Work Burnout: Recognizing Symptoms, Enhancing Retention

Workplace burnout manifests as physical tiredness and, more crucially, emotional emptiness.

Most people are familiar with the physical symptoms of burnout. But the emotional symptoms may be harder to detect, and it is the emotional symptoms (like explosive blowouts or massive meltdowns) that typically result in job loss and staff attrition.

Often, others around them can sense it from their emotionless faces that they are in a burnout phase, but the burned-out employee does not realize it themselves.

If you ask such employees, they will usually say that they are merely trying to stay on top of a deluge of tasks and are not achieving anything worthwhile.

Causes of burnout at work

Most frequently, the real culprit behind a burnout is a job stress that has been going on for long, and not some personal stress. Burnouts are fueled by overwork and chronic stress.

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According to a Deloitte survey, around 77% of respondents have experienced burnout in their current employment. In the survey, the biggest drivers of employee burnout were:

  • lack of support or recognition,
  • unrealistic deadlines or expectations, and
  • consistently working long hours or on weekends.

According to Workplace Strategies For Mental Health, burnout is more likely when employees:

  • Expect too much of themselves.
  • Never feel that the work they are doing is good enough.
  • Feel inadequate or incompetent.
  • Feel unappreciated for their work efforts.
  • Have unreasonable demands placed upon them.
  • Have roles that are not a good job fit.
spot the symptoms of burnout at work

Symptoms of workplace burnout

How to tell if your employees are overtressed and nearing burnout? Of course, by catching the red flags early on.


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Herbert Freudenberger, who coined the term “burnout” in 1975, defined it as a condition having three elements:

  1. Emotional exhaustion: It means emotional fatigue, and an inability to feel emotions. Emotional exhaustion in workplace burnout results from caring too much about the work for too long. It is highly widespread among teachers, university professors, and medical professionals.
  2. Depersonalization: It marks a loss of empathy, caringness, compassion, and a feeling of being detached. A state of depersonalization makes one feel disconnected from their thoughts and feelings, without losing touch with reality. A state of derealization is when one disconnects from their surroundings and loses touch with reality.
  3. Decreased sense of accomplishment: It creates in the burnout victim an insurmountable sense of futility — the feeling that nothing they do is making, or can make, any difference. A decreased sense of achievement in burnout is typically associated with excessive work demands that cannot be fulfilled all the time and failures to meet job targets.

Burnout is a syndrome (a collection of symptoms). To know if you have reached burnout at your work, check for these common symptoms below:

  • Irritability
  • Failing relationships
  • Sense of social isolation
  • Headaches and vague body aches
  • Mind-wandering and overwhelmingness
  • Exhaustion-physical, mental, and emotional
  • Time-urgency—a feeling that time is running out
  • Repeated illnesses (like cold) due to low immunity
  • Substance abuse, like smoking, alcohol, and drugs
  • Oversleeping, not wanting to get up, waking up tired
  • Not keeping up with personal needs, eating unhealthy foods
  • No longer feeling excited by things that normally brought joy
  • Chronic stress that seems to never end or comes in large waves
  • Inability to focus on reading, any creative work, or planning ahead
  • Vacation fantasies and thoughts of escaping the workplace unannounced

A classic burnout manifests as hating or fearing going to work, always feeling over-stressed and overtired, having sleep problems, and reacting irritably to people and situations.

Burned-out people feel physically and mentally drained and spend a lot of their time sitting half-asleep doing nothing.

Burnout can make day-to-day tasks difficult, with rapid “crashes” coming a few hours after waking up fresh. The burned-out person may wake up early in the morning to exercise, only to ‘crash’ a few minutes into exercising.

When you ask them a question, you may find them staring blankly at you, devoid of emotions, before coming up with an answer.

They frequently call in sick.

Becoming emotionally distant from your colleagues and loved ones, and even reacting in a way so that they keep their distance from you, are too common. Burnout can push people-loving people into social isolation.

Burnout sufferers often feel they are becoming increasingly ineffective in their personal capacity, like being a cranky parent or a unhelpful spouse.

Burnout may make a person reach for alcohol or drugs in trying to cope with it on their own.

Burnout can get so unbearable that you consider turning to nonprescription drugs, believing you will only use them for a short while. We strongly advise against it. Never take that risk to self-medicate. Instead, consult a burnout therapist, a psychological counselor, or your doctor.

Self-assessing symptoms of burnout at work

Burnout can be measured by noting your complaints in three areas:

  1. emotional exhaustion,
  2. a feeling of inefficacy, and
  3. cynicism or a sense of detachment from others.

To find out if you’re entering or already into a phase of burnout, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I feel dread getting ready and going to work?
  2. Am I feeling emotionally and physically drained at work?
  3. Do I feel I am always failing to achieve my work targets?
  4. Do I feel frustrated doing the same work, day in and day out?
  5. Does it feel like there is more work for me to do than I can practically do?

Research shows job burnout directly correlates to both clinical depression and anxiety disorder. A burnout patient may show symptoms similar to those reported by people suffering from anxiety, depression, or bipolar illness.

Can burnout awareness help employee retention?

You do not have to let your employees go because of burnout. Early detection of an impending burnout to save employees from having an actual burnout.

Two steps can help increase burnout awareness in your office:

  • Regular education of the staff on burnout symptoms via classes and questionnaires.
  • Regular checkups by prefessionals to identify the early symptoms and starting treatment.

Burnouts aren’t always obvious. They can begin with a just feeling that work has become repetitive and excessive.

Even when it gets severe, one may be unaware that the job itelf is causing burnout because it has already triggered a mind-numbing sense of worry and dread in the sufferer.

Employee retention can benefit from burnout awareness.

Burnout awareness is also important because it can carry on silently, gradually impacting the productivity, effectivity, and overall happiness of an employee over a long time.

Even a single burnout can have a lasting negative impact on your work productivity, professional success, relationships, and overall life satisfaction.

Research suggests early burnout in your career does not seem to cause any significant, negative, long‐term effects. However, late-career burnout might have more serious long‐term effects.

Intelligent people suffer more burnout than others.

The reason why knowledge-workers may be more prone to burnout could be their mental over-excitability, as this research finds. Most white-collar workers who suffer from burnout work at “brain-demanding” jobs with strict deadlines.

• [Check out the 10 signs of high intelligence without taking an IQ test.]

The best thing anyone can do is to spot its early warning signs and learn how to prevent sliding into one.

Final Words

Burnout is starting to grab the attention of mental health professionals and employers.

Implementing burnout awareness programmes in the workplace can help reduce worker absenteeism, save workers’ compensation for burnout treatment, and make the workplace happier and psychologically safer.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental wellbeing, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).


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