Expert Series

When Burnout Bites Try Self-care

Posted by Professor
min read
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How often have you been asked by a concerned colleague if you “have been taking care of yourself”?  

You probably answered that question with an emphatic “yes”.   But what if they asked a different question - one that goes something like: “How have you been caring for yourself lately?” 

If you are like many in the workforce, you might struggle to answer that question. That’s because while the average worker is often an expert at talking up the importance of self-care – many fail to practise it. Self-care involves taking deliberate steps to care for our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. Many experts believe that our general lack of self-care is fuelling a burnout epidemic in our workplaces with an estimated one in four employees regularly experiencing burnout, and close to half of all workers experiencing it sometimes.

Burnout manifests itself in a variety of ways.

Take the colleague who is displaying an increasingly negative attitude at work and who regularly talks about quitting their job; the co-worker who complains of physical ailments such as headaches, stomach pains or even backaches; or even the once level-headed workmate who has become easily irritated and blames others for their own mistakes.  

While many managers, leaders and supervisors continue to wonder if the burnout phenomenon is real rather than just an excuse used by workers to dodge extra work, earlier this year the World Health Organisation (WHO) homed in on the condition by describing it as a work-based syndrome caused by chronic stress – ending speculation that it imagined or dreamt up – and making it very real.

The WHO says burnout’s broad characteristics include feelings of depleted energy levels, increased disengagement from one’s job and colleagues, and declining professional effectiveness.

It is widely accepted that burnout tops the list when it comes to workplace productivity killers and as such costs businesses billions of dollars each year. And while it is also widely accepted that effective organisation must take steps to prevent burnout rates from escalating, each and every one of us must also do our bit by paying more than lip service to our own self-care.

Those who neglect self-care often do so because they claim they are too busy - having others to care for in the workplace or in their personal lives - and that restricts the time that they can spend looking after themselves.

But if you have travelled on a plane and listened intently to the pre-take off safety announcements, you will find they contain an important message about self-care for all.

Airlines will advise you, that in an emergency, you’ll need to affix your own oxygen mask before you assist others. The easily understood theory is that if you pass out while trying to help others because you have ‘sacrificed’ yourself in pursuit of prioritising the care of others, you are helping no one.

The same theory applies to everyday self-care. If you relegate the need to take care of yourself to the back of the queue, you won’t be able to serve or support others in the workplace - and in your personal lives - especially in the longer term. When it comes to self-care, knowing what refuels you is an important first step, as is developing an effective professional support network that can provide the right ‘bolstering’ when you need it. At a minimum, a self-care routine should include getting more sleep, making extra time available to prepare healthy meals, engaging in regular exercise, and taking breaks during the day.

Learning how to say no is important to prevent over-commitment, and many report that a digital detox provides them with a significant lift when it comes to their emotional wellbeing. Finally, others recommend investing in a book or two on self-care suggesting that you’ll be surprised at the changes you might introduce as a result of the read.


Professor Gary Martin is Chief Executive Officer, the Australian Institute of Management WA. Professor Gary Martin FAIM. FACE. is a thought leader on workplace trends, business management, leadership, and employee learning and development. A former academic, Gary is a highly regarded CEO, a Board Director, keynote speaker and a columnist. He is the only Western Australian to make LinkedIn Top Voices in 2018, having shared over 100 articles on workplace matters in that year, and with some 50,000 followers Australia wide. Gary is currently Chief Executive Officer of The Australian Institute of Management in WA (AIM WA) an organisation dedicated to building workplace, management and leadership capability in Australia and our region. 


Learn more about mental health and self-care with Julian Pace.