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Jul 08, 2021
5 min read

Work burnout signs and how to deal with it

Burnout refers to the mental and physical effects of severe stress that can occur in the workplace. Initially studied in healthcare, we now know that burnout can occur in any type of work setting. Symptoms include exhaustion, detachment, and feeling ineffective. There are a lot of similarities with depression, but there are also key differences. The best method for dealing with burnout is prevention, but stress reduction techniques can help if you’re already feeling symptoms.

steve silvestro

Reviewed by Steve Silvestro, MD

Written by Ellyn Vohnoutka, BSN, RN

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Do you feel physically exhausted or emotionally drained at work? Like you’re constantly being asked to do more with fewer resources? Have you started to wonder why you chose this job to begin with? Do you still feel like this even after the rare occasion when you manage to get a few days off?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, you might be experiencing burnout. And you are far from alone.

Work burnout isn’t an official medical diagnosis, but it can still negatively impact your physical and mental health. It’s a problem that is only getting worse in the United States, but there are interventions that can help.

Here’s a look at what burnout is, how you can recognize it, and how to deal with it.

What is work burnout?

The American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” in the 1970s to describe the effects of severe stress in what he called “helping professions,” such as healthcare. We now know burnout can occur in any profession (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, 2020).

Burnout syndrome is a collection of psychological symptoms resulting from chronic stress on the job. Burnout has three key dimensions (Maslach, 2016):

  • Overwhelming exhaustion
  • Feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

Burnout is a significant problem in our current workforce. A recent Gallup survey found that approximately 67% of full-time workers reported feeling burned-out at least some of the time (Wigert, 2021).

Why does this matter? Surveys show that burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day and twice as likely to be looking for a new job. Even if they stay, they have lower confidence in their performance and goals (Wigert, 2021). Plus, burnout can take a significant toll on a person’s health and well-being.

What causes burnout?

Extreme stressors at work can leave you and your co-workers feeling exhausted, empty, and unable to cope. These feelings can lead to physical and mental signs of burnout. Some possible causes of this include (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, 2020):

  • Feeling like you always have a heavy workload
  • Feeling under-challenged
  • Feeling like you aren’t given enough time to complete tasks
  • Conflicts with colleagues
  • Neglecting your own needs in favor of work commitments

A negative work culture is another leading cause of workplace burnout, especially in healthcare. When staff can’t cope with excessive demands and prolonged stress, their work begins to suffer. When stress increases, so do levels of absenteeism (missing work). This, in turn, increases pressure on the remaining staff and causes the burnout to spread further (Bayot, 2020).

What are the signs and symptoms of burnout?

Many of the signs of burnout mimic those of depression. There is considerable debate among researchers if burnout and depression are separate or overlapping disorders. Here are some mental and physical symptoms these disorders have in common (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, 2020):

  • Extreme exhaustion
  • Feeling down
  • Reduced performance

You need to be very careful not to self-diagnose with one of these disorders too quickly. This could lead to the wrong treatment, which could be harmful (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, 2020). Seek help from a qualified mental health professional if you’re experiencing these symptoms. They’ll help decide whether you’re dealing with burnout, depression, or both, and can help you find the best way to address it.

One identifying characteristic of job burnout is that most of your problems are work-related. This would not be the case with depression (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, 2020).

A standard tool for measuring burnout is the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). This questionnaire assesses burnout by evaluating self-reported levels of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment (Nene, 2021). 

It includes questions such as, “I feel I’m working too hard on my job,” “I feel emotionally drained from my work,” and “Working with people all day is really a strain for me.” Identifying with these statements is more likely to indicate that you are dealing with work burnout (Nene, 2021). 

The following symptoms are not typical signs of burnout and are much more likely to be symptoms of depression (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, 2020): 

  • Negative thoughts or feelings about multiple areas of life
  • Low self-esteem
  • Hopelessness
  • Thoughts of harming yourself

If you find yourself having any of these, contact a health professional immediately. While rest and time away from work can help burnout, these can actually make depression worse in some cases. Standard treatments for depression include talk therapy or medications (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, 2020).

