What is pre-burnout? It’s a serious warning

How to cope with pre-burnout

There is a fine line between stress, pre-burnout and final burnout. It’s important to know the difference and why women are susceptible.  


Burnout is described  in Psychology Today as  a state of chronic stress that leads to:

  • physical and emotional exhaustion
  • cynicism and detachment
  • feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

But burnout doesn’t come without advance warning symptoms. There are many red flags in the pre-burnout phase that many people ignore. It’s only when someone experiences full-on burnout and is no longer able to function personally or professionally and maybe in a state of collapse, do people finally take note. It’s important to pay attention to the early warning signs of pre-burnout to protect your physical and mental health, relationships and even livelihood. This is not about feeling tired or bored. This is about a relentless and ongoing pattern that threatens your physical and emotional well-being.

Gender differences in burnout

Research from Montreal University indicates that women are more prone to work burnout than men. They analysed during a period of 4 years data from over 2000 people, of whom 50% plus were women. They concluded that women were more susceptible to burnout than men because of the work they do, way they are treated in the workplace, low self-esteem and challenges related to balancing work and family life and personal relationships. 

For men, the research suggests that factors including time management, working excessive hours or anti-social work patterns were the main causes. Common factors for both men and women are related to:

  • employment insecurity
  • a lack of recognition at work.


Pre-burnout red flags



The difference between stress and pre-burnout and final burnout is very fine, which means that it’s important to pay attention to all the symptoms. Not all stress is bad. Some situations are demanding and an adrenalin boost helps us get through them successfully. But prolonged stress over extended periods can be very damaging.  The other complicating factor is that we all react differently to stressful situations which makes it harder to identify.  Highly engaged, type-A, high achievers with strong perfectionist streaks, who might be used to absorbing significant levels of stress or are expected to cope, can be the most vulnerable.

Take note of these early warning signs of burnout:

#1 Physical and emotional exhaustion:

  • Sleep deprivation: One of the first early warning signs is difficulty sleeping for at least two nights a week. This can manifest itself with problems falling asleep, waking up early anxious and worried, or sleeping fitfully during the night.
  • Chronic fatigue: Lack of sleep builds up and this might now be a nightly occurrence. You feel constantly exhausted but can’t sleep.
  • Reduced concentration: Difficulty concentrating and perhaps forgetfulness leads to work piling up which exaggerates the sense of loss of control and feelings of helplessness. You might see an increase in careless mistakes or minor accidents.
  • Physical symptoms. This can include headaches, stomach and bowel problems, allergic reactions, loss of appetite, joint and back pain.
  • Low grade illnesses:  you could experience colds, flu, nausea as your immune system fails to work correctly.
  • Anxiety: you might start to feel tense and edgy. Situations you took in your stride before now make you nervous and stressed.
  • Anger: This can be manifested in relationship and communication issues with co-workers and other colleagues. It might be snippy comments when giving feedback to emotional outbursts and arguments.
  • Depression. This might start off as reluctant acceptance of a situation you don’t enjoy, but can morph  into feelings of acute helplessness and worthlessness that lead to depression.

#2 Cynicism and detachment

  •  Loss of enjoyment: this manifests itself in reduced commitment and engagement in the workplace or even at home. You dread going to work and perhaps develop some delaying and avoidance strategies.
  • Pessimistic approach: Your situation feels bleak with no potential positive outcomes. Assessment of any circumstances are warped by negative thinking that things will go wrong or be poorly received. You set yourself up to under achieve. If you do perform adequately you miss some notional expectations.
  • Detachment: you feel disconnected from the mission of your workplace. You may start isolating yourself from colleagues, not going to lunch or arriving late and leaving early. You delay responding to mails and returning calls. Your colleagues react to this and a vicious cycle kicks in.

