Published on 14 January 2024

    Worn out from work demands? Here’s how to identify, prevent and treat burnout before it worsens.

    Is your heavy workload and other commitments causing you to suffer from burnout – a state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion?

    Don’t beat yourself up over it, as you are probably not alone. In fact, an October 2022 survey commissioned by CNA found that burnout — rather than COVID-19 restrictions — was the leading factor that affected mental well-being in Singapore during the pandemic.

    The heightened pressure of achieving success — alongside other stressors such as the rising cost of living — can increase your risk of burnout, especially for working adults. While stress is how our body usually responds to everyday or specific pressures, burnout could be more serious. Those experiencing burnout might feel overwhelmingly exhausted or even dread going to work or fulfilling their commitments. They may also become less productive or even feel detached from those around them.

    NUHS+ | What to do if you are suffering from burnout

    Burnout — recognise the signs

    Dr Luke Hong, a Senior Resident Physician with the Department of Psychological Medicine at the National University Hospital, noted that burnout usually begins with considerable mental strain to do well, which eventually turns into a sense of futility and possibly cynicism. These psychological signs might then also manifest physically, such as through tiredness, difficulty sleeping, and reduced enjoyment.

    "Some people might start to develop anxiety, symptoms, panic attacks, just really feeling on edge,” he said, noting that individuals might be unaware that they are suffering from burnout. “It really depends on one’s threshold. Their state of burnout could just end up becoming a norm for them, turning chronic and progressing into anxiety and depressive disorders,” added Dr Hong.

    Take the quiz below to find out if you could be suffering from burnout:

    Higher scores may indicate a higher likelihood of burnout. If you’re concerned about your results, consider discussing them with a healthcare professional or seeking support. Rarely Occasionally Frequently Almost always Not at all Sometimes Often Constantly Not at all Slightly Moderately Significantly Rarely Occasionally Frequently Almost always Regularly Occasionally Rarely Almost never

    As a clinical physician, Dr Hong sees patients who have progressed beyond burnout. These individuals, who are mostly working adults, may have depression or even specific anxiety disorders, such as generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder or agoraphobia (fear of leaving their safe environment).

    “It is known that higher stress rates can increase risk of stomach ulcers, because of increased gastric acid production. And burnout coping behaviours such as smoking and drinking alcohol, also come with their own associated risks,” explained Dr Hong.

    How to prevent burnout

    While the above mentioned scenarios may sound intimidating, don’t feel overwhelmed. Dr Hong advised that burnout can be averted by maintaining a good support network, which can come in the form of co-workers, an understanding supervisor and employer, or friends and family who are willing to lend their ears.

    “Sometimes when you all commiserate together, it can make an unpleasant situation more light-hearted. In a way, it becomes a shared bond that makes everyone feel encouraged,” suggested Dr Hong.

    Going hand-in-hand with that is work-life balance, which means knowing when to switch off from work, getting enough sleep, exercise, and family/leisure time. This, however, may require an attitude adjustment.

     “Instead of falling into cynicism and saying, ‘Oh, but the work will never be finished, we will all just suffer anyway’, you can change your mindset to, ‘We will continue to do our best but what comes, comes; we’ll deal with it together, my team is good’,” advised Dr Hong. 

    Meanwhile, it is also helpful for friends, family, co-workers or even superiors to initiate regular check-ins with individuals who may be at risk of burnout. Even something as simple as meeting someone for a meal can help create a safe space to discuss certain concerns. 

    “If someone is slow in their work or unable to do the tasks that they used to do, maybe it is not because they are incompetent, but they could actually be having some problems,” he said.

    Tips to manage stress
    • Prioritise self-care.
      Ensure you get enough sleep, maintain a healthy diet, and engage in regular physical activity. Allocate time for activities you enjoy and that help you relax.
    • Practise mindfulness
      This includes guided meditation exercises offered by apps to help improve sleep quality, deep breathing exercises, and yoga to help centre your mind and reduce stress.
    • Seek support Talk to friends, family, or colleagues about your feelings and experiences. Consider seeking professional help if stress becomes overwhelming.
    • Cultivate a positive mindset Focus on what you can control and challenge negative thoughts by reframing them in a more constructive light.


    How to prevent burnout in the workplace
    • Learn to delegate
      Delegate tasks when possible and share responsibilities with others. Trust your colleagues to contribute effectively.
    • Take breaks
      Incorporate short breaks throughout the day to rest and recharge. Step away from your work environment during breaks to gain a fresh perspective.
    • Practise savvy time management
      Organise your tasks and prioritise them. Break down larger tasks into smaller, more manageable steps.
    • Establish boundaries
      Clearly define your professional boundaries. Learn to say no when necessary, and communicate your limits to others.

    When to seek professional help

    It is always advisable to practise self-care to stave off burnout, but it is also important to know when to seek treatment for your mental health.

    “Seek help when you find that there's dysfunction — for example if you don't have the energy or motivation to go to work, or when you feel that it is affecting your day-to-day activities,” advised Dr Hong. “You may be very snappy, irritable, shouting at your family, unable to focus at work and preoccupied with your thoughts,” he added.

    He shared that about 80 to 90 per cent of his patients are prescribed medication, and they also learn coping mechanisms so that they can stop their medications after about six months to a year. “The medicine only treats symptoms but not the underlying cause of the stressor,” he explained.

    Finally, he emphasised that burnout is very common for working adults and should not be seen as a sign of weakness or incompetence. “Everyone could do with a counsellor or a therapist as a guide. The goal is to develop a therapist within you,” he said. 

    In consultation with Dr Luke Hong, Senior Resident Physician, Department of Psychological Medicine, NUH.

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