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The topic of Burn Out has received some much-needed press and attention since late May.  In May 2019, the International Classification of Disease (ICD-10 Version:2016) included Burn out as a medical condition.  The ICD definition of Burn out is “state of vital exhaustion”.

It is fantastic news. For those of us who have lived with, through or are experiencing Burn Out we can now expect some empathy, direction and guidance from health and medical professionals. Maybe this new recognition can stop some of the shaming and blaming that goes on from ourselves, to each other and that unhelpful behaviour we have received from peers.

Assuming empathy, direction and guidance from health and medical professionals would be valid. However, I can assure you that one of the most negatively affected occupations experiencing burn out are the health professionals who are going to be treating us.

Beyond Blue have found that 3.4% of doctors experience very high levels of psychological distress.  This is higher than the general community, and 10% of doctors have experienced suicidal thoughts.  So, the next time you need medical attention you might understand why you are being treated more like a number or a symptom than a whole person.

Why am I speaking into this?  Are we bereft of quality help?  Are we all left to work out a way to manage this thing we all fear called Burn Out.  No. What I want to communicate is that this  is not a disease that is easy to spot, it is not something that we take a pill for and be on our way; we can’t have an expectation that we get a diagnosis and suddenly everything becomes clear and we have our concrete path for recovery.

Like many chronic illnesses, Burn Out has often started well before notice is taken of it.  I have been working with a business owner, who was able to again state that the symptoms being experienced were at least 3 years old.  That the coping strategies employed for 3 years simply stopped working.  This is one of the reasons why Burn Out can feel so devastating.  We have been working so hard to cope for so long, that we fail to recognize that we have added to the burden of our work by working so damned hard to be able to cope.

I was talking to a young professional recently who shared that she had experienced the symptoms of Burn Out while she was at university, and she took those  Burn Out behaviours into her workplaces, and this lead to job hopping every 6 months until she recognized what was going on purely  by chance.

How much time, energy and money is wasted on recruitment, onboarding, management and development when our team members are bringing their university Burn Out experience into employment.  That got me thinking long and hard.

Burn Out is also a social issue.  It’s a cultural problem and its one that is not going away any time soon.  As business owner’s and leaders in industry we have a responsibility to learn how to spot these “symptoms” in our workplaces and do something proactive about it.  This must be more than a knee jerk referral to an Employee Assistance Program  ( EAP)  service, or an invitation to drinks on a Friday afternoon.  EAP services are fantastic , not when they are made to feel like a punishment.  Drinks on a Friday are great, however not when it’s done out of guilt or obligation.

One of the features of Burn Out is this overcommitment to hours and endeavor, meaning a lot of people living and working with Burn Out will simply do more, they will be at work all the time.  They will take on more projects, more responsibility, all to shake the feeling that they aren’t coping and that someone is going to find out.

The challenge for us as leaders is to reward the positive behaviour of work well done, of great attitude, of initiative, of managing expectations, without rewarding the behaviours of work until you are too sick to do anything else.

There is so much written for the employee or person to advocate for themselves when they are living with burn out – useful resources.  However, I would suggest that many of us have a sense, a feeling that something isn’t quite right and can tell when Burn Out might be turning up in others.

So, what can we do that is more than a token high five?  How can we be proactive and manage the risk that is a peer, colleague or employee who is burning out.


Here are some ideas born from experience that you possibly won’t find written in the how to look after your employee manuals.

  1. The key is being willing to start and continue a conversation even when its uncomfortable ( for us) and the other person. Like all personal discussions, we need to ensure this is done in a manner that is sensitive and away from other coworkers. Some of us need to learn how to have these conversations.  I find them difficult, they are not my favorite thing to do.  But they are important, they are necessary and they stop a lot of heartache.   If you as the leader in your business need to improve you skills and confidence then please seek help as a part of your own professional development.
  2. Learn how to monitor the workload, control of work and work throughput from your employee. Make sure that they have well defined performance expectations. Congratulate them on a job well done and help them be reminded on how to use their leave.   You would be surprised by the numbers of employers and leaders in industry I have worked with who again really struggle to know how to communicate these issues with the people they are responsible for.  Again, these are skills you can learn.
  3. Annual leave is an amazing workplace entitlement. We are very lucky here in Australia to have the provision for leave that we have. However too many people like to accrue their leave for a BIG trip.  I’m all for the big trip.  I love to travel but accruing leave for 11 months of the year so I am sick on my 4-week vacation and cannot enjoy wandering the streets of Barcelona, that’s not a great use of my leave.  It’s not a great use of your employee’s leave either, they won’t return refreshed and ready to work hard.  Chances are they will return with lackluster enthusiasm possibly with half of their productivity at home on the couch.
  4. Discourage email after core business hours lead by example! Pause your inbox, let people know that a voice message is acceptable.  We love the rhetoric that no emails on the weekend is acceptable but if you are the one doing all the emailing on the weekend what message are you giving?  I have been a great perpetrator of this in my business, the effect on my team was awful.  I had no idea of the message I was giving.  It wasn’t one of being efficient and productive.  NOPE!
  5. Don’t think you have to have all the answers. Oftentimes our colleagues, peers employees want to be seen and heard.  They want to know that someone cares.  You will be surprised if you ask them what type of support or help they would like, the solutions and ideas they will come with.  This doesn’t mean you have to implement everything they suggest, its an exchange of ideas.  Its engaging in the conversation, its about learning where your workplace could use extra support, resources, a change or a new direction.  You might find that this is the most useful conversation you have all year.


If you have read this article today and it has triggered you or you realise that you need help, please take action now.  Don’t leave this article thinking that this doesn’t apply to you.  Call a trusted friend; reach out to your GP or to a health professional. Please don’t ignore this.  The world needs what you have to offer.


Reference used in this article:


Who is Jo Muirhead?

Jo Muirhead

Content contributor


Jo is passionate about helping people make work work well.  Jo is an engaging speaker, coach and the founder of PurpleCo a team of specialized allied health professionals who help people reclaim their lives and return to work following injury, illness and trauma.   Jo is also the author of the book The Entrepreneurial Clinician.


How to contact Jo:

+61 414 276 265

Instagram jo_muirhead



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