Burnout is a term used to describe a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion caused by prolonged stress. Stress is something we feel when the demands on us exceed our ability to cope with them. Stress is caused by any number of things:

  • Confusion
  • Frustration
  • Disappointed hopes
  • Failed expectations
  • Emotional pressure
  • Trying to satisfy unrelenting demands
  • Trying to manage chaos
  • Being overwhelmed by too much to do
  • Constantly struggling to assert your rights
  • Struggling to be accepted, struggling to be yourself
  • Being ignored, discounted, neglected
  • Having a role or expectations you do not want forced upon you
  • Trying to be what you are not
  • Feelings of failure and inadequacy
  • Denying your own needs in favour of another’s
  • Feeling anger/resentment at someone you are supposed to care for or love
  • Lack of information
  • Feeling powerless
  • A lack of affection and/or respect
  • Unpredictability

Burnout comes from always giving and never getting. It comes from futility, from trying and working hard and never getting anywhere. Any situation where we give and give and receive little, anything that makes heavy demands and gives few rewards can lead to feeling emotionally drained and burnt out.

People in the caring professions are prone to burn out, so are parents, carers of the elderly, ill and the disabled. People in abusive or dysfunctional relationships or families invariably suffer burnout (and often progress to depression of full-blown stress breakdowns). Idealistic and conscientious people are especially prone to burnout because they give so much of themselves.

Burnout is a cumulative process with distinct stages that may be imperceptible until the symptoms overwhelm and debilitate the sufferer.

  • At first everything is wonderful and the new job or relationship seems so promising.
  • Then we begin to realize things are not working out the way we hoped they would. We are giving a lot and getting little in return.

  • Disillusion and disappointment grow. We are confused but not sure about exactly what is wrong. So we try harder but things don’t improve, they deteriorated and we are increasingly frustrated and our self-confidence plummets. We feel unappreciated and taken for granted and resentment builds.


  • Symptoms of stress begin to appear, loss of motivation, fatigue, apathy, irritability, loss of interest in food and sex, trouble sleeping, withdrawal or escapist behaviour to avoid the feeling of discontent. We feel like a failure and our self-esteem suffers. Emotional paralysis sets in and pessimism colours everything.
  • Burnout sufferers lose confidence and their sense of humour. Their memory might be impaired and they have trouble concentrating. Their morale plummets and their emotions may shut down so that they feel numb. Burnout is not the same as depression but it has many symptoms in common such as lethargy, loss of enthusiasm, fatigue, and losing a sense of purpose and hope.