#3 Signs of Ineffectiveness and Lack of Accomplishment

  • Feelings of helplessness: strong feelings that whatever you do will not make any difference or even be wrong or overruled. You feel under valued and unappreciated.
  • Emotional: this can  manifest itself in a deterioration in your inter-personal relationships as communication becomes tense. This is rooted again in those feelings of helplessness and powerlessness and even a sense of guilt and shame. This impacts workplace processes and interactions. Colleagues may try to bypass you or avoid working with you. You become aware of this even at a subliminal level which intensifies the situation.
  • Reduced performance: you become less effective as you struggle to stay on top of your workload and battle all the physical and emotional elements of pre-burnout. You are aware that you are not operating to capacity. This fuels the cycle as you may start to worry about the security of your job. You re-double your efforts but are caught up in a downward spiral.

Take action now


If you are experiencing even a few of these of these symptoms over an extended period, this is a red flag that something is going on and you need to take charge. And this is what is so hard. We all have different limits and there is a tendency to compare our own performance to other people’s. This is dangerous territory to get into. You are probably already overcome by negative thinking and see yourself as failing. But burnout will not go away magically and the only behaviour you can change is your own.

Women at risk

Dorothy Dalton international Career Coach told me:

“As workplaces become more challenging and insecure, I’m seeing an increase in  pre-burnout and burnout symptoms amongst my women clients. Part of the problem is the additional challenges they have in the workplace, particularly for successful or ambitious women leaders. Being undervalued, whether this is reflected in salary, seniority or access to promotion opportunities is part and parcel of the professional female experience. Combine this with taking on more than their fair share of domestic responsibilities, the issue is not that it happens, but that it doesn’t happen more frequently, to more women.”  

Dalton suggests there is no one way of dealing with this as it’s very often a combination of complex circumstances. She recommends if women find themselves in this situation they should as a minimum:

  • Seek medical help immediately: She says that getting medical support is vital. “There are now doctors who specialise in this condition it’s so prevalent. Frequently senior women are also at a point in their lives of having to cope with the menopause. So ask your medical practitioner for a full physical and blood work. This is frequently about playing safe and ruling physical conditions out but I have coached women who have had hormone imbalance associated with menopause and even a mal-functioning thyroid which have exacerbated the problem. Dealing with sleep deprivation is also important. There are lots of non-chemical ways to make sure you get enough sleep. When any of us is tired all situations look insurmountable. Seeing a therapist might also be helpful 
  • Detach: If possible and depending on your contractual arrangements take some time off and get away. Giving yourself some space to gain perspective is important.
  • Prioritize: If you are still able to work make sure your focus is on the important and urgent and delegate or let go the non-urgent tasks.
  • Workplace allies: very often there is a strong connection with toxic bosses and workplace culture and pre-burnout and burnout. Sharing your situation with colleagues or your boss can be difficult. If possible find a neutral mentor or ally who can advise you on how to navigate the politics of your organisation. Very often that will also be at the root of the problem. HR can be a good place to discuss your situation in confidence, especially if they have a wellness program.
  • Coaching support: getting neutral support from a professional who is there just for you and working on coping strategies to get out of negative thinking and bad habits can be very helpful at this point. Although the causes might be rooted in a dysfunctional workplace, very often the person in pre-burnout will have unknowingly fuelled certain situations.
  • Emotional support: is important to get support from family and friends, but remember that within a network everyone may have a different opinion
  • Self-care: do whatever you enjoy that relaxes you and makes you feel good. Connect with the important things in your life and nurture your key relationships. It’s highly likely that they have suffered.
  • Get balance:  If you are taking on a high percentage of domestic responsibilities, it could be that you need to have difficult conversations with your partner about their role at home. If you are a single parent take a look at other ways to reduce your workload at home or get support. If you are a perfectionist let your  impossibly high standards go. Remember Sheryl Sandberg saying “better done than perfect”
  • Step-back: when you have regained your health and feel able to neutrally look back at what brought on those pre-burnout symptoms it would be a good idea to take an objective look at your career. It might be that the job or organisation is not the best fit for you.


If you need any support with pre-burnout  – don’t wait. Contact us now.




3Plus, 3Plus online e-Gazine for professional women, Communication, Wellness
Staff Writer: Career
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