3 surprising roads to burnout (and how to get off them)


4 minutes

04 November 2022

Woman in bed looking stressed

The many roads to burnout may seem confusing, but they’re not hard to identify – and knowing how they work could help you ‘chuck a U-turn’

When you think about burnout, it’s easy to picture someone whose life is more stressful than yours. A person who gets burnout is a single parent of three children who works a 60-hour week and is also studying part-time while juggling a couple of side hustles and trying to maintain an active social life, right?

Not always. Here are some ‘roads to burnout’ that could show up in anyone’s life – including yours.

In this article

What is the definition of burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion that can occur after a long period of excessive or stressful work.2

Its definition was updated in 2019 by the World Health Organisation from a stress-syndrome to a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” 1

Though it's most often caused by work, it can also appear in other areas of life, such as parenting, taking care of loved ones, or romantic relationships - and via the roads we'll discuss.

Burned-out people often display:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Negativity
  • Irritability
  • Reduced efficiency

And can experience:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep problems
  • Physical pain - such as tummy upset

Roads to burnout (you may not have considered)

Certainly, the hypothetical person mentioned above juggling parenthood, an MBA, and a full work week, would seem like a prime candidate for burnout. But they are not the only one.

  1. Perfectionism

    In 2015, UK researchers collated and analysed available research on burnout and perfectionism and found a relationship worth looking further into between burnout and what they called ‘perfectionistic concerns.’ These included:

    • worries about making mistakes
    • fear of negative evaluation from others
    • perceived discrepancies between expectations and performance
    • negative reactions to imperfections

    If you expect to be perfect and beat yourself up for not being perfect, you can quickly add a layer of stress to all of your activities – and that could prime your body and mind for burnout.

  2. Lack of autonomy & boredom

    Another misconception is that only high-flying ambitious execs burdened with huge amounts of responsibility are at risk of burnout.

    One piece of research suggests that beyond this ‘frenetic’ type of burnout candidate, two other types may exist:4

    • 'under-challenged' types who are bored, indifferent, and find no personal growth in their jobs
    • 'worn-out' types who feel they have no control over their work and that their efforts go unnoticed or unappreciated.

    If you don’t experience stimulation, satisfaction, creativity, or purpose in your work, you may be just as at risk of burnout as that exec. In simple terms, if you’re spending a large part of every week doing something you don’t want to be doing and don’t enjoy, it’s likely to start having effects on your mental health.

  3. People pleasing & lack of boundaries

    It’s natural to want to help the people around you and make them happy. But when you start sacrificing your own needs, compromising your values, and making your happiness dependent on how much others like or appreciate you, you can run into problems.

    Health and Community Psychologist, Marny Lishman, says people pleasing is often developed during childhood years, and can really keep you operating out of alignment throughout adulthood if you’re not aware of it. “Often people who are constantly saying yes to others to avoid conflict can end up with empathy or compassion fatigue, meaning they are so burned out from caring for others over themselves that they don’t care anymore.”

    When you say yes to others all the time, you’re often outside of your own awareness, saying no to yourself. The burden of other people’s needs and approval is a heavy load to carry, and can put you on a path to burnout.

Changing paths

If you’re burned out or noticing some of the signs that you might be heading in that direction, there are things you can do to turn it around.

While making time for self-care, doing regular exercise, and eating nutritious food all are common recommendations for managing stress - these things can also feel like more tasks to cram into an already overpacked schedule. Marny advises you ask yourself if there are any boundaries you can put in place to protect your peace? Who do you have to communicate this to?

“Look at moving from managing your time to managing your energy – making time to reset, recharge, relax and rejuvenate going forward. Think about what gives you back the physical, emotional, mental & spiritual energy that you use during the day.”

These are some steps to walk through:

  1. Recognise what parts of your life are causing or exacerbating your burnout. Is it primarily internal (e.g., self-criticism, perfectionism, or people-pleasing) or external (e.g., a job you hate or a toxic work environment)? There’s a good chance there are some elements from both involved.
  2. Understand what makes you feel better. Going for a run and eating salad have questionable value if you hate running and eating salad. If adding new items to your ‘must-do’ list feels overwhelming, check if it’s possible to adjust or improve some of the things you’re already doing, in ways that feel achievable.

If you go for a daily walk, could you invite a supportive friend to walk with you? If you ride the bus to work, could you use this time to listen to a guided meditation instead of ruminating on current problems?

Marny concludes that “often the hardest moments in our life are catalysts for personal transformation – burnout is a sign to start doing life differently and redirect your personal and professional life to one more aligned with health and happiness".

When to seek support

If your burnout is primarily caused by external factors, it might be time for an honest evaluation of whether some big life changes are needed. If you feel stuck or powerless to change those external factors, or if your burnout seems to be primarily internally driven, you may wish to consider speaking to a mental health professional who can provide you with perspective and support.

Likewise, if you’re having trouble sleeping, experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, or self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, speak to your GP about your options and the support services available.

How can HBF help with anxiety?

At HBF, we know how important it is to look after your mental health.

  • HBF extras cover can give you benefits towards visits with a psychologist or clinical psychologist, up to your annual limit.
  • HBF hospital cover can pay benefits for hospital psychiatric services to treat mental health conditions such as anxiety.

Learn more about HBF mental health cover and how it could help you.

Explore HBF mental health cover

Find health cover that includes mental health services, for extra support when you need it most.

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1 World Health Organization - Stress, Fatigue, and burnout

2 Health Direct - Work-life balance

3 York Street John University - Multidimensional Perfectionism and Burnout: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 20 (3). pp. 269-288

4 National Library of Medicine - Sociodemographic and occupational risk factors associated with the development of different burnout types: the cross-sectional


This article contains general information only and does not take into account the health, personal situation or needs of any person. In conjunction with your GP or treating health care professional, please consider whether the information is suitable for you and your personal circumstances.