Burnout and extreme stress are on the rise globally. The Japanese even have a word for what can result from extreme stress “karoshi” or death from overwork[1]. International cross-cultural studies[2] show that those in the helping professions (e.g. social workers, nurses, physicians, development professionals), and high achievers, are at higher risk for burnout than the general population. The curious thing about high or over-achievers is that we tend to work harder when we get closer and closer to burnout. It’s almost like we believe we are invincible!

I recall when I was close to burnout a few years ago, how I kept pushing and pushing and NOT listening to my body. I had pushed through fatigue to finish that one last thing for many years, and was healthy (or so I thought) with no noticeable side effects. Until late 2012, when all that changed. After 13 months in Afghanistan followed by 12 months working with an NGO on projects in 7 countries in Asia and Africa, I finally realized I was exhausted and made a decision to STOP and take a much-needed break.


In general, people are expected to work longer and harder to get ahead. I recall a client sharing when she was articling to be a lawyer that she stayed at her desk for several hours after she had completed all of her work by 4:30 pm because the organizational culture expected articling students to always stay late. I’ve consulted with organizations where people apologized for not checking email while on vacation. One VP shared that this was the first vacation she had taken in 10 years!

Many organizations provide their managers and supervisors with smart phones and do not set clear boundaries related to emails and texts. People feel “chained” to technology 24/7. They feel like they have little or no time for themselves or to spend with family and friends. This causes stress in relationships, and in particular in women, leading to feelings of guilt about not being a good mother, partner or friend.

Organizations tend to reward individuals rather than teams, which encourages competition rather than collaboration among their managers and staff and further aggravates the stress. In a world where information and the logical left brain is valued more highly than intuition and our creative right brain, we have learned NOT to listen to our bodies and to focus on “doing” rather than “being”. Working in an organization or position/profession that is not aligned with your core values can also lead to burnout or adrenal fatigue.

Burnout and Adrenal Fatigue

Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter in her book High Octane Women states that: “burnout occurs when chronic stress and frustration lead to:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Feelings of cynicism and detachment
  • A sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.” (p. 16)

Dr. James Wilson in his book Adrenal Fatigue The 21st Century Stress Syndrome notes that :

“adrenal fatigue occurs when the amount of stress [physical, psychological, emotional, infectious, environmental or a combination of these] overextends the capacity of the body (mediated by the adrenal [glands]) to compensate and recover from that stress or the combined stresses. Once this capacity to cope and recover is exceeded, some form of adrenal fatigue occurs. “ (p. 11)

In general, traditional medicine does not recognize adrenal fatigue. Naturopaths and alternative medicine practitioners do. When you look at the research related to adrenal fatigue and burnout the symptoms overlap.


Do you feel exhausted? Have you lost your passion? Do you feel like your life is all about work and there’s no time for fun? If so, you may be suffering from burnout or adrenal fatigue

Other symptoms include:

  • Insomnia (difficulty sleeping, mind often racing)
  • Feeling tired on awakening; even after sleeping 10 plus hours
  • Afternoon energy crash followed by a burst of energy later in the evening
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Loss of enjoyment
  • More prone to colds or flu
  • Apathy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling cold when others aren’t
  • Reduced libido
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Reduced productivity

A free online assessment for Adrenal Fatigue is available at http://www.adrenalfatigue.co.nz/dr-wilsons-adrenal-fatigue-questionnaire/

What to do about it

  • Unplug from technology at least 90 minutes before you go to bed
  • Start listening to your body. When you feel tired take a short nap (e.g. 15 to 30 minutes if you can) or go for a short walk (15 to 30 minutes)
  • Sleep at least 8 hours a night and go to sleep before 11 pm
  • Schedule blocks of time in your calendar for you (e.g. work out at the gym, lunch with a friend, concert with your partner)
  • Do some type of physical activity daily
  • Eat a healthy diet with a variety of unprocessed foods including fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains (plant-based foods are best); poultry and fish
  • Limit your alcohol and caffeine intake
  • Begin yoga and if you enjoy it try to do it 3 times a week
  • Meditate daily for 10 minutes or more
  • Nurture yourself daily (e.g. have a bubble math, massage, listen to relaxing music, do something you love)
  • Spend time in nature (aim for 3 times a week for 30 minutes each time)
  • Make a list of key activities you need/want to accomplish each day. At the end of the day go through the list and check off those you’re completed at the same time celebrating yourself and feeling it in your body (for examples of celebration see http://creativelivingcommunity.com/the-power-of-celebration-2/ )
  • Focus on one thing at a time
  • Make a clear differentiation between work and home time. For example, before leaving work say to yourself, I am now leaving work behind, or pick a point on your drive or walk home where you make a conscious choice to release work and step into “your” time.
  • If you are no longer excited about your work, do a values-clarification exercise, and get clear on your core values[3] and what “lights you up”. Perhaps hire a life coach to work with you to assist with this and support you to integrate new behaviors into your life
  • If symptoms persist and if you are continually fatigued even though you sleep 8 plus hours a night, and have lost your zest for life, go to a recommended naturopath or physician who is open to complementary therapies.

What strategies have you found helpful to reduce stress in your life? What new strategy do you plan to integrate into your life starting tomorrow? I’d love to hear your comments below. Feel free to share this post with a friend, colleague or family member.

[1] http://rt.com/news/221467-japan-workers-law-vacation/

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/women-in-leadership/2016/jan/21/spot-the-signs-of-burnout-before-it-hits-you?CMP=ema-1694&CMP=

[3] http://creativelivingcommunity.com/do-you-live-in-alignment-with-your-core-values/

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