By Créde Sheehy-Kelly, High Performance Psychologist

October 14th 2019

Burnout is a state of mental and physical exhaustion associated with chronic workplace stress that has been ineffectively managed. Some of the key symptoms of burnout include:

  • Energy depletion
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Cynicism and detachment from one’s job
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment
  • Reduced professional efficiency

Burnout has now been officially recognised as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ by the World Health Organisation in the International Classification of Diseases. A Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23% reported feeling burnt out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burnt out sometimes.

To put this in context, this statistic suggests 67% of the professional workforce are falling short of their potential, not through a lack of skill or business acumen, but through an inability to cope effectively with the overwhelming demands of modern work.

Building block

It may be that the single most valuable career investment that a person can make is to learn how to effectively manage their energy. Considering performance as a pyramid, energy and personal wellbeing are the fundamental building block. It doesn’t matter if someone has two doctorates and a Nobel Prize, performance is limited in direct correlation with a person’s capacity to maintain a full ‘energy tank’. It is the fuel that enables us to effectively execute technical skills and knowledge to produce results.

Small decreases in energy levels can have a major impact on performance. Even getting only 6-hours sleep significantly impairs our capacity to think effectively. Researchers found that subjects who slept just six hours a night for 14 days had the cognitive alertness of someone with a .1% blood alcohol level. That equates to being legally drunk.

However a good night’s sleep alone is not sufficient to produce optimal energy levels. A whole range of factors can impact our energy including hydration, nutrition, our emotional wellbeing, our mental perspective and our sense of connectedness among many others.

Time is finite, energy is renewable

The Energy Project, a US-based consultancy firm, advocate that the solution to preventing burnout is for people to focus on ‘managing energy’ as opposed to ‘managing time’. After all, time is a finite resource but energy is renewable. They propose that energy springs from four main reservoirs – the body, emotions, mind and spirit.

Within each of these categories, there are a myriad of activities that people can do to replenish and renew their energy on a daily, and even hourly basis. Small intentional behaviours such as eating a snack during the afternoon slump, stretching for 3 minutes away from your desk, and taking 5 minutes to note down what you are grateful for can all act as energy-enhancing ‘rituals’ to replenish the different sources. The idea is to incorporate these rituals into your daily routine so that they become automatic and act as a buffer against diminishing energy levels and feelings of overwhelm and overwork.


In professional sport, managing energy is considered a key aspect of preparing to perform. In rugby, Ireland has one of the best player management systems in the world, forensically monitoring how intensely each player has been training and performing and ensuring that players are rested and given breaks at appropriate times. Players are carefully monitored on an individual basis to prevent burnout, reduce the risk of injury and ensure peak performance.

The concept of ‘periodisation’ or mapping out your year in terms of phases of intense workload, lighter workload and recovery can also be adopted in the corporate world to ensure that employee productivity, wellbeing and motivation remain high.

Managing energy has a number of benefits. Not only does it help people to avoid burnout but it also increases efficiency during the time spent focused on work. When people take responsibility for managing their own energy and are empowered by company policies that support this approach, the result is a happier, healthier and higher-performing workforce.