Infographic that lists symptoms of burnout in healthcare staff and ways to combat burnout

Burnout in Healthcare Workers: What, Why, and How To Deal With It

Being a healthcare worker during the COVID-19 pandemic can be stressful and demanding. It is important to notice the signs of burnout and take effective steps to manage your stress.

by Grace Koh

The past years of COVID-19 has been a heavy load on healthcare workers serving our nation. Having to deal with COVID-19-related matters and changes, and managing the daily caseload from other types of illnesses and diseases, inevitably puts a strain on healthcare and community care staff, like you. In 2021, the resignation rates of nurses saw a five-year high, with 7.4% of local nurses and 14.8% of foreign nurses leaving their jobs. Today, our healthcare system continues to grapple with our community’s growing healthcare needs and the bed crunch in hospitals, all of which may lead to burnout amongst healthcare staff.

On top of normalising conversations around burnout, how can we take concrete steps to manage burnout and attrition in healthcare?

What is burnout?

Burnout refers to emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. The causes of stress are usually from work, but can sometimes be from the demands of relationships, caregiving, or parenting duties. Burnout can be caused by: 

  • Not having autonomy in your work and feeling unable to control how a job is carried out
  • Being asked to do tasks which are opposed to your ethics, beliefs, and personal sense of self
  • Not feeling supported by your team and leaders at work
  • Working towards a goal which does not resonate with you 

All these could accumulate into long-term stresses, causing burnout to eventually set in. 

Symptoms of burnout

Here are some symptoms of burnout to watch out for: 

  • Physical and mental exhaustion
  • Lowered immunity, which can translate into falling sick more often 
  • Frequent headaches, back pain, or muscle aches
  • Change in appetite or sleep habits
  • Feeling impending dread about work
  • Cynicism, anger and irritability 
  • Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated
  • Feeling like one is all alone
  • Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
  • Feeling overwhelmed

On top of the symptoms listed above, you may notice that you resonate with the following experiences in your work:

  • Have a lowered sense of compassion toward your patients and co-workers
  • Feel less effective and productive at work

Stress and burnout can often seem similar, but are actually different. Here are some ways to tell the difference between these two:

Characterized by over-engagementCharacterized by disengagement.
Over-reactive emotionsBlunted emotions
Usually hyperactive, sense of urgencyUsually more slow, helpless and hopeless feelings
Lack of energyLoss of motivation, ideals, hope
Mostly physical effects on the individualMostly emotional effects on the individual

Effects of burnout on your work and health

Burnout can cause individuals to be less productive at work. For healthcare workers, this could mean less engagement with the patient and less empathy. This all translates into less capacity to serve the patients you work with. A common type of burnout experienced by healthcare workers, compassion fatigue, is a condition in which someone becomes indifferent to the suffering of others, is less able to empathise with them, and becomes despondent about their ability to help others. 

Unfortunately, burnout does not go away by itself or with time. If burnout is left unaddressed, it could develop into depression or cause further physical and mental health issues. Moreover, burnout could cause someone to lose the ability and energy to work, affecting your job security and ability to fulfill your tasks.

With 24% of healthcare workers experiencing burnout according to this study, burnout among healthcare workers is a real issue. 

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Tips on preventing burnout

The best way to not experience burnout is to try your best to manage your well-being before it becomes full-blown burnout. Some general suggestions to cope with burnout and reverse it are:

1. Exercise regularly

It is common knowledge that exercise does wonders for our physical health, but did you know that exercising releases endorphins which can give a mood boost? The benefits of exercise can come from a simple walk, or a short home workout, or even a 15-minute long stretching session before you head to bed. That means that the benefits of being physically active does not need to be from heart-thumping exercise and from spending hours in the gym. 

2. Eat well

Eating a well-balanced diet is crucial to both your physical and mental health. After all, recent studies on the gut-brain connection suggests that what you eat can affect your mood. On top of opting for fresh vegetables and fruits, lean meats and fish, as well as a healthy amount of grains in our meals, you can also incorporate foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids as a natural antidepressant. Some common omega-3 rich foods are flaxseed oil, walnuts, and fish. 

