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Balance vs Burnout - What is burnout?


Yesterday, my father and I were driving along the road. He pointed out what I saw each day I travelled along this road. “I wonder why they haven’t sorted out that part of the road, where the car burnt out.” The tarmac was melted, scarred, uneven and uncomfortable to travel over. An old ‘uneven surface’ road sign, now overgrown with weeds, was by the side of the road warning drivers of its charred existence. Despite its damage, it remained. Calling out its story to every passer-by. This was the place where the car was on fire. This was the place of burnout.

My niece had been travelling along this road, late at night, returning from work, when she had seen the abandoned car on fire. The car, roaring with flames. Unable for anyone to pass. The emergency services came, firefighters putting it out. For a few days, what was now a shell of a car, remained. No longer able to serve its purpose. Burned out.

What is Burnout?

The impact of our mental health is significant. The HSE (Health & Safety Executive) reported[1] that in 2018/19 stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of all work-related ill health cases and 54% of all working days lost due to ill health. ‘Burnout’ is a phrase now used to describe the extreme breakdown of our wellbeing. describes it as ‘fatigue, frustration, or apathy resulting from prolonged stress, overwork, or intense activity’.[2] But this definition does not describe the impact burnout has. Burnout is a term used to describe a position where a person has been rendered overwhelmed. describes it as a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands’. [3] Typically, we see burnout is the point of mental exhaustion under pressure. But, as I have explored this topic, we need to consider this much wider or we are in danger of missing the signs and symptoms. It comes in different forms.

In the Leadership Lounge Podcast this month, I explored this with three of my guests. One of the guests, Trevor Waldock, highlighted that burnout has a wider dimension and comes in different forms. He highlighted 5 types of burnout:

  • Physically

  • Mentally

  • Emotionally

  • Morally

  • Spiritually

We tend to think about burnout as complete mental exhaustion and annihilation. But everyone’s burnout can be different. For some it will be a mental exhaustion, for some it will be physical. For others it could be a culmination of a number of elements.

This series of blogs is entitled ‘Balance vs burnout’. Last week I highlighted 7 areas that help gain balance in life:

· Sleep

· Good diet

· Exercise

· Friends & family

· Spiritual reflection

· Personal hobby/interest

· Productive work

Proper maintenance of these areas in our life ensures we have balance. Neglect them and they can ultimately lead to burnout. Each one contributing to aspects of burnout.

Good maintenance

Why does a car burnout? I’m not expert but often it is caused by poor maintenance. Not checking electrics and fuel lines and one small fault can cause a spark that takes hold. The same applies to us, as leaders. When we don’t invest in taking care of ourselves, little by little, we potentially add fuel to a burnout.

Good maintenance starts with a) knowing yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, b) knowing your usual rhythm, c) knowing what area we need to invest in to keep us balanced.

As a leader, it is my responsibility to know what keeps me alive and alert as a leader. I know for example that I need a minimum of 7 hours sleep, I need a good diet and exercise. I spent years not doing that and that resulted in me becoming physically unwell. I’ve learned to lean into that and invest in exercise and a better diet. I’m now 5 stone lighter and I have lowered the risk of physical burnout. I know that it is important for me to spend regular time of spiritual reflection each day. When I neglect that I see early signs of a lack of tolerance or wisdom. If I continue to neglect that area, it could ultimately lead to spiritual or moral burnout.

What do you know about yourself? Are you aware of your normal rhythm? Do you know what are the important things that help you get back into balance?


Maybe you recognise that you are showing signs or symptoms of burnout. If you are not sure, you may find these articles helpful

These explain some signs and gives some ideas on how to improve the situation.

Burnout is best avoided. It’s not a pleasant experience. But it is important to remember that unlike the burnt-out car, which has lost its ability to be a car forever. When we experience burnout, it doesn’t have to be the end. In fact it could be a great learning point, an experience you would never choose but nevertheless, like a ‘Harry Potter Scar’ can be used for good, to help yourself and others.


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