Pierre*, a French national who was living in Dubai in 2014, hit the ground running when he first started working for a high-profile consulting company’s HR team.

“It was extremely intense. I was working incredibly long hours, and everything was very fluid — things would change all the time — but I was excited about the job,” he recalled.

That excitement would soon fade into feelings of constant stress and uncertainty that were normalised in the fast-paced environment. Still, he attempted to adapt and rise to the challenge, all while ignoring his growing anxiety and the pressure he was feeling.

“I worked there for four years and I remember thinking, ‘Well, this is life now and this is what it's supposed to be.’ There was a six-month period — looking back I call it the beginning of the end ­— where I’d have silent anxiety attacks that I failed to recognise. I didn’t realise the toll my job was taking on my mental health.”

Stress is a normal part of life. We’re built to handle some stress, some times. Something out of the ordinary triggers our body’s evolutionary fight, flight, or freeze response to mitigate both real or perceived threats.

But chronic stress is not normal and can lead to burnout.

According to Helena El-Haddad, a clinical psychologist at Openminds Psychiatry Counselling & Neuroscience Centre in Dubai, burnout refers to a state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion often accompanied by feelings of detachment from life and work.

“In the workplace, burnout is influenced by both individual and organisational factors,” explained Helena. “Excessive workload, unrealistic job expectations, prolonged periods of high-pressure, a lack of acknowledgement or appreciation, unclear job expectations, difficulty in balancing the demands of work with personal life, and a lack of support system among friends and colleagues can all contribute to it.”

Burnout can happen because of work-related factors, lifestyle factors ( lack of sleep, overcommitting yourself to social engagements/responsibilities), factors associated with personality (perfectionism, inability to ask for help while setting high expectations, hypersensitivity to changes and negative events), or a combination of all three.

Pierre recounted that there were multiple factors that led to his burnout. Though he had a strong support system outside of work, in retrospect, he realises that he wasn’t as vocal about his difficulties as should have been to get the support he needed at the time.

“At work, I didn’t feel like it was OK to ask for help. It felt like I would be admitting to my inability to fulfil my job’s requirements, and that I was incapable of performing in my role. In fact, when I finally mustered the courage to open up and ask for help with the stress I was experiencing, I confided in a manager who unfortunately was not very receptive. I was basically told, ‘You can’t bring your emotions into this environment. We are professionals. Man up.’

“So I never felt I had the right to push back because my perception was if I did, I wasn’t good enough. I put a lid on my feelings and experiences and pushed it down,” Pierre said.

“About a month later though, in early 2019, I froze. I didn’t know what was going on that day, but I knew I just couldn’t go on as if nothing was wrong. I had one-on-one conversations with a few trusted colleagues. I was crying and shaking. I just couldn’t go on.”

Once it was clear to his employer that Pierre was experiencing severe burnout, the company did react positively to ensure that he got the help needed to recover. They granted him a year-long leave of absence to take care of his mental health.

“The company played a role in my descent, yes, but were very supportive as soon as the events happened,” he said.

The road to recovery was long — from finding the right therapist to dealing with suicidal ideation as a result of his burnout, to learning how to advocate for his needs. When the year was over, Pierre quit that job as he realised it wasn’t a place where he could thrive.

“There was a lot of burnout among employees at that place, but no one talked about it. It was a different time. In 2012, when I first came to Dubai, no one was talking about mental health publicly. Over the years, there have been strides to bring mental health to the forefront, but it was too late for me.”

Pierre left Dubai in 2022 as a result of a career change. Now, the 34-year-old works in Europe and the Caribbean in the marine industry. He reminisces fondly of his time here and would love to move back someday.

“I’ve learned that reaching out and asking for help is fundamental to prevent burnout or to get on the road to recovery. Most people will be supportive – granted not everyone – but you’re likelier to find support by asking than if you stay silent.

“Also, be kind to yourself and listen to what your body and mind are telling you. Slow down. Don’t ignore the signs of burnout because it’s a long process to recover. Pressing the gas pedal doesn't help when you're driving into a wall.”

A recent study by Cigna Healthcare survey in the region shows that though 90 per cent of UAE respondents feel stressed, with almost all experiencing at least one burnout symptom, there is a reported decrease in work-related stress. Initiatives linked to employers offering mental health support have been successful in addressing the high burnout rates caused solely by work. The study highlights that factors contributing to stress are linked instead to finances and the increasing cost of living.

Helena El-Haddad lists the three key components of burnout to watch out for:

Mental/Physical Fatigue or Emotional Exhaustion: This core element of burnout includes feelings of being emotionally drained, and inability to cope with the demands. It is chracterised by extreme tiredness and lack of interest in things you usually enjoy.

Depersonalisation or Cynicism: This involves developing negative attitudes toward your community (i.e. work, family, friends, etc.). It is chracterised by mental distancing and detachment; feeling like your thoughts and feelings don’t belong to you or aren’t real.

Reduced Personal Efficacy/Accomplishment: Individuals experiencing burnout may feel a diminished sense of personal achievement and competence in their personal and professional life. They may feel “stuck” or unable to perform tasks to the expected degree.

“Recovering from burnout is a gradual process that involves making positive changes to various aspects of your life,” Helena explains. “Some steps to promote recovery include: recognition of burnout, self-care and establishing boundaries, re-evaluating priorities, and/or establishing or reaching out to your support system.

“Seeking professional help for burnout is necessary when the impact on your wellbeing and daily functioning becomes significant and undeniable, but it can also be a proactive step. You don’t have to wait until it’s too late to seek professional help, as we can provide support, coping strategies, and guidance tailored to an individual’s specific situation to prevent burnout in the first place.”

*Name has been changed to protect the identity.

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