3. Sleep well

Healthy sleep habits help to give the body the rest it needs to function for the next day. Sleeping enough is also important to keep spirits up — ever noticed how grouchy you could feel could be if you did not get enough sleep? Some good sleep hygiene practices are to maintain a consistent sleep and wake time, avoiding caffeine about eight hours before your bedtime, and establishing a calming bedtime ritual, like reading a book instead of using your phone, or listening to some music or a podcast. 

4. Cultivate self-reflection

Being able to reflect on how life is, and getting in touch with feelings, is part and parcel of having a strong sense of self-awareness. This is helpful in allowing you to identify potential signs of burnout in yourself before it worsens. Keeping a journal, reviewing goals and expectations, and having some quiet time are ways to encourage self-reflection. 

5. Have breaks with loved ones and hobbies

Friends and family could help to create a support system when someone is on the road to burnout. Carving out time for a hobby, such as growing plants or doing a sport, can help to take someone’s mind off work and encourage them to care for themselves. 

6. Ask for help

Oftentimes, people who may be facing burnout are scared to ask for help from others. It is important to reach out and ask for help when needed so that one does not spiral down further to burnout eventually. If comfortable, close friends and family members can act as support or listening ears to help. Otherwise, counselling or therapy could be an avenue to get emotional and mental needs met. 

Affordable therapy for healthcare workers

Besides speaking with friends and relatives, one can seek help from mental well-being services and counselling services around the island. Counselling can be helpful to explore a safe space to seek help and a listening ear from someone who is trained to do so, and can aid those who are facing burnout. Below are some options for healthcare workers, ranked by affordability:

Name of centrePricesDescription
Within public healthcare organisationsFreeSome of the local hospitals offer free mental health support and counselling services for their employees.

Take for example, in the National University Healthcare System (NUHS), healthcare workers can have access to art therapy, music therapy, mindfulness sessions, as well as counselling services.

Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH)FreeIndividuals seeking counselling can call the helpline to arrange for an appointment, or just to speak with someone about their problems. When necessary, clients may be referred to a psychiatrist or relevant agencies in the community.

Fees are by donation only.

Operating hours from 9am – 6pm on weekdays (except public holidays)

AWAREFreeThe AWARE Women’s Helpline is run by women, for women. Trained volunteers and staff will be able to provide you with assistance about various concerns, offering empathy, support, information and encouragement. You can also engage counselling help through this helpline.

For counselling services, prices are as below:
- 2% of your salary per session (if your monthly income >$3,000/month)
- $35 per session (if your monthly
income <$3,000/ month or unemployed) Operating hours are from 10am – 6pm on weekdays.

Fei Yue eCounselling CentreFreeeC2 is an e-Counselling Centre where you can talk to a trained counsellor. Simply go to the website and start a chat with a counsellor.

Operating hours are from 10am – 12pm and 2pm – 5pm on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

Counselling and Care Centre*Subsidised rate:
$40 – $150/hour

Full rate: $180/hour

Counselling and Care Centre is a non-government, non-profit, registered charity offering professional counselling services. They offer individual psychotherapy sessions.

*For Singaporean/PR earning <$10,000 monthly

Calvary Community Care (C3)$50/session

Subsidised sessions are $25 or $5 for those who need financial assistance

C3 provides counselling services to youths between 12 to 25 years of age.
WINGS Counselling Centre$80 for the first session, $60 for follow-up sessionsA community project of Ramakrishna Mission, WINGS Counselling Centre offers assistance to individuals and adults who may be experiencing a variety of personal issues such as work stress, relationship difficulties, transitional challenges, or family and personal dilemmas.
Reach Community Services$80 – $120/hour based on means testing on per household incomeReach Community Services is a professional social service agency commissioned by the Ministry of Social and Family Development to serve families and individuals residing in the Bishan, Sin Ming, Shunfu and Thomson Community.

They offer counselling services for mental health, amidst their focus on marriage and family counselling.

