Skip to main content



Back pain, palpitations, disturbed sleep, feeling chained to your desk? You’re burned out

As a derivatives trader at an international investment bank in Hong Kong, Neelam Harjani accepted high levels of stress as part of the job. But in her late 20s, Harjani’s health began to suffer and she spiralled towards burnout.

Back pain, palpitations, disturbed sleep, feeling chained to your desk? You’re burned out

HONG KONG — As a derivatives trader at an international investment bank in Hong Kong, Ms Neelam Harjani accepted high levels of stress as part of the job. But in her late 20s, Ms Harjani’s health began to suffer and she spiralled towards burnout.

“I could no longer suppress the stress. I suffered from chronic back pain, heart palpitations when it got really busy at work, and even after sleeping for 10 hours I would wake up feeling exhausted. The burnout eventually sapped my zest for the job. I felt shackled by my role,” she says.

Finding calm and restoration in yoga, Ms Harjani left the corporate world in 2010 to found Inspire Yoga – and lead personalised yoga classes, wellness workshops and retreats.

Workplace burnout has become such a serious health issue that, earlier this year, the World Health Organisation declared it an occupational syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

Women are disproportionately affected. In a study published last year, Montreal University researchers followed 2,026 people in the workplace – half of whom were women – for four years. They discovered women are more likely to experience burnout because they are less likely to be given positions of power, which can cause overwhelming frustration. Other contributing factors include low self-esteem, difficulties juggling work and family life, and work encroaching on time spent with loved ones.

These factors match Dr Benita Perch’s clinical observations. A naturopathic doctor at Integrated Medicine Institute, a natural and integrated medicine clinic in Hong Kong’s Central business district, and co-founder of IMI Corporate Wellness, she leads a “Superwoman Syndrome” workshop for professional women.

Sixty per cent of her patients – men and women – suffer from burnout.

“Many of the women I see feel they have to do their job well, look after the kids, exercise, eat and sleep well in order to be ‘good enough’. They strive to be superwomen at all times. Society places a lot of pressure on women, but most of my clients have also placed an inordinate amount of stress on themselves. Despite their capabilities and achievements, they are self-doubting,” Dr Perch says.

The dual pressures of work and home life can take a toll, she observes. “There’s far less respect for balance in Hong Kong than in some other parts of the world. You don’t have an evening or a weekend to rest. When women can’t live up to these unrealistic expectations, they feel they’ve failed at work, and for working mothers, there’s ‘mummy guilt’ too.”

Long working hours, high living costs, little annual leave and short maternity leave, and a lack of paternity leave can take a toll on both women and men, Dr Perch notes.

“As women are more likely to talk about their challenges and seek help, burnout can be perceived as a predominantly female challenge. But we also see evidence of the ‘Superman Syndrome’ – men who are carrying significant pressure with little time for self-care, and suffering from serious health challenges.”

Ms Harjani says at least 70 per cent of her yoga clients are men, which doesn’t surprise her.

“Women have a greater inclination to use communication as a catharsis, which allows the problem to be more transparent. Men can see communication as a sign of weakness. But their lifestyles are mostly sedentary. Many are constantly travelling for work; and they have time and financial pressures – how would their bodies be immune to the stress they are subjected to on a daily basis?”

Integrated Medicine Institute’s senior naturopath, Dr Graeme Bradshaw, runs IMI’s Superman Syndrome workshops. In his clinic, men come to see him typically when they’re struggling to perform, and they’re concerned their job is under threat.

“A contributing factor is the challenges of balancing work and life. They’re in their late 30s or early 40s at a time when they’re at the peak of their career. They have greater responsibility at work coinciding with greater responsibility at home as children arrive on the family scene.”

Towards the end of their career, men may also experience burnout because, unlike women, who tend to be more social, they haven’t developed a community. Speaking from personal experience – he runs three companies and has family in different parts of the world – Dr Bradshaw recommends men find a group outside work, be it a club membership, sports activity or a hobby.

“I’m a part of a men’s group. Most of our conversations are about relationships at work and at home. It’s relieving for all of us to be there.”

He advises professionals, men and women, to acknowledge that what they are experiencing is a symptom of their lifestyle. “See a health care practitioner, but not someone who will simply give you an antidepressant. It’s important to … look at all the different factors that are impacting your health.”

Often the first warning sign is a loss of sleep. When measuring clients’ stress hormones, Dr Bradshaw has found that people on the verge of burnout have flattened cortisol levels in the daytime and raised levels at night – making it hard for them to fall or stay asleep.

“When you’re getting less than seven-and-a-half hours of quality sleep at night, you can go downhill fairly quickly. There are some great tools to track your deep sleep – the Oura ring being one of them. Once you measure the problem, you can learn how to achieve higher levels every night,” says Dr Bradshaw.

During the day, he recommends mini restorative breaks that include a mindfulness practice, breathing techniques, visualisation or progressive muscle relaxation.

Aim for four hours of exercise weekly. “Exercise in the morning when you’re in the active rhythm, and not after work or at night because you’ll be activated at a time when you’re supposed to be going into relaxation,” says Bradshaw.

Yoga became Ms Harjani’s antidote to stress. “My sedentary lifestyle meant that my body was stiff and lacked movement all day while my mind was hyper stimulated, racing and analytical. The meditation practice gave me space to switch off from the chatter and restore calm, and the yoga sequences combated the tension and charged my body,” she says.

“Many of our clients have experienced relief from chronic tension, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), restless sleep, hypertension and fatigue.”

A healthy diet can also reduce inflammation in the body that is aggravating stress and anxiety. Perch recommends reducing sugar and refined whites, adding protein to every meal, drinking more water, consuming seven portions of vegetables and two of fruit a day, and taking multivitamins. She says professionals can aim to prioritise two to three lifestyle changes.

The onus doesn’t just lie with employees to achieve wellness at work, she adds.

“There seems to be a badge of honour for how long professionals work and how little they sleep. Employers can help to change this by ensuring the workload is not too burdensome.

“An on-site gym would help to promote physical fitness and an hour for lunch would mean employees can fit fitness into their day. Providing higher quality food in the canteen can help employees eat healthier. Insurance policies can cover psychology services to support mental health, and businesses can encourage team mindfulness and meditation.” SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST

Related topics

wellness Yoga stress health burnout

Read more of the latest in




Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.