What Is Work Burnout?

What Is Work Burnout?

Updated 2 March 2021

Written by Melissa Turner

Work burnout is the term used to describe the physical, behavioral and emotional effects of chronic stress suffered in the workplace.

Anyone, in any role, can experience work burnout, although some professions, like teaching and healthcare, see a higher prevalence of work burnout than others.

It is characterized by feelings of being inadequate in your job, resenting your work and feeling physically and emotionally exhausted.

Work burnout can create a downward spiral of decreased productivity and performance, leading to more stress and exhaustion, leading to a further decline in output, and so on.

Burnout can build up gradually over weeks or even months. Recognizing and acting upon the signs is not easy, which is why it is becoming increasingly prevalent in this fast-paced world.

What Is the Difference Between Work Burnout and Stress?

In small measures, stress can be good – it pushes people to perform well. When stress gets too intense or lasts for too long, however, it can harm people’s health and wellbeing.

Stress may sound similar to burnout, but the crucial difference is that when you are under stress, you can see a way out. You know that if you just manage to get on top of your workload or complete that big project, the pressure on you will ease, and you will feel better.

Burnout is a feeling of hopelessness – that there is no way of relieving the pressures and stress of work.

It is the relentlessness of your everyday life and work situation that is causing your stress, not a temporary state.

Stress and burnout are connected; chronic stress can result in burnout. However, they present differently.

Stress can make you increase your output and work harder, almost reaching a level of hyperactivity and hyperarousal. In contrast, burnout is characterized by a lack of motivation, loss of energy, depression and exhaustion.

Both stress and burnout can cause physical problems such as headaches, unexplained aches and pains, and digestive issues.

Living with the heightened anxiety of stress is sustainable for a limited period but then your energy ‘burns out’ and you become depressed.

Whereas the signs of stress are generally recognizable, burnout creeps up on you until you can no longer function.

What Are the Causes of Work Burnout?

Work burnout comes from unrelenting stress in the work environment, but an individual’s likelihood of reaching burnout can also be influenced by other factors including situational circumstance, coping mechanisms and resilience.

In the workplace, causes of burnout can include inharmonious working relationship patterns, such as:

  • Bullying or micromanaging
  • Having others place unrealistic expectations on you
  • Being underappreciated for your work
  • Having a chaotic or poorly managed workplace

An unrelenting workload and an unrealistic boss can also be common causes of stress and eventual burnout.

At the other end of the spectrum, monotonous or boring work, or work that you are unsuited to, can also cause burnout due to feelings of unfulfillment and boredom.

If your home life is also stressful, perhaps due to a dysfunctional relationship, caring responsibilities or housing issues, you will have less resilience when it comes to working and your risk of reaching burnout will be higher.

What Are the First Signs of Work Burnout?

Knowing what to look out for can help you spot the first signs that you or someone you know might be heading for burnout.

Typical early signs include:

  • A negative attitude – A pessimistic outlook about a job, work environment or colleagues; becoming irritable at work and complaining a lot.
  • Fatigue and appearing tired all the time – Look out for signs of mental, physical or emotional exhaustion.
  • Detachment from the world and immediate environment – Staring into space, slow reactions, and avoiding conversations and social events.
  • Forgetfulness and a lack of focus – Losing things, being disorganized, struggling to cope with even menial tasks.
  • Withdrawing from relationships, either at work or at home.

What Are the Five Stages of Work Burnout?

After German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term ‘burnout’ in 1974, subsequent studies have identified that a typical experience of work burnout consists of five stages.

These five stages of work burnout give employees suffering from stress a measure of how close they might be to burnout.

The stages range from feeling job satisfaction and pleasure in a role, to the complete inability to function in everyday life as a result of prolonged stress.

1. The Honeymoon Phase

As the name suggests, this stage involves excitement and enthusiasm about a job position.

You are most likely to feel this when you start a new job and have passed through the settling-in period. You feel comfortable and established in your new role and get great job satisfaction.

Your ability to cope with the stresses of the job are high, and you enjoy the new challenges you face.

