Mental Fatigue & Burnout - Fisher Leadership

Mental Fatigue & Burnout

By Dawn O’Neil AM, Breathing Space Ambassador

Our world is changing fast. Our work rhythms are disrupted. Our workplaces are being redefined. Our work is requiring us to think more creatively. Is this a bad thing?

At CogNative, we believe #mentalhealth #leadership is critical to ensure we don’t move from the coronavirus pandemic into another health epidemic as a result of mental fatigue and burnout. As a result of working with leaders at the cross-roads of change for two decades in our Fisher Leadership Executive Search business, we have designed Breathing Space, a proactive mental health and wellbeing program for executive and C-Suite leaders.

Are we feeling too zoomed out to be able to zoom in?

We know that maintaining high performance under high pressure is a delicate balance. Most leaders today are juggling stresses such as managing impacts of a global health crisis, economic uncertainty, business instability, overwhelming durations of screen-time and home-schooling, pandemic restrictions, media overload, and more. These combined can accelerate the pathway to mental fatigue and burnout if leaders don’t have well-honed mental health habits to rely on. A substantial study undertaken by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Studies in July 2020 shows that the average working day during lockdown has increased by 48.5 minutes resulting from time spent commuting. Add to this we now have less time conversing with colleagues or taking lunch-breaks and much more time in front of a screen where we have to perform and be highly engaged often without a break between meetings.

Data from the three million workers surveyed also showed the number of meetings attended by workers increased, on average, by 12.9% during lockdown – with the average number of attendees per meeting increasing by 13.5%.

Does this extra work time mean we are more productive? Some are ‘reframing’ this as a win for productivity gain. But is this high pressure, additional work load sustainable and will it deliver increased productivity in the long run?

From the decades I have spent working in mental health as CEO of Beyond Blue and Lifeline, I would strongly suggest that the downside risk of this ‘extra’ work time, additional stresses and work intensity  increases risk for our psychological health and safety. Unless we develop new healthy work habits as ‘a new normal’, commensurate with these additional work loads, our performance and productivity will decline.

How are we travelling, really?

I recently conducted a poll with a group of over 400? executives that found that over 54% of attendees said they were mentally fatigued. This has been confirmed by a number of other studies and self-reports of the impact of working through this pandemic.

A recent Bupa Global study showed that nearly a third of board-level executives will continue to work mostly from home, some even working permanently from their holiday homes. Many plan to cut down on work-related travel, both for personal and environmental reasons. Avoiding the commute saves time and money, two crucial resources that can be channelled to improve the quality of employees’ personal lives. Commuting — especially by car in dense communities — exposes employees to air pollution and raises their risk of respiratory or cardiovascular problems and of contributes to climate change. In theory, working from home should let employees breathe easier, both physically and psychologically.

We know that the daily commute serves a valuable function that is often overlooked. It gives employees time to transition between work and non-work roles, which is especially important for people in difficult service and professional jobs.

The loss of a 30-minute commute can blur boundaries and increase stress spillover between work and non-work. When we lose the defined “buffer zone” of a commute, too often the “saved time” is gobbled up by more work. Long work hours are associated with more stress, lower-quality sleep and other health issues such as higher blood pressure.

Combine this with the other pressures imposed by this pandemic and the ongoing nature of these impacts and this risk increases including the risk of burnout.

Working from home therefore needs to incorporate transitional periods that substitute for a commute. This might be as simple as a walk around the block before sitting down at the desk, or doing a meditation practice before cooking dinner.

It is essential for all of us that we embed new healthy daily habits that protect our physical and mental health and safety. If we don’t I predict we will see an increase in burnout and other psychological harm.

How do we recognise mental fatigue or other psychological risks such as burnout?

What you may or may not know is that mental fatigue is often the first stage of burnout.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) last year included burnout in the 11th revision of the globally recognised International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). WHO classifies burnout as “an occupational phenomenon” and– “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Its important to remember that stress in and of itself is a normal part of life. Humans are wired for stress and our response to stress can be protective if we are in danger. The problem with chronic or ongoing stress, however, is that it can damage our health and mental health.  Continuous, day in day out stress that doesn’t abate, as many have experienced during COVID-19 undoubtedly puts people at risk of burnout. Under these pressures we must maintain healthy protective habits and ensure we are accountable to maintain these both for ourselves and for our teams.

This is not an option – it is our duty as leaders to protect the health and psychological safety of our workforce. And as always, this starts with modelling good behaviour ourselves.

We know that pre-COVID-19, 20% of Australians experienced a mental illness at some stage in their lives. Sadly, during this pandemic, we anticipate around 30% of our workforce will experience higher levels of anxiety and or depression and for some this will have very serious consequences. When it comes to burnout, we need to take this seriously – it is a result of chronic workplace stress, and is preventable. More than ever before we need to increase our awareness, our alertness and build in good behaviours and work practices as a kind of ‘social sixth sense’ for mental wellbeing in ourselves and in others.

