Blog Company Culture What is Burnout?

What is Burnout?

I have been fascinated with the Burnout syndrome for many years now since having my own episode of Burnout.


The symptoms of burnout are; 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. This came after years of working long hours in a stressful role as director building my first company with hardly any sleep. The result was a crash! I was in mess physically, mentally and socially.


It was not until I was recommended to try yoga, cardiovascular exercises and mindfulness that I made any improvements. Then after a few weeks of getting some running in followed by yoga and mindfulness, I felt like my symptoms had all but gone. The fact was that those symptoms had not actually gone so quickly but I felt so much better so quickly it felt like I had made a full recovery.


It took a few weeks of regular mindfulness and yoga practice before I felt stable enough to go into work. When I did finally go back, I had a clarity of mind and renewed energy. In fact, I drove the company so positively that I sold it for a massive profit. What has followed since selling that business has been an insatiable desire to understand what variables within the yoga and mindfulness helped my recovery.


Even more interesting than this was to understand what about those practices had led me to perform to a better performance than I had been able to achieve previously. This pursuit of answers led me to study an MSc and then go onto a PHD researching the efficacy of mindfulness and yoga in the treatment of burnout in the corporate workplace.


There are many ingredients that make mindfulness and yoga so successful in treating stress but it’s not yet understood how these two tools also develop resiliency needed for performance. At the time of burnout, I did not appreciate how important energy was. I have always had a strong mindset. If you were to use the paradigms that Dr Peter Clough (mental toughness) or Dr Carol Dweck (GRIT) use to define resiliency as having a strong growth mind that perseveres when all else would fail I had it. What I did not have was an understanding of how much impact energy had on those levels of resiliency and what aspects of yoga and mindfulness were responsible for such quick rehabilitation.


Replenishing our Energy

After initial research into this area, it became clear that the outcomes of interventions using yoga and mindfulness had a common theme.


The interventions affected the energetic state of the individual, so they felt physically, emotionally and mentally better and found their purpose again which is something that is lost during the burnout phase. Participants mentioned feeling like they had energy again, so I looked at what research there was into energy management in the workplace. This is when I came across Tony Schwartz’s Energy Project. One of Tony’s most famous statements is -“We’re not meant to run at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time.


Science tells us we’re at our best when we move rhythmically between spending and renewing energy — a reality that companies must embrace to fuel sustainable engagement and high performance.” Tony boldly suggests that in order to keep employees working in “Performance Zone”, we should be sprinters rather than marathoners – taking rests regularly to recovery our physical, psychological and emotional energy.


There are four energy zones, according to Tony, which are physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. If any one of these four is out of kilter we run the risk of unbalancing our whole performance and with too much unbalance we might face burnout.



It was after understanding the four pillars of the energy paradigm that I came to realise how impactful exercise, mindfulness and yoga were in the recovery from and then the resiliency to not to return to burnout.


The combination of both mindfulness and yoga affects our physical, mental and emotional states. This is well documented. However, in burnout, a person can become detached from the world and themselves. They have lost connection, purpose and a sense of who they are. Ton calls this spiritual energy. I prefer emotional energy as this is the energy that drives and connects us to our purpose in life.


Both mindfulness and yoga help to bring a person to a place of purpose by looking inwardly into who we are and accepting how we feel. Tony’s model also has similar comparisons in that he promotes the use of practices like yoga that combine physical and mental exercises in short bursts meaning those in the workplace have a method to quickly recharge to give 100% of their energy to projects they are working on.


Once we finish one sprint or goal, we renew ourselves and prepare for the next sprint, where we can also give 100% of our energy. With this theory of rhythmic energy output and renewal, there is always 100% effort given to any given project or goal. This contrasts with the model I used to live my working life by where I would effectively run a marathon by working hard for long periods without breaks which ultimately led to my burnout.


Recognising and treating Burnout

Burnout is the end of the stress spectrum. Essentially it is chronic stress that has built up to unmanageable levels and presents itself as over stimulation both psychologically and physiologically which results in tension.


Stress is a normal part of life. We experience it, to varying degrees, almost every single day. But when things really start to feel overwhelming, you’ll likely notice stress starting to affect your physical health. Maslach & Jackson state there are two generalised categories of stress. There is acute stress which is the body’s reaction to a short term stressful event. On the other hand chronic stress, otherwise known as Burnout, is usually a result of ongoing psychological or environmental demands, such as work, monetary problems, marital conflict, etc. Many studies have shown that stress responds well to interventions that work with the mind like Mindfulness and Yoga.


