Understanding burnout

By The Space Between Us

Between the blurred boundaries of work and home amid the Covid-19 pandemic, burnout has been described as a pandemic within a pandemic, write Linda Mthenjane and Dr Maureen Mongale.

The International Classification of Disease (ICD-11), which will come into effect in January 2022 defined burnout as:

A syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Between the blurred boundaries between work and home amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the constant juggling between work and family responsibilities burnout has been described as a pandemic within a pandemic

What the numbers show

Among the major findings in Development Dimensions International’s Global Leadership Forecast 2021, conducted from February 2020 through July 2020, are that:

  1. Nearly 60% of leaders reported they feel used up at the end of the workday.
  2. Approximately 44% of leaders who feel used up at the end of the day expected to change companies to advance; 26% expected to leave within the next year.
  3. Only 20% of surveyed leaders believed they were effective at leading virtually.

The study includes data from more than 15 000 leaders and 2 102 human resource professionals who represent more than 1 740 organisations in more than 24 industries around the world. 

Indeed, the job aggregator site, conducted a survey of 1 500 United States workers to determine the level of burnout exhibited by different groups of people.  It compared current findings against a prior pre-pandemic study in January 2020. 

Highlights include:

  1. Over half (52%) of respondents have experienced burnout in 2021—up from the 43% who said the same in Indeed’s pre-Covid-19 survey. 
  2. 53% of Millennials were already burned out pre-pandemic, and remain the most affected with 59% experiencing it currently. However, Gen-Z is now neck-and-neck, as 58% report burnout - up from 47% who said the same in 2020. 
  3. Baby Boomers show a 7% increase in burnout from pre-pandemic levels (24%) to now (31%). And at 54%, more than half of Gen-Xers are burned out - a 14% jump from the 40% who felt this way last year.
  4. Among all respondents, 80% believe Covid-19 had impacted workplace burnout. A 67% majority say burnout has worsened during the pandemic, though 13% believe it has gotten better.

Stress vs burnout

Stress involves too much: too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and mentally. However, stressed people can still imagine that if they can just get everything under control, they will feel better.

Burnout, on the other hand, is about not enough. Being burnt out means feeling empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring. People experiencing burnout often don’t see any hope of positive change in their situations. 

At its core, burnout emerges when the demands of a job outstrip a person’s ability to cope with the stress.

Types of burnout

  1. Collective burnout is based on the suggestion that the contextual antecedents of burnout can be shared among employees. Tough economic and Covid realities have resulted in retrenchments and hiring freezes, leaving remaining employees under pressure to deal with increased work demands with fewer resources. 
  2. Crossover of burnout is a strain experienced by leaders and can affect their teams.

What are the symptoms? 

Burnout usually starts with people losing hope, then being frustrated, angry, and finally apathetic. It is a build-up that most people don’t see coming. 

Important: Please see a professional to confirm a diagnosis of burnout.


  1. Feeling tired and drained. 
  2. Headaches and muscle pain.
  3. Lowered immune system.
  4. Changes in how you eat or sleep. 
  5. Weight changes.


  1. Sense of failure or self-doubt.
  2. Feeling helpless defeated and/or trapped.
  3. Lack of motivation.
  4. Feeling detached or alone in the world. 
  5. Constant cynical or negative outlook.
  6. Dissatisfaction with work performance.


  1. Isolating yourself from others.
  2. Procrastinating. 
  3. Using food, alcohol or drugs to cope.
  4. Short temper and/or irritability.
  5. Absenteeism.
  6. Presenteeism. 
  7. Declining self-care. 
  8. Decline or inconsistent performance.

Adapted from Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Lawrence Robinson.


There are a few schools of thought. Key among these are the people who work with our brain, including neuroscientists and neuropsychologists and the other is psychodynamic that includes those of us who prefer to see the world as being largely driven by our unconscious that is laid down in childhood long before we had words to describe what is happening.

1. Neuropsychology

Remember matric biology when we learned about the brain? Do you remember the amygdalae? It drives the so-called “fight or flight” response. It is also a critical structure in regulating emotional reactions including fear and aggression. Under normal conditions, when we perceive a threat - whether it’s a snake in the grass or an upcoming deadline - a rush of cortisol and adrenalin is released into the body.