People who experience burnout don’t always have depression, but job burnout can increase your risk factors for developing depression. It is essential to make sure you’re getting the right treatment for your condition (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, 2020).

What are the stages of job burnout?

Scientific researchers have yet to agree on a single model for burnout. Over the years, several different models have been proposed that contained anywhere from three to twelve different stages. 

One of the first models focused on the three key dimensions of burnout. It considered the first stage to be exhaustion due to high demands. This stage then leads to feelings of detachment and negative attitudes toward the job. If this continued, it would lead to the third stage, feelings of inadequacy and failure (Maslach, 2016).

Over the years, other models have been developed that incorporated ideas of individual emotional responses and coping skills, lack of resources to fix job issues, and motivational theories (Maslach, 2016).

Another recent theory is that burnout results from imbalances in six key areas (Maslach, 2016): 

  • Workload
  • Control
  • Reward
  • Community
  • Fairness
  • Values 

How to deal with burnout

While sometimes a stressful work environment can’t be prevented, there are ways to cope with it. The easiest way to deal with the risk of burnout is to prevent it before it starts. One study looked at ways people can avoid workplace stress and burnout. It found that common strategies included (Demerouti, 2015):

  • Proactively using positive coping skills and self-care
  • Taking sufficient time to relax and recover from work
  • Making your physical wellness a priority
  • Using humor
  • Making changes to your job if you’re able to do so

Organizational burnout

Many studies suggest that burnout is an organizational problem rather than an individual one. Some suggestions that workplaces can use to prevent burnout among their employees include (Singh, 2020):

  • Ensuring effective leadership
  • Developing interventions to target burnout
  • Improving cooperation and support between workers
  • Recognizing and incentivizing work
  • Making sure that the organization and employees share the same goals
  • Providing as much flexibility to workers as possible
  • Investing in worker well-being

Fighting burnout with mindfulness

If you’re already feeling the effects of burnout, mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques may be able to help. This involves learning ways to go about your day in the present moment and acknowledge events and emotions without judging. Specific mindfulness exercises can include (Luken, 2016):

  • Mindful eating
  • Sitting meditation
  • Body scanning
  • Hatha yoga  

Researchers in one study found there was substantial evidence to support the efficacy of these mindfulness practices to reduce job burnout among health care providers and educators (Luken, 2016).

Help is available if you’re feeling burned-out at your job. Speak with your healthcare provider for a referral to a mental health professional in your area. 

References

  1. Bayot ML, Tadi P, Sharts-Hopko NC. (2020). Work culture. [Updated 2020 Jul 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542168/

    Demerouti, E. (2015). Strategies used by individuals to prevent burnout. European Journal of Clinical Investigation, 45(10), 1106-1112. doi: 10.1111/eci.12494. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/eci.12494

    InformedHealth.org [Internet]. (2020). Depression: What is burnout? Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. [Updated 2020 Jun 18]. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279286/

    Luken, M., & Sammons, A. (2016). Systematic review of mindfulness practice for reducing job burnout. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy: Official Publication of the American Occupational Therapy Association, 70(2), 7002250020p1–7002250020p10. doi: 10.5014/ajot.2016.016956. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4776732/

    Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 15(2), 103-111. doi: 10.1002/wps.20311. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wps.20311

    Nene Y, Tadi P. (2021). Resident burnout. [Updated 2021 Feb 11]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK553176/

    Singh R, Volner K, Marlowe D. (2020). Provider burnout. [Updated 2020 Nov 15]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538330/

    Wigert, B., & Agrawal, S. (2021). Employee burnout, part 1: The 5 main causes. Gallup.com. Retrieved from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237059/employee-burnout-part-main-causes.aspx