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Suffering burnout at work? Understand why it happens and take steps to prevent it

SINGAPORE — Miss Wee Sihui is only 22, but the former retail assistant, who started working full-time early this year, is suffering burnout from work and its accompanying symptoms of feeling constant exhaustion, negativity, dread and pessimism.

Suffering burnout at work? Understand why it happens and take steps to prevent it
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SINGAPORE — Miss Wee Sihui is only 22, but the former retail assistant, who started working full-time early this year, is suffering burnout from work and its accompanying symptoms of feeling constant exhaustion, negativity, dread and pessimism.

She used to work in a popular confectionery store and when there was a manpower crunch, she spent around 13 hours on her feet from 9.30am to around 10.30pm daily, juggling responsibilities meant for at least two employees.

But it wasn’t just the physically punishing work routine that made her quit her job. The mental stress, fuelled by a lack of support at work, led to anxiety attacks.

“I sometimes felt like I could not breathe. I had trouble handling the stress of multi-tasking tasks while looking after the store alone,” she said.

“I didn’t tell my managers as I didn’t want to seem like a ‘complain queen’. I also didn’t want to disappoint people around me by appearing like I could not cope.” 

The final straw came when Ms Wee came down with a bad case of flu in June.

“When I asked to take medical leave, my manager replied that she would still go to work even when she is sick. Although she is usually nice to me, what she said made me feel really guilty and useless,” Miss Wee said.

She quit her job recently to take a breather.

Miss Wee’s experience is not uncommon among Singaporeans suffering work burnout, an occupational phenomenon that was recently recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO) in its 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases.

It defines burnout — first coined in the 1970s by an American psychologist — as a syndrome that results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

Experts said that people in high-intensity, detailed-focused industries such as investment banking, law and healthcare, as well as those whose jobs require frequent travel and working across time zones, tend to be prone to burnout.

However, it can occur in all types of jobs, as seen in Miss Wee’s case.


Early last year, health services company Cigna released its survey finding which showed that Singaporeans are among the most stressed at work globally, with one in eight considering their stress levels unmanageable.

In another new study on workplace inclusivity published this week by data consulting firm Kantar, 44 per cent of Singapore respondents said that they were affected by “stress and anxiety” at work, compared to the global average of 39 per cent. 

A separate study by keyless security company Kisi revealed that Singapore is the second-most overworked city in the world after Tokyo. About a quarter (23 per cent) employees surveyed here clocked more than 48 hours in a work week.

Mr Bobby Sheikh, Asia-Pacific business unit head of Johnson & Johnson’s Human Performance Institute, a training academy for professionals, said that employees across the world face similar work and burnout issues.

This is mainly due to a faster pace of life, increased use of technology and globalisation of businesses.

However, in Asia, there appears to be a culture of working late and for longer hours, which could contribute to greater work stress, he added.


Ms Crystal Lim-Lange, co-author of the self-improvement book, Deep Human: Practical Superskills for a Future of Success, told TODAY: “Singaporeans spend a lot of time at work but the output does not necessarily match up. A lot of it is face time.”

Her husband Gregor Lim-Lange, a clinical psychologist who also co-authored the book, pointed out that people also like to keep up the appearance of being busy, and that kind of pressure can be stressful.

And when bosses themselves model the behaviour of being “always on”, employees can find it hard to carve out time and space for themselves to rest and relax, which is essential for mental well-being, Ms Lim-Lange said.

Dr Gregor Lim-Lange said: “For example, sending messages over the weekend, on holidays, at night and then expecting a reply at 10pm —that’s setting up the culture of burnout.”


The underlying causes of burnout are often more complicated than just a toxic workplace. The root of the problem, the authors believe, is the lack of social-emotional soft skills.

In their book launched last month, they identified five essential social-emotional skills — or “deep human” skills — that people need to adapt and prevent burnout in a future of rapid change and artificial intelligence disrupting the job market.

These skills are also what people need to remain relevant in a hypercompetitive workforce.

These five skills are: Focus and mindfulness, self-awareness, empathy, complex communication and adaptive resilience.

In their book, the authors recommend strategies to develop and practise these five skills.

For example, mindfulness refers to actively noticing the present moment one is in, whether one is at a meeting or drinking coffee or walking.

It helps to improve focus and well-being, and build resilience, among other benefits, the authors said.

Ms Lim-Lange, who used to be the director of the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Future-ready Graduates, observed that not only are Singapore’s millennials suffering from burnout at an unprecedented rate, they are also finding it hard to get hired for jobs they want in the market today.

As a result, they may end up with jobs they do not want or opt for “safe” jobs, which leave them feeling unfulfilled.

“Singapore youth are book-smart but when it comes to dealing with the volatility and uncertainty of the world without a template, they struggle,” she said.

They may feel stressed, have anxiety and have trouble adapting to changes, which lead to a higher risk of burnout. And this is because they don’t have the important social-emotional skills to cope with all the uncertainty in the real world.

Having taught thousands of students, she believes that this is due to conditioning from young. Singapore students are over-taught and over-structured, she said.

“Very little space is left for unstructured play,” she said, adding that anxiety hits when they have to take risks and adapt to change.

“(The deep human) skills are essential and the younger we start developing them, the better,” Dr Gregor Lim-Lange said.


While there is still a long way to go in improving corporate well-being for working adults, Mr Sheikh from the Human Performance Institute said that companies and institutions in Singapore are now more aware of employee burnout and stress, and are taking steps to prevent them.

“Since the Human Performance Institute started in Singapore about a year ago, we are seeing a monthly increase in enrolment for our courses. We started out training people in the hundreds last year; our participants are now in the thousands,” he said.

Developed by an exercise physiologist and a clinical psychologist, the institute’s programme uses a four-tier approach that looks at an individual’s emotional, mental, physical and spiritual aspects to develop methods that tackle stress and boost performance. 

Course participants come from various sectors, including the financial, technology, healthcare and consulting industries.

Mr Kevin Wo, managing director of Microsoft Singapore, is one of them.

Recognising the importance of personal well-being for work performance, he invited 20 members from his extended leadership team for a one-day performance course in April after attending the course himself last year. 

The team then extended what they learnt by meeting bi-weekly for a physical workout and identifying a leadership buddy to help coach the team on enhancing emotional and mental well-being.

“I firmly believe that all of us do our best work when we can be our best selves,” he said.

As technology, businesses and workplaces evolve, Mr Sheikh believes that having the right skills to adapt and make conscious choices to avoid work burnout is the way forward for employees across all industries.

“To say that I’m not going to check my work emails at home is no longer realistic, given the way technology works now,” he said.

“The (traditional) concept of work-life balance no longer exists; it’s now all about work-life integration, figure out what you want to do, lead yourself and find ways that will keep yourself healthy,” he said.

Related topics

stress anxiety workplace Technology soft skills millennials

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