In Burnout, the acute sympathetic response, which is basically a fight-or-flight [reaction], gradually diminishes, but the cortisol levels remain high—which in the long-term can have adverse effects on the body. The long-term effects of stress in whatever form can negatively impact our bodies if we don’t use tactics that will keep it at bay. Maslach & Jackson claim the best way to beat stress is to become better at recognising the signs so that you can take action earlier. It has also been shown that Burnout is prevented when a person has a routine that helps you prevent the build-up of stress; like a regular Mindfulness or Yoga practice. Prevention really is better than cure.


The signs of stress

After One Day

General symptoms are irritability, increased heart rate and difficulty concentrating.  Some people might experience fatigue. The overall consensus from experts is that your body can withstand a singular stressful day just fine. Using a simple Mindfulness exercise, like the body-scan meditation, for 5 minutes a day removes these symptoms. So a person is back to a normal functioning state. The best time to do this is first thing in the morning or just before bed.


After One Week

One week of stress makes us prone to viral infections, cold sore outbreaks, acute stress, and sleep deprivation. Elevated cortisol levels interfere with sleep, which can result in poor memory, lowered defence of the immune system, depression, fatigue, and weight gain.


While your body can probably endure bouts of stress every so often, elevated cortisol levels can make individuals prone to getting sick more often. A good example of this is an increased risk of viral and bacterial infections when someone has been working long hours to meet a deadline then gets a terrible cold.


Research into Yoga has proven that the stretches in Yoga release both psychological and physiological tension. Just going to one Yoga class a week for a minimum of 60 minutes can make a difference. It has the power to release most of the toxins and stress tension that has built up. This will relieve the symptoms and reset the body back to a restful state.


After One Month

If you’re constantly feeling high levels of stress, you may notice both psychological and physical symptoms of Burnout. You may begin feeling irritable, tightness in your body, a change in your appetite, and start having anxious thoughts.  Maslach & Jackson confirm that Burnout is characterised by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. In practice, this means that a person can seem exhausted and become cynical and detached. Burnout can also cause patchy hair loss, diarrhoea, or constipation. It is also said to be responsible for chronic gut issues as well as abdominal pain and bloating.


At this stage, this is where using both a cognitive and physiological approach is needed. The mind is overstimulated and the body is physically stressed. Over the last 4 years, researchers have tested Mindfulness combined with Yoga to treat both forms of the stress condition. Mindfulness exercises that work on conditioning the left hemisphere of the pre-frontal cortex like Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy exercises aimed at thought relationships have proven to be effective at de-regulating mental stress. Certain Hatha Yoga stretches have proven just as effective at reducing physiological stress. The interesting thing about these studies has shown that when Yoga is used with Mindfulness participants have scored far higher for Mindfulness scores compared to when Mindfulness is only present.


After Six Months

If you’re constantly stressed out, you could experience all of those symptoms and reach a full-blown case of chronic Burnout. You might feel a lack of enjoyment, become really pessimistic, and unconsciously isolate yourself from others. Burnout is responsible for people not being able to go to work. Those people often look to self-medicate using drugs or alcohol. Burnout is serious and has also been linked to joint pain and development of arthritis in the long-term. Increased blood pressure and your risk of heart attack and stroke is dramatically increased if you reach a state of Burnout.


If things have reached this stage a person will recover quickly if they are referred to a Mindfulness & Yoga for Burnout programme. This treatment will use a combination of elements that are known to be effective at lowering perceived stress and increasing emotional resilience. Which is what’s needed for a person to make a full recovery. The good news is that this course lasts just 8 weeks. 70% of all people who have attended these courses have recovered from Burnout.


The power of mindfulness

Recent studies have shown those scoring higher in mindfulness tend to report higher levels of pleasant affect, higher self-esteem, optimism, and self-actualization. Also, lower levels of neuroticism, anxiety, depression, and unpleasant affect are reported in those scoring higher in mindfulness.


This means that those people who practice Mindfulness regularly are more likely to stay positive despite changes to their lives than those who do not. This is important because those same people are more likely to embrace the changes the pandemic brings. Evidence also suggests these people will thrive during this crisis. By seeking out and exploring new opportunities this new situation brings.


Easier for some than others

It must be considered that some individuals are more proficient at putting themselves into a state of mindfulness than others. Not all people find mindfulness an easy practice to continue regularly. Studies have shown that the willingness and practice of mindfulness varied as well.


The evidence here showed that all humans have a “radar” for internal and external experience. But this awareness must be cultivated like any other skill. Consciousness is built through harnessing the focusing of that awareness, which is attention. Mindfulness is enhanced attention to and awareness of current experience and the acceptance of things as they are which brings higher levels of consciousness.


For more information on treating Burnout or the Mindfulness & Yoga for Burnout programme please contact

John Earls

July 6, 2020

Managing Director at The Heart Base. The Heart Base builds wellbeing cultures for organisations worldwide by offering the complete wellbeing programme that includes leadership coaching, resilience training, cultural change initiatives and physical health products.

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