Dread getting out of bed? You're not alone. SA is facing a burnout epidemic

Job stress, money worries, grim news feeds and the pressure to perform are some of the factors fuelling the problem

15 September 2019 - 00:00 By Claire Keeton
People who feel trapped, in jobs or in relationships, are particularly vulnerable to burnout.
People who feel trapped, in jobs or in relationships, are particularly vulnerable to burnout.
Image: Keith Vlahakis

You can talk about the technicalities of time travel in Silicon Valley, but don’t dare mention cutting the work week.

“It’s like I’m proposing to bring back witchcraft when I talk about working 30 hours a week. A four-day week, that’s foul sorcery,” says “rest” consultant and bestselling author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.

“In our culture overwork is seen as a badge of honour,” says Pang, who challenges the always-on culture in his latest book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.

“Everywhere I go, the universal greeting is: ‘I’m so busy’,” says Pang, who has recently toured the UK, Japan, Korea, Asia, Australia, the Netherlands and Canada.

“I have not been to a place where I do not find this.”


SA is no different and has a burnout epidemic, says Judy Klipin, life coach and author of the new book, Recover from Burnout: Life Lessons to Regain Your Passion and Purpose.

Burnout is not about doing too much, says Klipin, but about “doing too many of the wrong things”.

“Everyone is at risk, whether you are a teacher, stay-at-home mom, student or executive. Certain professions at the coalface are more taxing on the emotions, like police, social workers and teachers who get compassion fatigue,” she says.

Feeling chronically exhausted, overwhelmed and demotivated are symptoms of burnout — officially classified as a “syndrome” for the first time by the World Health Organisation in its “International Classification of Diseases”, published in May.

The WHO, which previously referred to burnout as “a state of vital exhaustion”, says it results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

The blurring of boundaries between work and home life, being constantly online and the pressure to earn enough (or more) money contribute to burnout — but work stress is not the only cause.

Sociopolitical tensions in SA and globally — amplified by social media into what’s been dubbed “bombardment stress” — are also tipping people into a state where they struggle just to get up in the morning.

Life coach Lindiwe Mkhondo says: “Everything is changing and people are living with a tsunami outside … and are always in reactive mode. The tsunami is not going to end. We are the ones who need to find a sense of control and restore a state of calm from within, in the midst of the storm.”

The digitalisation of business, for example, means that many people have worked a full year by July, says Dion Chang, Flux Trends founder. “Six months into the year, we’ve worked 12 months. A midyear break seemed like a luxury five years ago. Now it is a necessity or people can’t function any more.”

Millennials are among those feeling the pressure. “By their 30s they get burnout after years of being expected to be passionate, innovative and never fail,” says Pang.

In SA, some executives need sabbaticals or breaks by their late 30s and early 40s to cope, says Debbie Goodman-Bhyat, the CEO of the executive search firm Jack Hammer.

Six months into the year, we’ve worked 12 months. A midyear break seemed like a luxury five years ago. Now it is a necessity or people can’t function any more
Dion Chang, Flux Trends founder

She says successful black women in particular have had to work harder all their lives to reach the top.

“They have basically been on a treadmill since university or before, needing to work that extra 25% or 40% harder than their peers to be noticed as a minority group.”

Chronic fatigue is increasingly the primary reason executives consider changing jobs, says Goodman-Bhyat. “The ongoing stress level which is part of their everyday life ultimately catches up with them.”

No wonder that The Restful Company, founded by Pang, who has a snoozing emoji on Skype, is booming. He is dedicated to helping people “harness the power of rest to shorten the workday”.

After writer and parent Mandy Collins was hit by burnout, physically, socially, emotionally and mentally, it took her two years to recover.

“I would throw 1,000% into everything I did. I worked too hard, parented too hard and didn’t leave any time for myself,” she says. 

"Our culture frowns upon proper rest. There is a lot of social media pressure to be perfect all the time, and not just for people in high-powered careers. I see a lot of people feeling the pressure to be Pinterest parents on top of everything else they do.”

Job insecurity is making it hard for people to manage unreasonable demands. Goodman-Bhyat says: “With cost-cutting and not hiring replacements, people have an extra load. But they feel if they don’t say ‘yes’ to extra work, they will be next [to be retrenched].

“If a company has the ethos of working late, and being seen to be in the office is considered a measure of achievement, people think they must still be there at 8pm.”

Mkhondo says that after a round of retrenchments at a company, one person is often left doing the work of two or three people.

“Work-life balance is something of the past. People are no longer working office hours, they are working all the time,” she says.

People who feel trapped, in jobs or in relationships, are particularly vulnerable to burnout.


Overwork is glamorised and busy-ness gets conflated with productiveness, says Chang, talking about the smartphone treadmill.

“In Silicon Valley, they have poached casino designers of slot machines to engineer apps. They want to keep you down that rabbit hole as long as possible,” he says.

People need to be aware of their limits and rediscover what is meaningful in their lives to prevent burnout, says Mkhondo.

“This could be their family, a hobby, in service of some kind, meditation and yoga, what gives them joy,” she says.

Susan*, a married management consultant with no kids, took two months of long-service leave after she suffered burnout. Now she does yoga again and practises mindfulness, and has learnt to say no.

“I can tell now when I’m heading towards zero and how to manage better to keep a positive balance. I’m not living in [energy] overdraft any more,” she says.

Klipin has three key tips for people to rebalance their lives: learn to say no, look for help, rest and reconnect to yourself every day.

“Even if you are in a job or environment you hate, you can do small things to change it. Take a proper lunch break if you can or put a pot plant on your desk,” she suggests.

Burnout is different from depression, says Klipin. “I believe that depression is the feeling of being tired of life, whereas burnout is a feeling of being tired from life.

“Take time to connect to yourself every day. If you have 15 to 20 minutes on the bus or in the car, don’t check your phone or turn on the radio,” she says.

“It is simple, but I’m not saying it is easy.”

*Not her real name


Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.