What is Burnout?

Burnout – or Serious-Stress Syndrome – is a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. It’s an anxiety disorder caused by our body’s response to long-term, unresolved stress.

If we are working excessive hours, trying to live up to impossible standards and not taking the time to care for ourselves properly, stress levels will build up – month after month. The ongoing, relentless pressure can come from a variety of sources, including work, family, financial problems, underlying health issues and challenging relationships.

Burnout occurs when we are completely drained by this slow accumulation of stress and are no longer able to function effectively. Our bodies and minds are simply not designed to cope with prolonged, high levels of stress and become overwhelmed, eventually shutting down completely.

The three key characteristics of burnout are:

  • exhaustion (loss of energy)
  • cynicism (loss of enthusiasm)
  • inefficacy (loss of confidence/self-belief and reduced capacity to function).

Anyone can experience burnout, but there are increasing numbers of entrepreneurs, business owners and high-level executives reporting symptoms and seeking treatment. Executive burnout is a specific type of job-related stress, where the conditions and tensions encountered in demanding jobs exceed the body’s capacity to handle them.

What Causes Burnout?

Burnout doesn’t just happen overnight. It is a gradual build-up of continual stress and persistent pressure and can affect anyone at any time.

The main cause of burnout is our body’s inability to cope with high-stress levels over long periods of time (mentally and physically), but various studies have shown there’s a combination of internal and external factors that influence the probability of burnout occurring, including:

Attitude to stress

Clinical research has shown that social and cultural constraints can lead us to have thoughts, feelings and behaviours that heighten our stress levels. For example, it can be considered ‘the norm’ in many workplaces to work 80+ hours, work weekends and appear resilient and invincible to sustained pressure. It can be seen as a badge of honour to appear infallible and push through stressful periods. Over time, this attitude will inevitably be a contributing factor to burnout.


Always putting work first and not taking time out for socialising, relaxing and taking care of ourselves, impacts on burnout. Taking on too many responsibilities, not asking for help from others, lacking supportive relationships or regularly partying hard outside work are also significant factors.

Substance abuse

It’s common to self-medicate, using drugs or alcohol, when we need to push through mental and physical barriers and perform to our highest level. It might seem like a good idea at the time, but this coping strategy is just not sustainable in the long term. It increases the amount of physical stress we place on our already-stressed bodies, can easily lead to a substance abuse problem and potentially create (or intensify) mental health disorders.

Underlying health issues

Burnout can often occur in individuals who have other underlying health issues, which can affect their ability to cope with ongoing stressful situations. If we have an underlying mental or physical health disorder, that remains untreated; it can contribute to causing burnout. Burnout can often be masking something more serious that needs attention.

What are the Stages and Symptoms of Burnout?

There are five commonly observed stages of burnout, which we move through at different rates depending on our individual circumstances. Most people in stressful work environments hover between stages two and three. As we progress through the stages, the physical, psychological and emotional problems become more severe.

  1. The honeymoon
  2. When we undertake a new task – for example, a new job role or business venture – we are full of energy, enthusiasm and commitment. There is some expected stress involved, but it comes and goes, and we feel in control. Our work/life balance is good. If we have a particularly stressful period, we can recover easily over the weekend by eating well, exercising, sleeping and doing something fun. It doesn’t take too long to recover and feel revitalised.

    Common symptoms: accepting new responsibilities, commitment to the task, effective self-care, high productivity and creativity, sustained energy levels, optimism and job satisfaction.

  3. Onset of stress
  4. The stressful periods at work become more frequent, with less recovery time in between. It starts to take us longer to bounce back. We don’t pay as much attention to self-care and might be drinking alcohol (or taking drugs) more frequently, to help us unwind. Our body starts to show some signs that it’s struggling to cope with the stress.

    Common symptoms: anxiety, decreased job satisfaction, headaches, inability to focus, irritability, low energy, lower productivity, neglecting self-care (such as healthy eating and exercise), reduced sleep quality.

  5. Chronic stress
  6. It starts to feel like things are really getting on top of us and we are losing control. We start to feel stressed on a frequent basis and symptoms are more intense. We know something is ‘wrong’, but we don’t have the energy to try to fix it.

    Common symptoms: chronic fatigue, depression, difficulty concentrating, disorganised thoughts, extreme irritability, increased alcohol/drug consumption, insomnia, job dissatisfaction, lowered libido, often unwell with colds or infections, procrastination, social withdrawal.

