Burnout: The Ugly Truth

Photo credit: Luis Villasmil on Unsplash.com

In the last 18 months, the world has collectively gone through a massive shift in how we all live our lives. Traveling has now been reduced dramatically due to different government restrictions and requirements. As a result, those whose job has not been significantly disrupted during the pandemic has continued working through it, barely taking a break between the time COVID-19 emerged until now. And while Adam Grant’s (2021) New York Times article about languishing was relatable to many, burnout is a phenomenon that has continued to prevail, and some could argue has been exacerbated throughout companies and society during the pandemic. The purpose of this article is to define burnout and subsequently learn how to mitigate it. 

Stress vs. Burnout

The terms burnout and stress are sometimes used interchangeably when in reality, there are distinct differences. Stress is defined as the body’s physical and emotional response to any situation. When individuals feel immense stress, the key phrase that many would use is that they would feel overwhelmed with too many things to do but when circumstances feel more controllable, stress levels would reduce substantially. Stress can manifest both positively and negatively in different areas of life (i.e., work, relationships, family, etc.). Most of the time, individuals can become acutely aware when they are stressed.

On the other hand, burnout is characterized by physical, emotional, and psychological exhaustion caused by prolonged and excessive levels of stress. Individuals are more likely going to have reduced productivity and energy while feeling unmotivated, helpless, hopeless, unempathetic, and impatient. Unfortunately, many do not realize when they are burnt out as it is usually a more gradual process.

Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

Burnout can manifest itself physically, emotionally, and behaviorally and as previously stated, the symptoms could be subtle at first but can worsen over time. The symptoms include:


  • Exhaustion
  • Lowered immunity
  • Frequent headaches or muscle aches
  • Change in appetite or sleep habits


  • Unmotivated
  • Cynicism
  • Detachment, feelings of loneliness
  • Helplessness and hopelessness
  • Sense of failure
  • Self-doubt


  • Withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Isolation
  • Turning to food, drugs, and alcohol to cope
  • Taking frustrations out on others
  • Procrastinating
  • Skipping work, or coming in late and leaving early

Causes of Burnout

The causes of burnout are associated with work-related dissatisfaction, however, there are other factors such as personality traits and lifestyle that can contribute and perpetuate burnout. They include:


  • Feeling a lack of control at work
  • Lack of recognition or reward
  • Demanding or underwhelming job expectations
  • High pressured work environment

Personality traits:

  • Perfectionistic tendencies
  • Naturally pessimistic
  • Desire to be in control and reluctant to delegate
  • High achiever


  • Overworking with little social or relaxing time
  • Lack of supportive relationships
  • Overcommitting to responsibilities
  • Not enough sleep

Burned out. Now what?

Now that we know the symptoms and factors that can increase the chances of burnout, it is important to note that it is never too late to recognize, reverse, and build resilience by taking care of your physical and mental wellbeing to counter burnout. It is not advised to push through exhaustion or brag about the level of burnout as a badge of honor as that could be more detrimental in the long run. Instead:

Establish supportive relationships. Not only are supportive relationships great for networking professionally, socializing with friends and family can be a great way of reducing the level of stress one feels, especially if their stress is heard and validated. Creating or finding a community with shared interests can also be beneficial and provides an opportunity to find new friends. Conversely, limit the time spent on negative individuals as interacting with them can be draining – know where your limits are and stick to them.

Reframe the meaning of work.Perhaps cliché but the adage from Mark Twain rings true here, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” While the reality is that a career change may not be feasible immediately, but it can be a journey to pursue. In any event, objectively identify some meaning to the work you are doing now and focus on the parts of the job that are enjoyable. Once that has been identified, remember your whole identity includes other facets of life which can be friends, family, hobbies, and voluntary work. Finally, remember that you can take time off and disconnect completely from your job to recharge your battery and find new ways of destressing that bring you contentment and joy.

Evaluate priorities. Set boundaries for yourself when it comes to working which means potentially saying no to requests of your time. Although this can be challenging, a way to reframe this is to remember that every time you say no to things you don’t want to do, you’re able to immediately say yes to commitments that you’re interested and passionate about. In addition to boundaries at work, setting boundaries around technology, creative and relaxation time, and sleep are also important. When setting boundaries around technology, there will be more of a reminder to connect with others around you and to nurture opportunities for creativity and relaxation. Lastly, sleep is extremely important as a restorative factor for our bodies and minds but it also plays an important role in emotional regulation. 

Prioritizing exercise and nutrition.Research has shown that exercise and proper nutrition can play a role in mental health. Endorphins or “feel good” chemicals created in your body are released into the bloodstream after a 30-minute exercise routine and ultimately reduces stress. In addition to exercise, research has also shown that nutrition can play a significant role in lifting mood and reducing stress. More recently, research by Limbana, Khan, and Eskander (2020) centered around the microbiome of the gut concluded that there was a strong association to depression. In other words, the food and nutrients that we digest and absorb can affect our mental health and wellbeing.

Stress is something most of us would experience from time to time, but especially in a city like Hong Kong.  However, burnout is a phenomenon that can be avoided and reversed by prioritizing yourself instead of the job. 


Grant, A. (2021, April 19). There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html. 

Limbana, T., Khan, F., & Eskander, N. (2020). Gut Microbiome and Depression: How Microbes Affect the Way We Think. Cureus12(8), e9966. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.9966

About The Author

Kaili Chen

Dr. Kaili Chen is originally from Singapore and has lived in various countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, China, and the United States. She has worked in the field of psychology for six years in several non-profit organizations and community mental health centers providing therapy to individuals, conducting group therapy sessions, and psycho-educational seminars. Read more about Kaili here.