Understanding modern-day burnout and ways to extinguish stress

Burnout is a term that comes up a lot in conversation these days. While the pandemic certainly introduced new kinds of stresses into our lives, the challenges inherent in modern-day life – including workplace stress – can take an ongoing toll. So how do you know if what you’re feeling is really burnout and what can you do if you think you might be suffering from these kinds of symptoms? 

What is burnout and how is it different from normal stress?

Burnout is defined as a state of complete mental, emotional and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged stress1.  People experiencing burnout may find it difficult to engage in activities they previously found meaningful, stop caring about things that were once important to them, or find themselves overcome by an increasing sense of hopelessness.

Traditionally considered an ‘occupational syndrome’, it is now recognised that burnout is not only limited to employees exposed to chronic workplace stress (such as longer working hours, reduced leave or lack of reward or recognition)2,3. Rather, it can be experienced by anyone with prolonged levels of chronic stress and pressure that lead to overwhelm, which includes people with unpaid home or care duties. Indeed, the current cost-of-living crisis is presenting a new source of ongoing stress for many Australians, including those who were previously comfortable financially.4

Is what I'm feeling burnout?

It can be hard to distinguish if what you’re experiencing is simply a normal stress response to a momentary challenge or something more debilitating, particularly when you’re in the thick of it. However, researchers from the Black Dog Institute and the University of NSW have identified nine symptoms commonly shared by people experiencing burnout1,2.  These include:

  • Anxiety/stress
  • Depression and low mood
  • Irritability and anger
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Lack of motivation or passion
  • Lack of concentration, memory loss or brain fog
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Physical symptoms such as aches, headaches, nausea and low libido.

Signs specific to the workplace include lack of engagement, increased human errors and lower morale3. with 95% of respondents to a Deloitte burnout survey saying that unmanageable amounts of stress negatively impacted the quality of their work5.

If you’ve ticked one or more of these boxes, you may be suffering from burnout, and checking in with your GP or another healthcare professional may be warranted. 

Are you more at risk of burnout than others?

While 46% of Australian employees have admitted to feeling burnt out6, some industries face higher risks of burnout than others. The most over-represented groups are those in the health professions, as well as lawyers, teachers, managers and clergy – basically those who are involved in helping others2.

New research also suggests that some personality types – such as those who are reliable and conscientious – are more prone to burnout than others2. In fact, two of the biggest red flags for developing burnout include perfectionistic and work-focused traits2. By contrast, it appears that people who are more carefree, easygoing and don't tend to worry about things are less likely to develop burnout2. While you can’t change your personality, being aware of your risk of burnout can help you be more disciplined about incorporating tools and strategies into your life that help change the way you view and respond to stress.

Small, recurrent stresses can have a big impact

The burden of stress that leads to burnout is by nature incessant. So recovering from, and preventing, future episodes of burnout necessitates that we find healthy ways to deal with ongoing sources of stress – both large and small.

Burnout experts and authors of this Harvard Business Review article make the point that until we recognise the cause of our stress, we can’t begin to address it7. Further, many of us don’t acknowledge common micro-stresses in everyday life that are cumulatively wearing us down. This often includes our interactions and relationships with the people we are closest to – both inside and outside of work7. They categorise these stresses into three buckets of micro-stresses:

  1. Drain on your personal capacity (the time and energy you have available to handle life's demands),
  2. Depletion of your emotional reserves, e.g. confrontational conversations; and
  3. Challenges on your identity and values, e.g. when someone undermines your sense of self-worth

According to this Deloitte survey, the biggest drivers of employee burnout are lack of support or recognition from leadership, unrealistic deadlines or expectations, and consistently working long hours or on weekends5

Managing micro-stresses can help ease the burn

When it comes to mitigating the impact of ongoing micro-stresses, three approaches are recommended:

1. Identify key stressors

Isolate and act on 2–3 stresses that are having a persistent impact on your day-to-day life – this will give you a clear focus for working out what kind of change would be most helpful for improving your wellbeing. Once you feel you have a handle on these stresses, you can then move on to addressing others, rather than trying to solve everything at once. You might choose to identify stresses from different life domains, e.g. a home stress (a long commute to work or marital conflict), a workplace stress (unproductive relationship with a direct report or manager, consistently working overtime), or a lifestyle or social stress (increasing mortgage repayments);

2. Nurture positive relationships and activities

Invest in relationships and activities that keep the less consequential micro-stresses in perspective – by shifting your focus to people and pastimes that generate a sense of purpose and meaning (e.g. athletic pursuits, volunteer work, civic or religious communities, book or dinner clubs), you will be better able to keep micro-stresses in perspective, dampening their effect on you. Mindfulness practices (e.g. meditation, gratitude journalling), along with exercise, proper nutrition and good sleep habits, are also important in building your capacity to withstand stress;

3. Create healthy boundaries

Distance or disconnect from stress-creating people or activities – this may involve recognising the need to create healthy boundaries between you and others, even those you enjoy being around7.

Finding resources that are the right fit for you

Everyone is different in how they like to seek and receive support, and as noted earlier in this article, burnout may be the consequence of a wide variety of stresses, rather than just work-related factors. The following list can help you navigate what kind of information and support would be most helpful for your situation.


The Black Dog Institute has a free online program for navigating burnout that can be done in sections at your own pace, as well as a self-care planner.

There are a wide range of professional life coaching services available – search Google for one near you.


The Harvard Business Review has a wealth of resources specific to the workplace and the needs of managers and leaders, including articles dedicated to burnout.

There are a wide range of professional business coaching services available – search Google for one near you.


Relationships Australia provides relationship support services for individuals, families and communities.


Raising Children is an online parenting website supported by the Australia Government providing parenting videos, articles and apps backed by Australian experts.

Financial counselling and support

Several organisations (e.g. Moneysmart, The Salvation Army) provide financial counselling and other relief services, including no-interest loan schemes for eligible people.

Mental health and emergency care

Visit your GP or closest emergency department. If you’re in crisis or feeling unsafe, call 000 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Beyond Blue provides 24/7 mental health support.

Head to Health is a free, confidential service from the Australian Government that connects people to different kinds of mental health support.

If you live in Victoria, new Mental Health and Wellbeing Locals are now available in many suburbs.


1.     Tavella G, Parker G. ‘A qualitative reexamination of the key features of burnout’, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 206(6):452–458, 2020, doi: 10.1097/NMD.000000000000115.

2.     Black Dog Institute, ‘Burnout diagnosis one step closer with new checklist and predictor of which personalities are most at risk’, April 2020.

3.     Asana. The Australian and New Zealand Anatomy of Work Index 2021

4.     Finder Australia, ‘Cost of living report Australia’, March 2023.

5.     Deloitte US. Workplace Burnout Survey, 2018.

6.     Tilo D. ‘Nearly half of Australians suffer from burnout, says new ELMO report’. Published in Human Resources Director Australia [online magazine]. Article last updated 22 April 2022.

7.     Cross R, Singer S and Dillon K. Don’t let micro-stresses burn you out. Harvard Business Review, July 2020.