Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: How to beat burnout

What is burnout and what can we do to recognise it and stop it in its tracks. Dr Michelle O'Driscoll shares her advice.
Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: How to beat burnout

"A bit like a smoke alarm in our house that goes off every time we make a piece of toast, excessive activation of the sympathetic nervous system is unhelpful and ultimately distressing!"

BURNOUT has been defined as “emotional exhaustion due to physical, mental or emotional factors experienced over a three-month period or longer.”

It has traditionally been associated with workplace stresses — the World Health Organisation recognises it as an “occupational phenomenon.”

However, burnout may also be experienced outside of the workplace, triggered by the pace and demands of our daily lives, and no longer exclusive to corporate settings or executive positions.

Some examples of precipitating events include dealing with an ongoing illness that is placing physical strain on the body, financial worries creating significant daily mental pressures, or the dissolution of a marriage leading to emotional pain.

Burnout is not caused by a few bad days at work, or one challenging interaction with a family member over dinner; is a long-term complaint, progressing over time.

The causative factor(s) need to be ongoing; a prolonged mismatch between the demands being placed on us, and our perceived ability to cope with these demands creates the potential for chronic stress to flourish.

Stress is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s actually vital to our daily functioning; it gets us out of bed in the morning and keeps us safe in times of danger.

But a bit like a smoke alarm in our house that goes off every time we make a piece of toast, excessive activation of the sympathetic nervous system is unhelpful and ultimately distressing!

This over-stimulation of the stress response precipitates burnout if left unaddressed long-term.


Some signs to look out for when burnout is suspected include: reduced energy and efficiency; lower levels of motivation; increased cynicism; fatigue; headaches and muscle tension; trouble sleeping; feelings of dissatisfaction and apathy; and an increase in irritability and frustration. All of these symptoms, both physical and psychological contribute to that sense of being ‘stuck’ or powerless, unable to see the wood for the trees, and almost paralysed in terms of our current physical, mental or emotional situation.

Finding yourself in this place warrants concrete actions to be taken in order to address the underlying cause, and ease some of the symptoms. Below are just a few to consider.


Very often, being burnt out leads to us functioning on the bare minimum in terms of nutrition, hydration, exercise and rest/sleep. We tend to ‘survive’ from one situation to the next, and all the things that we know to be so important for our physical health are usually the first to be dumped from the priority list. Unfortunately, this just fuels the ‘burn’, and does us no favours in terms of recovery.

The single best thing you can do to combat your symptoms is to regroup physically: recharge yourself through good sleep habits and scheduling in rest periods from the hectic schedule; fuel yourself through a nourishing diet; replenish your potential to create energy with adequate hydration; and burn off that excess stress through regular exercise.

You may not revamp all of these things overnight, but identify one of them and commit to a small improvement to start. While many of the events in our lives leading to burnout cannot be fixed or made to disappear, you will be much better able to face them by looking after yourself in this way.

Dr Michelle O'Driscoll. Picture: David Keane.
Dr Michelle O'Driscoll. Picture: David Keane.


Several years ago, I attended a seminar about the demands of managing a community pharmacy. The event was entitled ‘Spinning Plates’ and focused on all the elements that needed to be considered in order to run the pharmacy effectively; service provision, administration, staffing, advertising, patient concerns, etc. The day explored how best to keep all those plates spinning, not allowing any one of them to fall and smash.

Perfectionistic tendencies, while beneficial in the right context, can be toxic in situations where perfection is simply not possible, as is the case in so many aspects of our daily lives! We can be guilty of applying perfectionistic standards or the “spinning plates” approach where it’s neither helpful nor required Burnout is fuelled by the feeling that you cannot meet the expectations being set for you.

What we tend to forget, however, is that the expectations set for us are usually set by ourselves!

It can be useful to substitute the perfectionistic metaphor of ‘spinning plates’ with the more forgiving analogy of ‘balancing balloons’. Imagine if all the tasks and demands of life were not ‘spinning plates’ which smash into smithereens if allowed to fall during a bad day, week or month.

How would the dynamics change if the juggle was instead a more forgiving analogy of ‘balancing balloons’ — balloons representing work, family, friends, hobbies, self-care and whatever else you’re trying to “keep in the air.”

Now consider what happens if juggling all these balloons becomes too much, and a balloon or two drops to the floor? The balloon may bounce a few times, before coming gently to rest until you find the opportunity to relaunch it. No smashed plates to clean up, much less pressure, and a liberating shift of expectation from your shoulders. Choose your priorities, focus on those balloons, and reassure yourself that whatever drops will be waiting for you restart when the time is right.


It’s a very Irish trait, but we are notorious as a nation for putting others’ needs before our own. This becomes an issue when we find ourselves saying yes to others at the expense of our own wellbeing. Take time to consider your non-negotiables in terms of down-time, family time, and other life priorities.

By saying ‘yes’ to someone else, are you saying “no” to your own needs? We have a fear of insulting or angering others, but if we word our response in a way that is respectful and keeps the door open to future interactions or opportunities, there is usually rarely an issue. This change in approach can relieve the overwhelm, and create the mental space that is so often lacking during times of burnout.


Linked to the ‘balancing balloons’ analogy, it can be quite difficult to identify which ‘balloons’ require most of our attention day-to-day or month-to-month. The answer to that question can change, depending on the given situation. It can be helpful to review all the different “balloons”, identifying any that are zapping energy, and could potentially be removed. Are you sitting on a committee that is taking up too much time, or is there a class that you’re attending which you actually don’t even really enjoy? Marie Kondo has made millions from her strategies for clearing clutter from our homes. Apply her question of ‘Does it spark joy?’ to different aspects of your day in order to increase life satisfaction. Conversely, consider what you could reintroduce into your life that used to “spark joy.” Did you read in your spare time, but now find that spare time is difficult to come by? Did you take up running a few years ago and enjoy the buzz of adrenaline, but found that you allowed it to slip from your schedule?

Not everything in our day is going to be exhilarating; life will always include mundane or unpleasant tasks. However, we can be proactive about creating a balance that helps us to thrive.

Burnout can happen to anyone, for a myriad of different reasons. If it’s preventing you from functioning day-to-day, or seems to be spiralling further into anxiety or depression, it’s time to talk to a healthcare professional.

In the meantime, there is always room for positive action to be taken in terms of self-awareness, mind-set, maintaining good physical health, and setting of adequate boundaries.


Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a Lecturer of Clinical Pharmacy in UCC, while continuing to work in the community pharmacy setting.

Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through her company InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally.

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