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Coping with burnout

It can be a balancing act to manage different areas of your life such as work, study and personal time. Getting it wrong can lead you to experience ‘burnout’.

Young person laying face down on a laptop keyboard looking stressed

What is work/life balance?

Different people feel comfortable with different amounts of work or study and other commitments. 

Some people prefer more or fewer hours in these pursuits than others – one size doesn’t fit all. Sometimes you have control over how your time is divided. Other times, you might have to sacrifice social commitments to get study done, or work more hours than you’d prefer, to make ends meet.

Having balance is about understanding your personal ‘sweet spot’ about whether you are working/studying too much or too little. (Everybody makes these judgments for themselves within reason, because we’ve all got bills to pay.) Doing too much can lead to burnout and anxiety. Doing too little can lead to boredom and even depression.


"I wasn't really able to pick up the signs of just how overworked and burnt out I was. I just can't do it anymore, I can't push myself to those limits."

–Larry Heath, Founder and Director NLMAS

Work and your brain

Modern work is a different environment to the one our brains evolved in. ‘Stress’ for our ancestors was immediate danger or anything that threatened survival, such as predators, disease or famine. 

Workplaces are also full of modern day, complex ‘stress’, like passive-aggressive emails, which can have an impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

Of course, it’s not all bad! Great things about working and workplaces include improvement to quality of life, getting to socialise, learning new things, and having an opportunity to find purpose. And you don’t have hunt down your lunch – you just chuck it in the communal fridge.

Balance and burnout

If you are feeling like you don’t have balance, chances are you don’t. The biggest risk of too much work-related stress is burnout. In 2019, the World Health Organisation officially recognised and classified burnout as a ‘disease’, caused by chronic workplace stress that has not been adequately managed. Signs of burnout include:

More bad days than good

Low energy or feeling exhausted

Feeling cynical about your job, which can include negative attitudes to customers and being irritable

Reduced productivity/performance, which can include inability to cope, low morale and even avoidance of work

Burnout isn’t a personal failure, and the onus for preventing and managing burnout does not rest solely on employees.

Coping with burnout

Research has shown that there are systemic workplace issues that can make burnout more or less prevalent and can either assist or hinder with burnout recovery. 

Here are some things that can contribute:

  • Lack of control about your work 
  • Receiving no recognition/reward
  • Not having access to the resources you need to do your job well
  • Negative interpersonal relationships, e.g. lack of support, conflict, micromanagement, etc.

That’s why knowing your rights is so important. There’s only so much you can do at a personal level to prevent or manage burnout. If you are experiencing burnout, it’s ok to advocate and negotiate for a change in conditions.

Other ways to cope with burnout

  • Look after yourself by engaging in self-care. If you aren’t eating well, sleeping and exercising, this can have very real and cumulative effects on your physical and mental health.
  • Access your Employee Assistance Program or other supports. This is a confidential support service available free of charge for employees in some workplaces. Your HR department should be able to direct you to this. If you don’t have access to an EAP, access another support, such as Kids Helpline. 
  • Have clear boundaries and reinforce them. Looking after yourself and saying ‘no’ isn’t selfish; it’s a normal, healthy part of work and life.
  • Take a break or make changes, if possible. Our brain needs a break from chronic stress, so sometimes a holiday is just what the doctor ordered. Or, you might be able to make some workplace changes that can reduce stress, add some novelty (newness) to your work (which can make your brain feel more curious) or re-inspire passion for your work. Some people even change roles/employers as a way to have a ‘fresh start’.

If you’re having trouble balancing study, work, and other parts of your life you’re not alone.

Talking to someone and finding ways to reduce burnout can help.

Give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email anytime, for any reason.

If you would like individual online support to help you reach your work and study goals headspace Work and Study Online can help.

This content was last reviewed 02/06/2020

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