Coaching Clients Through Burnout

by Jennifer Day

My client Blake was devastated when he was let go from his job. With a pregnant wife and mounds of bills, it was his worst fear realised. Do you have a client like Blake? Even if you don’t, given the current economic climate worldwide I would wager you are likely to have to deal with one in the near future! Blake is one of hundreds of thousands of people struggling to survive in the current sink-or-swim corporate environment, almost inevitably burning out in the process – either being let go due to anxiety-ridden reduced performance or having a full-on mental breakdown.

A recent study found that people putting in more than 40 hours a week are six times more likely to suffer from burnout, an ever-increasing likelihood as more and more companies are demanding excessive additional hours from staff. After redundancy initiatives are carried out, the people who remain are left with oft-impossible workloads. What makes matters worse is that most employees are too afraid to object for fear they’ll be the next in the firing lines. Sadly, that’s exactly where they end up when, like Blake, they effectively stress themselves out of a job.

Best-selling author Dr. Joan Borysenko has been studying this phenomenon recently. "Burnout is a disorder of hope. It sucks the life out of competent, hardworking people. You lose motivation and vitality," says the psychologist, "So many of my clients have hit rock bottom, their spirit is gone, there’s no smile and no joy in their eyes." Sound familiar? Whether you have clients in full-blown burnout or they're just headed that way, you may need some real-time practical stress-coping strategies.

Unfortunately, once burnout has really begun the symptoms are very often confused with depression, resulting in anti-depressants and other prescription drugs that yield little or no result – because there is no medication that can cure burnout. The only cure for burnout is a change in lifestyle, which is, of course where coaching comes in.

We coaches are often the only people our clients dare to speak to about the stressors they experience, so we have opportunities to identify the early warning signs of the downward spiral that ends in burnout.

In order to identify the warning signs in your clients, you first need to pay attention to your clients’ beliefs about stress, because the road to burnout very often begins with the mistaken belief that stress is a necessary ingredient for success. Although initially some stress can increase productivity, it is never sustainable. In a persistent state of stress your clients will believe that they are being effective when in actuality they are becoming less and less effective.

Stress triggers parts of the brain to function in survival or defensive mode, causing the frontal lobe—responsible for creativity, problem solving and self-evaluation—to essentially shut down. The result is that anyone experiencing perpetual stress will lose the ability to see the big picture or to make objective assessments, and instead will start acting and reacting in habitual ways, emotionally reacting to events and people rather than objectively responding.

All of this, aside from making them very difficult to coach, places them in a wicked cycle; they’re working harder and harder but getting less and less quality work done! End result? Burnout. If your client is already on this downward spiral, the symptoms you may witness include disengagement and being less in touch with emotions, loss of motivation, despondency, anxiety, negativity and over-reaction.

Your client may also complain of insomnia (and a result, exhaustion), tension aches (neck, stomach, back, etc.) and feeling under-appreciated.

Whether you have identified that your client is at risk for burnout or not, you cannot go wrong helping them build their resilience to stress. Here are a few tips that can easily be integrated into any coaching methodology (for the most effective results, practice them yourself for a few weeks first!):

  1. Learn to recognize the difference between positive stress and negative stress. Eu-stress—positive stress—feels good, invigorating end energizing. Di-stress—negative stress—feels draining and is accompanied by worry, anxiety and tension. Set an alarm on your phone or watch to remind you to keep checking in with yourself every half-hour: How do you feel?
  2. When in di-stress, STOP what you’re doing! If you’re in a meeting, excuse yourself to go to the restroom for two minutes. Breathe slowly; extend the out breath and shift your internal state to a positive focus BEFORE you do or say anything else. Each time you shift your internal state, you teach your brain new ways to access your more creative, wise self in times of di-stress.
  3. For long-term relief, shift your lifestyle, attitude and priorities, beginning with simple steps such as massage, coaching sessions, making a gratitude list, deep breathing or a nature walk.

We are all designed to function at our best when we feel good (and this applies to coaches as well as clients). Running on overdrive and adrenalin may seem necessary, but at the end of the day it will only run us onto the ground, literally burning us out like overused, neglected engines. Conversely, when we feel good and are well taken care of, we function like well-oiled, super-charged engines—much more likely to reach our goals!


Jennifer Day teaches and coaches coaching practitioners, managers, executives, and parents to help themselves and others build resilience to stress and higher levels of emotional intelligence. She developed AEM – Applied Emotional Mastery®, a methodology for practical, ‘on the go’ emotional self-regulation.

2 thoughts on “Coaching Clients Through Burnout”

  1. Thank you for your comment. Yes – isn’t that ‘mistaken belief’ just prolific, everywhere? I find so, at least 🙂 I am delighted that you enjoyed the article.

  2. Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing valuable insights, examples and practical tools related to the process of burnout.
    What a golden nugget, “the road to burnout very often begins with the mistaken belief that stress is a necessary ingredient for success”!

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