23 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

Here’s how to tackle burnout

Colin Drury finds out how to deal with a hamster-on-the-wheel life

Colin Drury
19 Aug 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:iStock

Marina knew something had gone seriously wrong the day she received a call from her daughter Ella-Louise’s school.

‘They said to me, “Are you almost here?”’ she recalls. ‘And I was kind of like, “Almost where?”

‘And they said, “Almost at school – aren’t you supposed to be picking Ella-Louise up today? She’s been waiting for half an hour?’”

Marina had completely forgotten.

Twice a week her husband picked up their eight-year-old. Twice a week the maid did. And on Wednesdays it was her job.

‘I was beside myself,’ she remembers. ‘I said, “I’d be right there”, but it was a 30-minute drive. I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten about my own child. What kind of mother does that? I was sobbing for the entire drive. When Ella-Louise got in the car I was still crying. She was saying, “It’s OK mummy – everyone forgets things”. But I knew there was something wrong with me.’

She was right. There was.

Marina – a 43-year-old fashion consultant of Downtown Dubai – had been pushing herself too hard and for too long. Between a busy family, career and social life, she had been juggling so many commitments that, at last, some started to slip out of her control. Anxiety, lack of motivation, difficulty concentrating and now memory loss had all affected her.

She was suffering, in short, from acute burnout.

This is a term that gets thrown about a lot in Dubai – and when many of us say it, perhaps over Thursday night out, what we mean is that we’ve had a hard week and are looking forward to the beach tomorrow.

But, in fact, real burnout – described by psychologists as extreme mental and physical exhaustion caused by excessive, constant and prolonged stress – is a serious health condition that should not be taken lightly. ‘In the past,’ notes Dr Raymond Hamden, psychologist at the Human Relations Institute in Dubai, ‘we called it a nervous breakdown.’

At its worst burnout can cause not just personal and social problems – such as distancing from friends and falling performance at work – but also lead to real long-term health issues including acute fatigue, insomnia, palpitations and a weakened immune system.

Now, it appears to be on the rise in the UAE. The hectic social lives and long working hours common to many of us here are causing an increase in the problem, it seems. In a 2013 survey, more than 40 per cent of UAE HR directors surveyed by recruitment specialist Robert Half said the condition was common in their organisation.

‘People here are dealing with colleagues and clients on different time zones and there is a pace of growth and exciting opportunities that lend to this problem,’ says leadership coach Jo Simpson, who wrote a book, The Restless Executive, on the subject after spending five years living in Dubai. ‘For a lot of people, their work visas being linked to their residence visas puts an unconscious expectation in place to work long hours.’

All that is the bad news, then.

The good news is we don’t have to suffer. There are ways to keep thriving personally and professionally – to lead full and fulfilling lives – without experiencing mental and physical exhaustion. The key is to simply spot the signs we are in danger, and take preventative action.

Easier said than done, perhaps. But Friday, as always, is here to help. We have spoken to experts in psychology, life coaching, nutrition and business, and the results are below: six signs you might be at risk of burnout and, then, six ways to stop it becoming serious…


Seeing the signs

1 Increased exhaustion, anxiety and negativity

In theory, it seems self-evident that if we’re experiencing exhaustion, fatigue and worry, then something is wrong. But the key is to recognise these symptoms early on.

‘In the early stages, you may feel a lack of energy and feel tired most days,’ writes Sherrie Bourg Carter, American psychologist and author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout. ‘Then, in the latter stages, you feel physically and emotionally exhausted, drained, and depleted, and you may feel a sense of dread for what lies ahead on any given day.’

Too many of us, she adds, ignore the early signs and believe that if we keep going we’ll come out the other side. All that does is exacerbate the meltdown later.

2 Lost motivation and satisfaction

Every day used to feel like a new challenge you couldn’t wait to conquer. Now: not so much. Your ambitions – be they for your career or family – appear to have disappeared, while achievements don’t offer the joy they once did.

‘If that describes you, you could well have burnout,’ says Cindy van de Kreke-Freens, personal and professional development coach at Authenticity Coaching and Consultancy in Al Barsha, Dubai. ‘Typical symptoms are feeling hopeless and empty. It becomes hard to find joy, and difficult to be positive or creative.’

3 Failing relationships

Once you were the heart and soul of your social life. Now, you struggle to maintain interest in others and find yourself irritated in conversation. That could well be burnout, according to Dr Travis Bradberry, the US-based author of the bestselling self-help book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0.

‘With burnout, often it’s your relationships that suffer,’ he reckons. ‘Stress makes many people more likely to snap at others, lose our cool, and get involved in silly, unnecessary conflicts. Others are more inclined to withdraw and avoid people they care about. Either way, it’s bad news for relationships.’

4 Cognitive issues

Stress has been shown to damage the brain’s prefrontal cortex. ‘It’s the part of the brain responsible for executive function,’ says Dr Bradberry. ‘This impacts your memory, decision-making abilities, emotional control and focus. When you notice that you’re making silly mistakes, forgetting important things, having outbursts of emotion, or making poor decisions, you’re likely burning out.’

5 Increased illness

Stress doesn’t just hammer your brain either – it does the same to the body. Study after study has found it weakens your immune system, making you more susceptible to flu, colds and infections, while also increasing the likelihood of heart palpitations, headaches, stomach pains and cardiovascular issues.