  7. Burnout
  8. There is an overwhelming desire to escape from everything, including work, family and friends. We are permanently exhausted, feel depressed and have lost confidence in ourselves and in our abilities. Everything feels like hard work and we have no enthusiasm for anything

    Common symptoms: chronic headaches, digestive issues, complete neglect of self-care / personal needs, desire to run away from everything, erratic changes in mood, feeling empty inside, insomnia, pessimism, self-doubt and low self-esteem, substance abuse problems and withdrawal from family and friends. Physical symptoms intensify and can contribute to a range of disorders, including heart disease, high blood pressure, autoimmune disease, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

  9. Habitual burnout
  10. Burnout has been relentless and the symptoms are so embedded in our everyday life that we are likely to have significant physical, mental and emotional problems.

    Common symptoms: burnout syndrome, chronic mental fatigue, chronic physical fatigue, chronic sadness and depression.

Even if we are not experiencing burnout now – and are still in the ‘honeymoon period’ – it is important to be proactive in prioritising our self-care and building our resilience to stress. Identifying the signs and preventing burnout is by far the wisest course of action.

How can Burnout be Prevented?

Burnout is a cumulative process, in which our body’s alarm signal of stress goes off – day in and day out – for a long period of time. Our stress response is only supposed to go off for brief periods to alert us to danger and trigger our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reaction. It sets off processes that are extremely harmful to our bodies in large, prolonged doses. The longer the stress response is ‘on’ the more damage it does and the more resources it depletes.

It is vital that we regularly acknowledge and assess how we are doing and learn to recognise the warning signs our body is sending.

We also need to undo any damage already caused, by seeking support and implementing healthier habits, especially around food, exercise, sleep and rest.

It’s also important to manage our stress and foster resilience through a combination of the following:

  • Prioritising - being clear on what we need and value, personally and professionally
  • Cultivating insight (mindful awareness)
  • Taking care of ourselves, including a healthy diet, exercise and quality sleep
  • Managing the way we think – monitoring our thoughts and practising positive thinking
  • Receiving support from other people: at work, at home and within our community.

Viewing burnout as something that individuals are responsible for preventing themselves can be detrimental, especially for those already under too much stress. It can add even more pressure to an already full load. Often, individuals need professional help and support to learn the skills needed to prevent burnout – and to tackle any underlying, associated issues.

How can Burnout be Treated?

It is vital to get help as quickly as possible, if we have reached burnout, to prevent the mental and physical health problems that suffering prolonged, high levels of stress can lead to. We need to step away from our routines, slow down, take stock and completely disconnect from the stressors.

When we choose to make changes that will significantly improve our lives, we need people who fully understand our problems and have the experience to support us through the processes. We need to feel safe and protected, so we can deeply reconnect with ourselves and focus on our recovery.

Our team of experts at White River Manor, offer a specialised treatment for executive burnout, which not only treats the symptoms but also really gets to the root cause of the problem.

They take the time needed to explore each client’s individual characteristics – looking at psychological, emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing – and take the qualitative, holistic approach necessary to help you recover and restore balance in your life.

Using a combination of traditional therapy methods, cutting-edge science and ancient philosophy, White River Manor treats the whole person and not just the circumstances surrounding their burnout. The benefits of our holistic, personalised treatment plan include:

  • Getting to know and understand your current situation
  • Restoring a healthy balance – mind, body and soul
  • Recovering and rebuilding your life
  • Building confidence, to make necessary life changes
  • Increasing energy and focus
  • Improving productivity
  • Cutting out negative behaviours and bad habits
  • Improving mental health
  • Learning the skills needed to cope with difficult situations and triggers
  • Healing from the inside out.

Combining intensive therapy, medical management, psychiatric evaluation, exercise options, healthy eating and nutrition – the White River Manor approach ensures deep transformational healing and a full recovery from burnout.

Our breathtaking surroundings provide an ideal, restorative environment for your recovery journey – and we guarantee your comfort and wellbeing throughout your stay with us.

You will also learn new practices, gaining valuable tools to help you deal with life’s challenges after treatment, to sustain long-term recovery. There is a complete aftercare plan in place to support you after treatment, to avoid regression. At White River Manor, we understand that recovery is a lifelong pursuit of positive habit building, maintaining mental wellbeing and avoiding triggers – and we are here to support every step of the way.

If you’d like to find out more about burnout and the treatments we offer, please contact us.

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