If you’re feeling on the fringe of burnout, what should you do? Research shows taking time out on the sofa might not be as beneficial as first thought.

Burnout is on the rise and the stats are startling. According to a recent Deloitte survey of 1,000 respondents, 77 percent have experienced burnout in their current role, 91 percent say that unmanageable stress impacts the quality of their work, and 83 percent report that burnout can harm personal relationships.

But is burnout really legit? The answer is YES! The term ‘burnout’ was coined back in the 1970s, when psychologist Herbert Freudenberger used it to describe a state of exhaustion. In 2003 it was officially recognized as a symptom, and in 2019 burnout became a legitimate medical diagnosis according to the World Health Organization. (The timing was perfect. This is exactly when Covid-19 chaos kicked in and incidences of burnout went through the roof. Incidences of burnout are now 10 percent up on pre-Covid levels).

While burnout is typically linked to workplace stress, it’s not limited to those in professional roles. Burnout can strike anyone who passionately gives a lot of energy to specific areas of life, juggles a busy schedule and commits to overworking. This can lead to chronic mental exhaustion which can lead to burnout symptoms such as: feeling tired for long periods, feeling overwhelmed, helpless or defeated, self-doubt, a cynical outlook, loneliness and procrastination.

Burnout symptoms:

  • Feeling tired for long periods
  • Feeling overwhelmed, helpless or defeated
  • Self-doubt
  • A cynical outlook
  • Loneliness
  • Procrastination

The best way to battle burnout symptoms

You might think retreating to the sofa and snuggling up in front of the television is the best way to deal with burnout stress, but a recent study rejected this option and highlighted a far better remedy… exercise.

The findings came after scientists pushed healthy adults to the point of mental exhaustion and then tested three recovery methods: a 30-minute cardio session (in this case indoor cycling); a 30-minute stretching routine; and watching a 30-minute sitcom. The cardio was a clear winner, with the mentally worn-out individuals who cycled showing significantly better recovery for cognitive flexibility, mood, tiredness, self-perceived cognitive capacity, and motivation – and all it took was one 30-minute cycle session.

“Mentally worn-out individuals enjoyed significantly better recovery for cognitive flexibility, mood, tiredness, self-perceived cognitive capacity, and motivation – and all it took was one 30-minute cycle session.”

An earlier study also identified aerobic workouts as the perfect mood-boosting formula. These researchers found four indoor cycling sessions a week can help unlock lasting psychological benefits such as reduced feelings of depression and hostility. Another study involving nurses (a profession with high levels of burnout) showed that those who started a 12-week program of 60-minute workouts three times a week felt less occupational stress than those who didn't exercise. When the nurses stopped the regular exercise, the decrease in stress levels stopped too.

Canadian neuroscientist Dr. Jennifer Heisz explains that exercise changes the brain in diverse and powerful ways. “One key thing that exercise increases is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) … This acts as a fertilizer to grow new brain cells and help our existing brain cells function optimally."

Will more intense training = more intense benefits?

According to Heisz, every workout has the potential to reset your brain by infusing it with all the neurochemicals the brain needs to thrive, but it is high-intensity interval training that delivers the most powerful neurological rewards. “What makes HIIT so special is that the hard intervals push you above your anaerobic threshold and lactate accumulates.” She explains that lactate is one of the most important promoters of neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt, function optimally and effectively manage change.

Learn more about how different types of exercise nurture our minds in different ways.

Exercise isn't the only way to deal with burnout, there are several other tactics you can also employ if you're feeling any symptoms. These include:

  • Identifying your stressors
  • Seeking support – from your manager or colleagues, family, friends or loved ones
  • Knowing your limitations and learning how to say ‘no’
  • Setting boundaries and creating work/life balance
  • Making time for personally gratifying activities and hobbies
  • Practising mindfulness and meditation (this six-minute emergency state shift meditation is ideal)
  • Getting restorative sleep (follow these five sleep hacks)