‘If you find you’re starting to become more vulnerable to illnesses like colds and flu or you’re experiencing more physical pains, then something is clearly wrong – and that could be burnout,’ says Cindy.

6 Decreased work performance

Dubai is a city of high achievers – and you have always been one. Now, though, you feel your standards at work are slipping and you aren’t meeting the high targets you once set yourself.

‘There is no shame in this,’ says Dr Erik Matser, neuropsychologist at the German Neuroscience Center in Dubai Healthcare City.

‘Real burnout is nothing less than a brain injury. It really is that serious. 
And the result of a brain injury is that sometimes performance in certain fields will slip.

‘The key is recognising there is a problem. Because the sooner you do, the more likely it can be put right.’


Burnout can also cause hormonal imbalances, so eating right and keeping yourself hydrated is important – don’t reach out for more coffee.

Taking action

1 Disconnect from work

Not too long ago we switched our computers off at the end of the working day, went home, and then we didn’t think too much about work because there was really very little we could do until we arrived back the next day.

Today, due to smartphones and remote access email, many of us never really leave the office at all. And that means we never have the downtime that helps relieve stress.

‘Making yourself available 24/7 exposes you to a constant barrage of stresses that prevent you from refocusing and recharging,’ writes Dr Bradberry. ‘If taking the entire evening or weekend off from handling work emails and calls isn’t realistic, at least try designating specific times only to check in on messages and respond to voicemails.’ Scheduling these work-free periods means a release of pressure that would otherwise build up, thus reducing the chance of burnout.

2 Relax. Exercise. Enjoy

If scheduling work is important, so too is scheduling a time to chill, a time to be active and a time to have fun.

All three of these, says development coach Cindy, are key for good mental and physical well-being – and that includes combating possible meltdown.

Relaxing helps us recharge; exercising generates the happy hormone dopamine; and partaking in an activity we find enjoyable is, quite simply, one of the most scientifically proven effective ways to boost mental health and blast away feelings of anxiety, depression or insecurity.

‘Sing in the shower, play your favourite music, pamper yourself or go on an adventure,’ encourages Cindy. ‘But just 
make sure you have a great time doing it. 
It will help you move from deflated, grey and detached to happy, beaming and fully present.’

3 Eat right

A bit of science: burnout results in the adrenal glands not producing enough hormones, which in turn causes erratic blood sugar swings.

That’s why so many of us, when stressed, reach for the coffee – because the caffeine stabilises this swing. That, however, is the exact opposite of what we should be doing, says Christopher James Clark, Dubai-based chef and author of the award-winning book, Nutritional Grail.

Caffeine, it seems, might stabilise things temporarily. But it is a short-term fix only, and the swing will soon kick off again.

Instead, we should be eating healthy meals that help the glands produce the right hormones in the first place. ‘Make sure you’re eating protein with every meal, as this improves satiety and stabilises blood sugar,’ says Chris. ‘Eggs are an easy way to add protein. Greek yogurt, fish, meat and legumes are all great too. And drink plenty of water to keep yourself well-hydrated.’

4 Be mindful

It is a form of meditation beloved by Hollywood A-listers such as Goldie Hawn and Meg Ryan, and used for in-house training by some of the world’s biggest companies – Facebook, Google, Goldman Sachs and Reebok included.

But mindfulness – techniques to help us feel in the moment – might also be one of the best ways to combat burnout. That’s the verdict of Helen Williams, director of LifeWorks Personal Development Training Centre in Umm Suqeim, Dubai.

‘So often here, when people are with their children, they’re thinking about work,’ she explains. ‘When they’re working on one project they’re worrying about another 10. And when they’re supposed to be spending time with their partner they have their mobile phone constantly beeping. And they wonder why they’re not happy. They’ve lost their ability to value the moment – and that means succumbing to stress.’

Mindfulness works by taking a few minutes to focus your mind on a single thought or on your surroundings; and therefore helps empty your head of all other concerns. When you emerge, the theory goes, you’re refreshed and raring to go once more.

5 Get organised

‘Much of the stress we experience on a daily basis doesn’t stem from having too much work,’ declares Dr Bradberry. ‘It stems from being too disorganised to handle that work effectively.’

Planning, scheduling, dairying, delegating, assessing and prioritising at the end and start of each day – an activity that takes no more than 10 minutes – will allow us to manage the burden more effectively. Managing it more effectively will, in turn, reduce the pressure we feel. Reducing the pressure lessens our personal stress.

‘Sometimes when people come to us and say they are stressed it’s because they simply have too many commitments,’ says Priya Johnstone, a UK-based higher education HR executive. ‘But a lot of the time, we’ll dig down and find it’s a case of simply needing to use time more efficiently.’

6 Don’t be afraid to seek help

There’s no shame in needing help for burnout. Hundreds of thousands are seeking professional solutions every year – and it’s fast becoming one of the most common causes of people looking for life coaches in Dubai.

‘Burnout happens here because so many people are real high-aimers and have so many commitments,’ concludes Cindy. ‘But they should not be scared to seek help. It is perfectly normal to speak to experts in other areas of physical and mental well-being, and there is no reason why burn out should be any different.

‘It’s the smart thing to do.’

Colin Drury

Colin Drury