The science and signs of burnout with Dr. Thomas Curran

Dr. Thomas Curran shares the causes and signs of burnout, and explains how you can prevent it.

Dr. Thomas Curran says there are more signs of burnout than exhaustion. As a psychologist and lecturer at LSE's Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, Tom's research looks at the societal triggers of personality traits and their impacts on our mental health. He shares his expertise on the causes, and signs of burnout to look out for, as well as his biggest tips for prevention.

Is burnout a millennial thing?

On the Heights Braincare podcast , Tom shared his insights on what appears to be a thoroughly modern problem: burnout. As brought forth by this viral article , burnout is on the rise as more and more people shift to different ways of working and living, perfectionism (which we touched on in Dr Curran’s other Braincare podcast episode), coupled with an almost inherent pressure to be always ‘on’. Although not exclusively a work-based phenomenon, burnout is particularly acute in work environments as you can’t easily remove yourself from the situation.

Exploring the universal signs and symptoms of this highly individual psychological phenomenon, Tom speculated why the gig economy could be pouring petrol on the fire.

We can't gratuitously enjoy our free time because we're thinking all the while that we might be compromising some money that could be made on the side.

Symptoms of burnout

Burnout is multi-faceted and encompasses both mental and physical exhaustion. This extreme exhaustion is the endpoint, but according to Tom, there are several precursors before it gets to that point.

The first symptom is cynicism. Then there’s the feeling that we’ve lost any interest in the things that we do, we’re detached from work and don’t really care about it anymore, and the third is a reduced sense of accomplishment—we feel that we’re not really achieving anything.

How to recognise the warning signs of burnout

Burnout has significant negative effects on our day-to-day lives, not to mention our mental and physical health. Tom says that pre-emptive action is crucial, but how can we know when we're in the danger zone? Recognising the warning signs of burnout, both at work and otherwise is the first step.

"Once you start to feel like you’re becoming detached from the things that you do, or like you’re not having much of an impact... alarm bells should start to ring about whether you’re really happy or comfortable about where you are.

"Left unchecked, those feelings can quickly spiral into things like resentment and anger which can lead to cynicism, feelings of entrapment, and high levels of extreme exhaustion, fatigue and ultimately absenteeism.

"It’s really about enjoyment. If you feel that start to wane, and that you start to have less of an impact within the workplace—that’s an early warning sign of burnout for sure."

How to prevent burnout

Exemplary self-care practices are vital to prevent burnout—doing things that give you pleasure helps to restore your sense of self, and replenish your resources. And, when it comes to burnout, says Tom, the sooner you’re aware that you need some extra care, the better.

"Once you start to feel cynicism, tiredness, and fatigue start to creep in, that's when, instead of pushing ourselves harder, we need to take a step back."

Whether to you, self-care means spending time with the people you love , taking time out to rest and relax for a few days or weeks, or smaller-scale practices like meditation or yoga —it’s important to have things you know you can turn to when things start to feel like they’re getting on top of you, to pre-empt any further damage from being done.

These are the things that you do to make your life worthwhile. But, they’re going to bring you far less happiness if you’re already burnt out.

Podcast episode takeaways

Curious to learn more from Dr. Thomas Curran? Check out the full burnout episode on the Braincare podcast where he covers:

  • Early warning signs of burnout

  • Physical effects of mental fatigue

  • Millennials and the gig economy

  • Does burnout only happen in the workplace?

  • Pre-emptive self-care: nutrition and exercise

  • How the pandemic exacerbated the phenomenon

  • What does burnout tell you about your job?

Don’t forget to subscribe to the Braincare podcast to get more bitesize interviews with the world's leading scientists and experts.

Curious to hear more from Dr Curran about personality traits and mental health? Check out this episode on perfectionism .

6 ways to help with burnout

If burnout is a concern for you, check out these vitamins and coping strategies that could help.


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