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Why employees may not be aware that they are suffering from burnout

South African employers have an important role to play in ensuring employee well-being. Picture: Windows Unsplash

South African employers have an important role to play in ensuring employee well-being. Picture: Windows Unsplash

Published Jul 5, 2023


According to a recent study conducted by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), it was found that around one in three South African employees suffer from burn-out.

This research highlights the prevalence of burn-out in South Africa’s corporate sector.

However, one of the main reasons why employees may not be aware that they are suffering from burnout is a lack of understanding and recognition of the symptoms.

Burnout is often misunderstood or overlooked as simply feeling tired or stressed, while in reality it is a much more serious condition that can have significant impacts on both mental and physical health.

Sadly, the corporate culture in South Africa often promotes a “workaholic” mentality, where long working hours and high levels of stress are seen as a badge of honour.

This can lead to the normalisation of burnout symptoms and make employees believe that their exhaustion and stress are just part of the job.

What is burnout?

Burnout is categorised as chronic physical and emotional exhaustion resulting from prolonged stress, often caused by excessive work demands or other sources of stress.

It manifests as fatigue, decreased productivity, detachment and negative emotions, which affect both your work and personal life.

A 2016 study suggested that “presenteeism” – employees who show up and attempt to work despite their poor mental health – cost South Africa R235 billion a year, or 4.2% of the country’s GDP.

Since then, the risk of burn-out has only increased, according to a global survey conducted last year.

In Corporate Wellness Week, Gary Feldman, head of health-care consulting at employee benefits advisory firm NMG Benefits, said South African employers have an important role to play in ensuring employee well-being.

“These all lead to a negative effect on relationships, as burn-out affects both personal and professional relationships.

At the same time, reduced productivity leads to a decline in performance, a lack of concentration, struggling to meet deadlines, a lack of motivation and procrastination.”

Signs that indicate burnout include physical and emotional exhaustion, no longer appreciating things you used to enjoy, mood swings and irritability, feeling like you’re overwhelmed and constantly on edge and physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle soreness, gastrointestinal issues and frequent illness, said Feldman.

Make it okay to talk about burnout

When taking strain or feeling overwhelmed, do not be embarrassed about not being able to function at your peak levels of performance.

Talk openly about what you are going through. Get in touch with your company’s employee assistance programme (EAP) to receive counselling to manage and overcome your burnout, advised Feldman.

Make sure your people turn off

Employers are encouraged to create a culture in which employees are encouraged to break the “always on” culture. No calls or emails after business hours. And make sure employees take their annual leave.

Prioritise your tasks

Take deliberate steps to keep track of your work. Use a spreadsheet or to-do list to arrange your days around these outcomes. Even better, schedule your tasks into your calendar. Don’t forget to include your breaks.

Take breaks during the day

Take five or 10 minutes to step away from your computer to get water, make coffee, or take a walk outside. Sitting at a desk for a full day can be a major contributing factor to burn-out.

The body was designed to be active, move and get outside to help improve one’s mood, energy, sleep patterns and overall health.

Change your lifestyle

Stress triggers both depression and anxiety, which often cause self-destructive behaviours. Make changes to your lifestyle, get enough sleep, follow a healthy diet, exercise regularly, take breaks, and get outdoors as often as you can.

“The average person will spend one-third of their life at work, so understanding employee wellness and burn-out is crucial.

“For mental health, it’s important to be content across all aspects of life, as employees who are happy and healthy are more resilient and are better equipped to handle change,” said Feldman.