For many people, this stage has an endpoint, unless they have a remarkable ability to continuously adapt and remain optimistic for a sustained period.

While in this stage, you are likely to be productive, eager to progress and take on more responsibility, creative, and have high energy levels. You take care of your own wellbeing, as well as showing commitment to your job.

2. Managing Low-Level Stress

The excitement and enthusiasm of the honeymoon phase have worn off, and you are now experiencing highs and lows at work.

You recognize that some days are more stressful than others. Your optimism and enjoyment of the role may decline as you work through the realities of everyday life in your position.

Even at this early stage, you may be experiencing some minor symptoms of stress.

Physical symptoms often include a racing heart, sleep disturbances and tiredness, or even exhaustion.

Your performance at work may also start to be impacted, as you become less efficient, less organized and begin to lose confidence.

You might avoid making decisions, feel anxious about work or become irritable with your colleagues. These are early warning signs that can be easily missed.

What Is Work Burnout?What Is Work Burnout?

3. Chronic Stress Symptoms

If the symptoms of stage two are not recognized and addressed, they will often become more persistent and damaging over time.

Rather than the highs and lows you experienced in stage two, when you reach stage three, most days feel stressful and overwhelming.

As your energy levels decline, your resilience suffers and you feel unable to ‘pick yourself back up’ after a stressful day at work.

Physical exhaustion can become worse, sleep deteriorates and you may start fantasizing about leaving your job, running away or taking drastic action to remove yourself from the situation.

However, many people lack the energy or motivation to act on these impulses, choosing to continue in the hope that things improve.

4. Crisis Point

If you do not change the situation, chronic stress symptoms eventually progress to complete burnout.

Symptoms become critical as you reach crisis point with your physical, emotional and mental health. You might neglect your personal care, isolate yourself from friends and family, and feel empty and hopeless.

By stage four, you will be unable to hide your struggles, and those around you may start to notice a change in character, poor performance at work and outward signs of stress.

If you reach burnout, you may decide to take a step back from your work situation and focus time on your health and wellbeing. If you do not introduce changes, the situation declines further, taking you into stage five.

5. Overwhelming Burnout

By this stage, your symptoms are completely overwhelming, and you are no longer able to hide your stress from those around you. You have moved beyond the accepted definition of work burnout and are in an ongoing health crisis.

By this point, you may be so used to living in extreme stress that you fail to recognize how unwell you have become until you are unable to continue with your daily routine.

You are likely to feel depressed, anxious, avoidant, and depleted in the energy and motivation to do anything.

If you get to this stage, you may need to seek medical guidance or treatment. This overwhelming work burnout is sometimes referred to as a breakdown or adrenal fatigue. It might even result in a medical diagnosis of depression.

What Are the Symptoms of Work Burnout?

The symptoms of work burnout can vary from person to person. Typically, they fall into three categories: physical, emotional and psychological:

Physical

  • Headaches
  • Palpitations
  • Fatigue
  • Exhaustion
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Nausea and stomach aches
  • Tense muscles
  • High blood pressure
  • Low immune system/getting ill more frequently

Emotional

  • Tearfulness
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Apathy
  • Feeling emotionally detached
  • Emotional numbness
  • Feeling ‘on the edge’
  • Falling out with family and friends
  • Feeling distant
  • Inability to feel joy
  • Feelings of dread

Behavioral

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Low mood
  • Lacking in motivation
  • Negative outlook
  • Distancing oneself from others
  • Impatience
  • Irritability

If left untreated, burnout can lead to serious illnesses such as heart disease, pain, depression and insomnia.

Recovering from Work Burnout

If you suspect that you are heading towards burnout, or have reached burnout, it is essential to take steps to address the causes to avoid long-term impacts on health.

Identify the Source

Think about precisely what is causing your stress. Is it your workplace culture? Sheer workload? Unfulfillment?

Identifying the problem means you can start to do something about it.

It is not always due to a high-pressure position – often people working in monotonous or unskilled roles can reach burnout due to a sense of disconnect from their work and the associated boredom and unfulfillment.

Act Immediately

You can take immediate steps to drop any commitments that you can. These could be at work or in your social life.

