When we are excessively stressed, as many people are due to constant work overload and excessive time spent at work with little or no recovery time, we can get burnout.

In my clinical practice and in ordinary conversations, I discover that many people are on the verge of burnout and cannot recognize that they are in that situation. I have therefore taken the following stories from my book “Conquering Stress: Make it Fun!” to help you understand what burnout is.

“The physical symptoms were bad, but the mental “fog” was awful. It was like someone had drilled a hole in my head and filled it with concrete,’ Liz, a health and well-being counsellor in her forties, recounted her experience of severe burnout at the age of 30.1

“Overwhelmingly long work hours, lack of sleep, no social life, and poor nutrition over many months led to a physical and mental state so wrecked that Liz could not even get out of bed one morning. It was the start of a slow recovery that took her more than four years. The shocker? That she had barely realised she was under stress because she enjoyed the work and the adrenaline kick from being constantly on the go.

Lai Khee was working flat out at his office until 9 or 10 p.m. daily; and yet when he went home, he would still have some work to clear. He ended up sleeping at 1 a.m. or later every night; and by 7 a.m., he would be up and be back at his office desk by 8.30 a.m. Life was an uphill struggle. Weekends were just as bad. He went back to his office voluntarily to clear his work backlog on Saturdays and even put in a few hours on Sundays. His wife of four years was also working, but his intense work schedule took a toll on their relationship, to the point where tempers flared, and disagreements became vocal and sharp. At the office, where a trimming of staff had led to this overwork, relationships were sometimes tense, and disagreements could lead to angry exchanges. He had issues with his immediate supervisor, but his departmental head seemed to appreciate his work and was supportive. In fact, noticing his stress, the departmental head suggested that Lai Khee should take some time off work to unwind and return more productive.

“Like Liz and Lai Khee, some people are not able to recognise their own symptoms of stress. They may be so used to the adrenaline rush of being efficient that when things become even more demanding, they push the rush even higher, causing their performance to falter in the end.”

To help you recognize burnout better, I have reproduce the following list of symptoms for you to recognize whether you are on the verge of burnout. If you have one or two of the following items in the list, you are at risk, but if you have 5 or more than 5 of the symptoms listed, you are most like in the early stages of burnout.

A list of warning signals that indicate you may be in the early stages of burnout is given below. Please note that this list of warning signals is in addition to the stress symptoms you experienced. A stress symptoms rating is appended below for your convenience.

Warning signals: (credit: Schoen Clinic)

  • Feeling of being indispensable
  • Feeling like you never have enough time
  • Hyperactivity
  • Bitterness/Lack of Humour
  • Relationship and/or family problems
  • Indifference /Disillusionment
  • Loss of empathy
  • Cynicism / Loss of idealism
  • Indifference
  • Disillusionment
  • Being unable to say no
  • Voluntarily unpaid overtime
  • Imprecision
  • Difficulties in performing complex tasks
  • Daydreams (escape fantasies)
  • Dissatisfaction with one’s own performance
  • Decreasing friendliness
  • Feeling of a lack of recognition and appreciation
  • Mistrust/Withdrawal from private contacts
  • Sports accidents
  • Increased alcohol/tablets consumption
  • Frequent checking of the time at work
  • Increased conflicts with colleagues, superiors or students

Should you have the symptoms of burnout, the best you can do is to consult a professional for advice and/or treatment. A psychologist/counsellor or a psychiatrist should be able to help you handle your burnout symptoms.

Alternatively, you may contact the writer of this article for advice at douglas@optimalzonepeformance.com


Douglas Kong (2019): Conquering Stress: Make it Fun!  Partridge.

Schoen Clinic (2020): https://www.schoen-clinic.com/burnout