Mental health can be thought of as happening on a sliding scale – from health on one end, to illness on the other. We are all susceptible to the impact of stress and I hope this advice will help you watch out for signs in your colleagues, family and friends and to know what to do to support them back towards full health.


The three key elements of burnout as defined by the World Health Organisation are:

  1. Mental fatigue and exhaustion
  2. Behaviour change – Irritability, withdrawal, conflict
  3. Reduced professional capability

Burnout Phase One: Exhaustion – Mental fatigue

  • Feeling constantly tired, low energy, depleted
  • Erratic sleep or eating habits
  • Withdrawing from what you love doing
  • Neglecting own health and hobbies or things you love
  • Finding that in spite of feeling exhausted you are pushing through and working harder and harder
  • Neglecting social activities, friends etc.


  • Take time off.
  • Arrange to be clear of your responsibilities and truly rest.
  • Make it a fully self-pampering day – with no guilt. Sleep in; have brunch; do something physically and mentally restful such as exercise, something creative, a healthy long walk – preferably away from any screens or what has contributed to your stress.
  • Do something purely for pleasure and make sure you rest during the day or have an afternoon nap.
  • Make sure at some stage during this day you do deep breathing for 20 minutes.

In smaller bites – EVERY day during a workday – give yourself 15 minutes to rest your mind, your eyes and your body and do deep breathing. You can even do this as three x five-minute breathing sessions throughout the day. These micro-habits will have macro effects.


Burnout Phase Two: Isolation & Irritability

  • Feeling negative or cynical in relation to your job, life, family, friends
  • Neglecting your own needs – working harder / unable to switch off
  • Feeling overwhelmed and finding yourself withdrawing to try to cope
  • Increased conflict with those around you
  • You may start to feel threatened or other out of character behaviour changes

If you are already at this stage – the actions are more serious. You need to implement the above REST into your life, but more of it. One day won’t be enough – you need to take a longer period of time off and to more deeply recover your energy and get your thinking patterns right.

  • Ensure regular exercise, as this is essential for wellbeing. Find whatever activity works for you and do it daily.
  • Be brave and ask those closest to you if they have noticed a change in your behaviour. If they say yes, ask them to help you by supporting you to get some serious REST.
  • Get professional help either through your company EAP service or other professional therapeutic support – whatever you are most comfortable with but don’t ‘go it alone’ get professional help.
  • If you find yourself at this stage, it is essential to change thinking patterns and behaviours right now and not to avoid getting professional help (just as you would if diagnosed with a physical illness).
  • There are some great online resources and tele-health service providers for those who prefer anonymity. Go to for some good options Medicare is available for many psychological services – ask your GP for referrals.

Burnout Phase Three: Reduced Professional Capability

  • Feeling on edge – cranky with what might normally be a reasonable request; simple daily tasks seem insurmountable; losing your cool with co-workers or family and friends more easily
  • Unable to concentrate, your mind escapes to anywhere else to get a break
  • Maladaptive coping mechanisms such as increased alcohol use or other drugs
  • At the end of the day feeling like you need a drink or other drug just to numb the pain and relax
  • Your immune system is lowered and you are more susceptible to colds or other infections

At this stage you are on the verge of developing a mental illness such as anxiety and / or depression. If you are here already – you MUST get help immediately. The above applies but with a greater sense of urgency.  Support is available:

Lifeline 13 11 14

Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

Healthdirect 1800 022 222

MensLine Australia  1300 78 99 78

The key to good mental health: Awareness, behavioural change, leadership

In summary, the key to avoiding mental fatigue and burnout is to deliberately foster an awareness of the progressive phases at play. Leaders particularly need to model good protective habits and behaviours, read the signs in themselves and watch for changes in their team members. It is imperative to put in place good habits and have good boundaries in our workplace relationships to maintain a high level of physical and mental health. Finally, mental health leadership is crucial to breaking down stigma, modelling great practices and ensuring our decision-makers are mentally fit for the enormous responsibility they carry.

Leaders need to respect role boundaries. This involves clarifying when they and their employees need to be available and establishing clear policies about email and phone access outside business hours.

At CogNative I partner with the team as an advisor on the Breathing Space leadership mental health program. We use a blend of lifestyle assessments, psychosocial data and one-on-one reflections to allow leaders to really see themselves through a data-driven wellbeing lens and raise the awareness for change. We support this with learning labs and identification of new strategies so that participants can build fresh habits and behaviours to support them being their best selves. We put structure in place to enable leadership on mental health.

  • How confident are you to talk about your own mental health as a leader?
  • How equipped is the team to identify and support each other in mental health?
  • And how proud is the organisation to report on its mental health and wellbeing statistics and grow a reputation for workplace wellbeing?

We would be delighted to walk you through solutions to ensure you can answer these questions with ease.

Contact us: 1300 347 437 or +61 3 9016 6000 /

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