Commentary: How to Avoid a Slow Burnout


Commentary: How to Avoid a Slow Burnout

Realising that we're only human

By Sue-Anne Wu | 1 February 2021

You’re tired. Wait, tired doesn’t even begin to properly describe it. It’s a bone-numbing exhaustion when you think about work or family. It’s a never-ending feeling of sian1 – when you receive a work email or notification from your child’s school. You have an increasing sense of futility – nothing you do is going to make a difference: at work or at home. You’re in a state of vital exhaustion.

If this sounds like you, there is a chance you could be burnt-out or on the brink of burnout.2

What is burnout?

There are three main elements of burnout: feelings of exhaustion, mental detachment and poorer performance. Initially a work-related phenomenon, many today are recognising other areas of burnout, particularly parental burnout.

Psychologist Moira Mikolajczak describes parental burnout as, “an exhaustion syndrome when a parent has been exposed to too much stress in their parenting role for too long, in the absence of sufficient resources to compensate for the effect of stress”.

For some COVID-19 has provided a slower pace of life and more time with family. But in Singapore’s unrelenting work culture, working from home for many has increased stress with it becoming harder to draw boundaries between home and work. Parenting in a pandemic has also pushed many families into survival mode. It should not surprise us that research shows that workers in Singapore faced increased incidences of burnout during this period. 3

With the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic unabating and the non-stop work culture in Singapore, is burnout, then, a given?

Ignoring our humanity leads to burnout

Sibhon Murray, psychotherapist and author of The Burnout Solution, identifies the cultural normative of having it all as a key driver of the burnout pandemic. We want to close a big deal, say yes to all social engagements, volunteer regularly, meet your fitness goals and raise intelligent, well-behaved children all at the same time. More often than not, this is simply not humanly possible.

To be human is to be limited. We are limited by time, our need to eat and sleep. We are limited in our attention.

We get burnt-out when we refuse to accept that we are limited, finite beings. We try to do more, be more, wearing our busyness (at work and/or as a parent) as a badge of honour. Some level of stress is motivating and can help us better achieve our goals, but when stress becomes overwhelming, we ignore the warning signs, telling ourselves – “but everyone is doing the same”.

Today’s technology and culture has lulled us into a false sense of belief that we can ignore our limitations. Local artist Andrew Tan, in his dystopian comic Singapore 2050, depicts it well. He envisions a world where technology allows parents to be “present” with their family via a “hologram” (a live person in 3D) while physically working in another country. But the story ends with the mother weeping when her child cannot tell the difference between the “hologram” and her actual mother. We are limited and we can’t have it all.

Embracing our limitations

As we begin to embrace our limitations and accept that we cannot have it all, we can then take steps to elude burnout.

Life is inherently wearying. But we can choose what we want to be wearied by, in other words, we can prioritise. Priorities will look different for different families in different seasons.

Some parents I know choose to take time off work during their children’s PSLE year. Or you could be putting in extra hours at work to finish a big project well – but that may mean fewer social engagements with friends.

Do we take time to rest and play? As author Brené Brown puts it, “One of the things I have found was the importance of rest and play, and the willingness to let go for exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.”

We need to make sure we get sufficient sleep. Deprived of sleep, our bodies will begin to break down. It makes good sense to try to keep to a reasonable bedtime.

Another practical thing we can do is to schedule in free time – the same way that we would pencil in and keep to an important meeting. Blank spaces in our calendars can get filled with other social engagements and work commitments. Regularly make time for yourself to – do something new or something you enjoy or just to nap. Put in your calendar.

The suggestions sound simple enough but choosing to live within our limitations is harder than it seems. There may be constant self-doubt and inner comparisons – we should be, could be more accomplished and more productive.

“I could do more if I slept 1 hour less.”

“I may not get promoted if I work less than my other colleague.”

Our inner mindset will take time to shift, but if it helps us keep our zest for life, passion for our jobs, and find continued meaning – then maybe it is worthwhile to make those hard adjustments and just maybe we can keep burnout at bay.


  1. Singlish for bothersome or tiresome.
  2. You may wish to try the Maslach Burnout Inventory for better awareness on your current mental state.
  3. Retrieved from More than one third of remote and firstline workers in Singapore are facing increased burnout at work (29 Sep, 2020)

© 2021 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.


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