Singapore Counselling CentreStarting from from $194.40 (including GST) for 1 sessionSingapore Counselling Centre offers professional counselling in various languages, and are open 7 days a week.

There are options to purchase counselling packages.


Sometimes, medical professionals may not be keen to seek help due to the potential consequences of seeing a therapist or psychologist for mental support. As a doctor, known as Dr Wang, shares with The Straits Times, “A visit to the centre would appear in my patient record and I wouldn’t want that to be brought up 10 years down the road.” Moreover, the Singapore Medical Association (SMA) has to ensure that medical practitioners are able to provide safe and appropriate care for their patients, and this includes reviewing whether medical practitioners are also mentally able to do so. Promotional prospects may be affected with declaring burnout or depression as well. 

However, the long-term consequences of burnout may be more than the present risks at hand. Hopefully, as the general population shifts to consider the importance of mental health more, there will be less stigma associated around seeking mental help. 

Counselling services are also now more easily accessible, and one can call and query without any fear of having to commit.

Most importantly, a prevention-before-cure approach is most favourable – taking care of your mental wellness is crucial to stop burnout from setting in setting in.

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  1. (2022a, January 4). National Care Hotline. Credit Counselling Singapore.
  2. Auto, H. (2021, August 6). More doctors in Singapore face burnout, anxiety amid the pandemic. The Straits Times.
  3. Auto, H. (2022, February 24). Budget 2022: Healthcare spending to form bulk of increase in social expenditures by 2030. The Straits Times.
  4. Baker, J. A. (2021, November 1). Resignation rates among healthcare workers in Singapore up this year; MOH to increase ICU capacity. CNA.
  5. Call these helplines if you need emotional or psychological support. (n.d.). Gov.Sg.
  6. Liew, E. (2022, January 28). Counselling in Singapore — Free & Affordable Help for Mental Healthcare. MoneySmart.Sg – Tips, Tricks and Uncommon Wisdom to Help You Get More out of Your Money.
  7. (2022b, February 8). Burnout Prevention and Treatment. HelpGuide.Org.
  8. Mental Health UK. (2021, June 23). Burnout.
  9. Preventing Burnout. (n.d.). Eastern Washington University.
  10. PsychologyToday. (n.d.). Burnout. Burnout | PsychologyToday.
  11. Singapore Nurses Are Drained and Looking for an Out. (n.d.). MSN.
  12. Tan, B. Y., Kanneganti, A., Lim, L. J., Tan, M., Chua, Y. X., Tan, L., Sia, C. H., Denning, M., Goh, E. T., Purkayastha, S., Kinross, J., Sim, K., Chan, Y. H., & Ooi, S. B. (2020). Burnout and Associated Factors Among Health Care Workers in Singapore During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, 21(12), 1751–1758.e5.
  13. Teo, I., Chay, J., Cheung, Y. B., Sung, S. C., Tewani, K. G., Yeo, L. F., Yang, G. M., Pan, F. T., Ng, J. Y., Abu Bakar Aloweni, F., Ang, H. G., Ayre, T. C., Chai-Lim, C., Chen, R. C., Heng, A. L., Nadarajan, G. D., Ong, M. E. H., See, B., Soh, C. R., . . . Tan, H. K. (2021). Healthcare worker stress, anxiety and burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore: A 6-month multi-centre prospective study. PLOS ONE, 16(10), e0258866.
  14. Teo, Y. H., Xu, J. T. K., Ho, C., Leong, J. M., Tan, B. K. J., Tan, E. K. H., Goh, W. A., Neo, E., Chua, J. Y. J., Ng, S. J. Y., Cheong, J. J. Y., Hwang, J. Y. F., Lim, S. M., Soo, T., Sng, J. G. K., & Yi, S. (2021). Factors associated with self-reported burnout level in allied healthcare professionals in a tertiary hospital in Singapore. PLOS ONE, 16(1), e0244338.
About the Writer
Grace Koh
Grace is a healthcare writer who has experience in hospital settings and community agencies. Apart from reading, singing, and plodding up muddy trails, Grace enjoys scribbling notes and thinking up a storm.
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