Once in the bloodstream, cortisol triggers potent reactions throughout the entire body, ranging from cardiovascular activity to the immune system and memory formation. Once the threat has passed, cortisol levels level off, and these systems return to baseline levels. However, when stress becomes chronic - as in the case of burnout - the body fails to return to normal, meaning we do not finish our stress response cycle. We remain on a high and given how busy our lives  are, the next stressor hits us and then the next. This leads us to almost stay at alert, not normalising our body. It is this heightened state that cascades into a myriad physical symptoms and the potential health problems. 

In this state we have significantly weaker connections between the amygdala and the rest of the brain linked to emotional distress, executive functions such as creativity, problem-solving, and working memory. Weaker connections between these two brain structures could help explain why when we get burnout we experience difficulties in controlling negative emotions.

2. The psychodynamic 

Boundaries are filters that keep information, emotions, and human interaction in or out to ensure a homeostasis of sorts within us. Boundaries protect a person’s sense of self when interacting with others. Boundaries are related to how we are protected as children and how we have learned to protect ourselves as adults. There are two types of psychological boundaries, viz, internal listening boundary and the external containing boundary. To understand burnout, it is important to understand how the internal protective boundary works and malfunctions as well as opening us up to possible burnout. 

Internal protective or listening boundary 

This boundary protects and filters information and feedback we receive from others. When it is working well, we are curious, we can listen and understand others. It allows us to hold ourselves in high positive regard even as others criticise us. If what someone is saying about us is not true, we can choose whether or not to let that information in. Positive emotions can enhance our sense of self and help us improve how we let information in. 

If we are boundaryless, words and actions easily wound us. We may fail to differentiate between someone else’s emotions and our own. We may be unable to say no to others for example and keep taking on more and more responsibility, we may be worried that their anger and or disappointment if we refuse will spill into us and overwhelm us. This phenomenon is called emotional contagion. When we allow ourselves to take on other people’s feelings, we are usually unable to modulate our feelings because of the outside world. Continually making choices for the benefit of others and our expense is a type of poor internal protective boundary.  

The inability to have realistic expectations, evaluate external information against your own internal hemostasis, needing to be always affirmed by others, will add all up and lead to feeling spent or burnt out. 


Forbes calls it coronavirus leadership test – leaders who passed the test acted boldly and decisively during the pandemic, even with imperfect information. They communicated honestly and vulnerably, and they connected compassionately in the face of enormous personal suffering and historic levels of stress and anxiety.              

But what happens now? Will years of muscle memory kick in, drawing leaders back to pre-pandemic forms of leading, or are those old leadership behaviours so wildly outdated now as to appear quaint, even extinct?

Psychological safety is a key success factor for teams. We may witness how great leaders will now, more than ever, create environments in which people feel compelled and open to bring their complete selves to work. And that in turn will lead to deep meaningful connections, honest conversations and a willingness to embrace possibilities.

What to look out for 

The only way you will do that is by heightening your own self-awareness of what’s going on with your body - so what are you looking out for?

  1. Lack of energy and constant complaints about fatigue, which could be due to unmanageable workloads.
  2. Missed deadlines.
  3. Increasing conflict in the team.
  4. Ineffective meetings and lack of creative solutions. 
  5. Unusual silences, even from the most expressive members. Trust your intuition when in doubt and follow up.
  6. One-on-one supportive conversations with members that are most concerning can unravel the puzzle. 

How can we create a mentally healthy culture in teams?

1. Talk about your struggles and share your story of mental hygiene.

  • This gives others permission to do the same. Storytelling begets more stories and creates compassion, which creates a culture of care and a sense of belonging.
  • During the pandemic we all have experienced some level of distress, loss, fear which unites us.

2. Deal with the feelings. It has become a core part of a leader’s job to facilitate environments in which people can talk about their feelings and feel safe. Often the best leaders are those who can create the conditions in which people can talk and process feelings, and where collectively as a group, everyone can embrace the uncertainty. 

Great leaders will create environments where people feel compelled and open to bring their complete selves to work. This, in turn, will lead to deep meaningful connections, honest conversations and a willingness to embrace possibilities that arise. Practice acceptance as an intentional action.

Normalise it 

  1. Encourage strategies for self-care and refilling the bucket so they don't get to the place where it runs empty. Allow yourself and the team to take proper leave during the year to fully recuperate. 
  2. Social support is a predictor of positive affect and a buffer for workplace stress so nurture relationships.
  3. People can have the autonomy to work at different times, depending on when they feel most productive but that should not be unreasonably imposed on others.
  4. Invest in training for leaders to create the right conditions. Leaders need a space, where they can talk through things, and grow.
  5. Find activities that can help you turn and shift your logic brain to your creative side.