of the team that good emotional health is a priority and needs to be addressed with the same level of seriousness and urgency that one would deal with a broken leg or a physical illness.

In addition, taking action before burnout reaches the stage where you can no longer function ensures a level of continuity and certainty in leadership that would be absent if you allowed the problem to continue unattended.

The most valuable ways of supporting yourself will give a very positive model to your team and help other more junior members of staff to also recognise the importance of their mental health.

You will start to benefit immediately if you set some clear and firm boundaries between work and personal life. This means starting and ending your working day at a reasonable and sustainable time then using your time away from work to rest properly and engage with the people and interests that give you a feeling of joy and will enable you to recharge properly.

If you can delegate some responsibilities, even temporarily, while you get back on course that will also help and give your reports some valuable experience. You never know, you may end up shedding some unnecessary responsibilities and help your team to develop in the process.

The result is that you will feel more in control, stronger emotionally, and your team will have even more respect for you as a leader.

Treat burnout before it requires time off by giving employees access to therapy with burnout specialists.
See how Spill works
Our second therapist suggests...

Give yourself permission to recover

Sounds like you’re having a hard time at the moment so it’s great that you’re reaching out for support and acknowledging that this state is no longer sustainable. Firstly, let me guide you to some resources Spill has created about burnout. These resources have been well researched and well written for questions just like yours.

Secondly, I’d like to explore your concern around your role as a senior leader and the “bad precedent”. Why does this make you any less vulnerable to stress, or why do you need to hide it? There may be some rules coming from your own belief system with regards to what’s OK or not OK to show or experience. Or maybe it’s implicit/explicit messages from the company’s culture around how senior leaders “must” or “should” behave? Either way, it needs a bit of a poke. If you are on the verge of burnout, you need to heal. You need to rest and catch a break before it gets worse. It can be very damaging to our health to not give ourselves the permission we need to recover due to some irrelevant or unhelpful thinking style. On top of all the stress symptoms, you are also burdening yourself with unnecessary emotional burdens such as guilt or shame. Please don’t.

What does your health need right now? Start with that (and check the Spill resources for recovery ideas).

Once you start to feel better, it may be worth a chat with a therapist (if you have access to therapy through your company) to explore and challenge the unhelpful thinking that may be stopping you accessing the support your health needs.

As a senior leader, you set a precedent within the company and you have an obligation to the humans around you. What a wonderful bit of role modelling to show “I am important. My health is important. It’s OK to look after yourself. It’s OK to pause/rest/stop”. By doing the opposite (e.g. keep going regardless), that is also giving an implicit message that this is what the company expects, and so you won’t be the only one burned out. This message equates to “The company’s needs are greater than ours”. This cannot be a rigid truth the entire time.

Survey your team's burnout risk each week with Spill Safety Net, and let our therapists reach out to help anyone who's struggling.
Learn more about Spill Safety Net
Our third therapist suggests...

Ways to start recovering from burnout

It’s great that you have acknowledged the problem as that is the first step to recovering. Signs of burnout may be fatigue, loss of sense of humour, loss of enthusiasm and motivation, difficulties concentrating and focusing, irritability and lack of empathy.

The following are tips to prevent things getting worse:

  1. Try to create space for rest and relaxation to help you manage stress and overwhelm. If possible, have a break from work and/ or look for where you can simplify your life.
  2. When you have the space, do things like exercise, deep-breathing practices, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation. Everybody needs a stress and anxiety toolkit to fall back on.
  3. Aim to get sufficient sleep and eat healthily.
  4. Identify what is causing you stress. It could be that you have too many things to do or that you lack clarity or support. There may be specific situations or issues that are wearing you out.
  5. Set boundaries and assert your needs in order to deal with any issues contributing to how you feel.
  6. Open up to loved ones, peers, and friends. Talking about issues often brings relief.
  7. Write a list of things that drain your energy and things that give you energy. How can you implement things that give you energy into your day? How can you reduce energy drainers?
  8. Speak to a therapist if you need more help, if you have access to therapy through your company. It can be hard to think when we experience burnout, and a therapist can create the structure and support to enable you.
Submit document logo

Get our burnout symptoms test

This 30-second test helps anyone self-assess their burnout risk and can be used to get a quick read on whether your employees are likely to be struggling with burnout.