Of course, some responsibilities are non-negotiable, like caring for children or elderly relatives, but you might be able to reconsider work projects, admin tasks and social obligations.

You may need to speak to your manager to decide which work-related factors can be addressed immediately.

If a toxic workplace or bullying adds to your problem, think about escalating the issue or looking for a new job.

Take Back Control

Evaluate your whole workload – your schedule, projects, commitments and relationships. Identify where you feel a loss of control and which elements contribute most to your feelings of burnout.

These are the things you must address first.

Set some goals, decide what to delegate and pinpoint who to ask for help. Taking back control of the situation can help relieve some pressure and enables you to see a way out.

Consider Taking a Break

Taking some time off work is not always necessary but should be considered as an option.

Aim for open communication with your boss and initiate a discussion about how they can support you as you recover.

Perhaps you could take a sabbatical.

It is in your employer’s interest to help you avoid burnout and remain a productive member of the team.

Make Changes

Taking a break from work can give you the necessary headspace to start your recovery, but if you do not make any changes while you are away, you will return to the same situation and will very likely head straight back to burnout.

Measures you can put in place include looking into therapy, making time to pursue hobbies and interests that make you happy, seeing family and friends and building up your support network, and starting to re-evaluate and reframe your situation.

Practice Good Self-Care

Take some time to create a good self-care routine.

Eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly and getting plenty of sleep can help improve your physical health. Taking up creative hobbies and practicing relaxation such as meditation or yoga can also be very beneficial to mental health and can help build resilience.

Depending on how badly you are suffering, you may decide to see your doctor for support.

Preventing Work Burnout

It is a lot easier to prevent burnout than to treat it. If you recognize yourself in one of the stages of burnout above and think you may be in danger of reaching burnout yourself, taking steps now can bring you back on track.

Separate Work and Home

It can be tricky to find the right work-life balance if you work from home, but it is really important to enable you to switch off from your work at the end of the day.

Creating a separate workspace in your home and sticking to your usual working hours are two ways to create a mental divide between home and work life.

Even if you do not work from home, it is easy to blur the lines between work and downtime. Avoid using your phone for work purposes when you are relaxing in the evening or at the weekend. Resist the temptation to check your work emails before you go to bed or as soon as you wake up.

Make Time For Hobbies

Creating a fulfilling life outside of work can help you decompress after a hard day. It is also a good way to meet new people and build up your support network.

Choose hobbies that are entirely unrelated to your work so you can really switch off. Creative pursuits are particularly effective for stress relief and relaxation.

Do Not Be Your Own Worst Critic

If you are a conscientious employee and a high achiever, you may need to consider whether some of the pressure comes from putting unrealistic expectations on yourself.

If you are your own worst critic and never feel like your work is good enough, ask yourself if your colleagues or boss would feel the same.

If you are generally succeeding in your professional life, they would probably not.

Other people have a perspective on your actions that you do not and generally have a much more positive view of your work. Recognizing that you are putting unfair pressure on yourself can help you avoid burnout.

Take Care of Your Physical and Emotional Health

Your body and mind can only work with what you give them. If you eat unhealthy foods, never exercise or never get enough sleep, you will inevitably lack resilience when you encounter a period of stress.

The same goes for your mental health. Create a habit of having periods of calm, quiet time, allow yourself to pursue interests, and take opportunities to talk, whether to friends and family or to a therapist.

Final Thoughts

Living with the pressures and stress of our working culture and fast-paced world mean that the signs of burnout can often go unnoticed until you suddenly feel unable to cope.

There are many causes of work burnout, including an unrealistic workload, chaotic work environment and toxic workplace culture.

An awareness of these triggers and taking measures to prevent prolonged stress can help you develop healthy coping mechanisms and build resilience. The ability to spot early signs, such as fatigue, detachment, avoiding social situations, trouble sleeping and unexplained aches and pains can help you identify burnout in yourself or others.

If you do experience burnout, you might decide to take time out of the work environment altogether while you focus on your physical and emotional wellbeing. Your workplace may introduce wellbeing schemes or other measures to support you as you return to work.