Understanding work Burnout

By Joe Busuttil

Burnout is a syndrome which occurs due to prolonged emotional strain of dealing extensively with other human beings, particularly in helper and recipient relationships. Burnout is categorised as a type of stress.  Unlike normal workplace stress which predominately affects individuals physically, burnout affects individuals emotionally. 

The term burnout was introduced in the 1970’s, and although the word is widely known, the impact of burnout is often misunderstood.  Burnout can be a complex and disabling condition, far more serious than feeling tired after a long week at work.  Although any profession at any level can be affected by burnout, there is an increased need for individuals working in the corporate fields to fully understand the symptoms of burnout, and more importantly, adopt preventative measures.

Over the years the definition of burnout has changed and expanded to include a number of key components.  Below is a summary of a number of different perspectives of burnout:

  1. A disease of over commitment:  This suggests that burnout is the state of emotional exhaustion related to overload.
  2. Changes in motivation: A psychological withdrawal from work in response to excessive stress or dissatisfaction.
  3. Alienation:  The extent to which a worker has become separated or withdrawn from the original meaning or purpose of work.

Other definitions also include attitude and behavioural changes in response to workplace demands and a tendency to treat clients in a detached, mechanical fashion.

These descriptions are all valid when describing burnout, and regardless of the preferred definition, burnout affects the individual emotionally, impacting on both the quality and satisfaction of their work.

The characteristics of burnout do not just happen.  Burnout develops gradually with small warning signs such as feelings of frustration, not wanting to go to work, withdrawal, emotional outbursts and general feelings of dissatisfaction in daily work activities. This occurs from ongoing stressful job demands over a long period of time, rather than a small number of acute or crisis situations.

The impact of these feelings can be devastating for the following reasons:

  1. For many individuals, their role of employment provides them a sense of identity and meaning.  Individuals invest time and effort towards creating their career of choice.  When burnout occurs individuals start questioning their personal and professional beliefs.  Now that they have obtained their goal, was it really what they wanted? 
  2. Individuals may find themselves acting in ways in which they never thought they would, particularly towards their clients, and sometimes in a ways in which they dislike and have no control over.                  

Although exhaustion plays a large factor in these circumstances, the real long term damage of burnout is caused by the disillusionment.  This has the potential to send individuals into a complete spin.

Symptoms Of Burnout

Previously we have discussed the characteristics of burnout.   Below is a list of physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms of burnout.

Signs and symptoms of Job Stress and Worker Burnout in Corporate roles:

  1. High resistance to going to work everyday
  2. A sense of failure
  3. Anger and resentment
  4. Guilt and blame
  5. Discouragement and indifference
  6. Negativism
  7. Isolation and withdrawal
  8. Feeling tired and exhausted all day
  9. Frequent clock watching
  10. Great fatigue after work
  11. Loss of positive feelings towards clients
  12. Postponing client contracts, resisting client phone calls and office visits
  13. Stereotyping clients
  14. Inability to concentrate on or listen to what client is saying
  15. Feeling immobilised
  16. Cynicism regarding clients; a blaming attitude
  17. Increasingly ‘going by the book’
  18. Sleep disorders
  19. Avoiding discussion of work with colleagues
  20. Self-preoccupation
  21. More approving of behaviour-control measures such as tranquilizers
  22. Frequent colds and flus
  23. Frequent headaches and gastrointestinal disturbances
  24. Rigidity in thinking and resistance to change
  25. Suspicion and paranoia
  26. Excessive use of drugs
  27. Marital and family conflict
  28. High absenteeism

Due to the long-term development of burnout, individuals often find that it is difficult to identify their own symptoms or attempt to rationalise them. Co-workers or friends often notice the changes before the individual does. 

Contributors To Burnout

There are predictors to assist individuals to identify if they are more at risk of burnout than others.  These include both personal and organisational contributors.  The following should be taken as a guide only. 

Personal Contributors

In general, men and women have the same potential to burnout, as do all levels within professions.  Studies indicate that the following personal factors can place an individual at a higher risk of burnout. 


Burnout is considered to affect individuals earlier in their career.  People under the age of 40 are most at risk. 

Marital Status: 

Married workers or those in a defacto relationship tend to have the emotional support of their spouse and are less likely to suffer from burnout.  Those who are single or divorced have a higher risk.

Work behaviour: 

Individuals who are dedicated and committed to their role, work overtime, take home work or work at the office on weekends have a higher risk of developing burnout.


Individuals who score highly on neuroticism as a personality factor (such as the Big Five personality indicator) are more inclined to suffer burnout.  So to are people who are introverts, as they are less likely to discuss with co-workers the stress they are facing in the workplace.

Organisational Contributors


The overall amount of effort required on a daily basis may be too much.  There may be too much information to absorb and too many demands being made.

Lack of control: 

Individuals can feel reduced control over their work when there is little flexibility in the way they can perform their role.  This includes instructions from supervisors who dictate exactly what to do, when to do it and how to complete the task.  This situation can leave workers feeling frustrated and promote feelings of failure and ineffectiveness.


Dealing with co-workers, supervisors and administrators can be just as stressful, if not more stressful. Tension between these groups increases the likelihood of burnout to occur.  Firstly this increases emotional stress and secondly it reduces the support network needed to prevent burnout.

Organisational guidelines and objectives:

Most organisations have guidelines defining the scope of the service which can be provided and objectives to be achieved. At times these can seem too rigid, with less focus on a holistic personalised perspective.  A ‘one size fits all’ delivery of service can be unsatisfactory for both the recipient and helper.

Organisational opportunities:  

Roles within organisations which have limited opportunity for promotions increase the likelihood that the individual may develop burnout.

When assessing the contributors towards burnout, it is vital that a holistic approach is taken. 

Eight Paths to Personal Power:

The main objective is to develop a plan to encourage a sense of accomplishment, independent of your organisation. 

Path 1:  Self-Management

Effective self-management requires knowledge and skill. Properly done, self-management increases your personal power because you can create situations in which you can give yourself the ‘wins’ you need to sustain high motivation.

Path 2:  Stress Management

It is important to know how your body and psyche function and which trigger your stress responses.  This understanding can be used to raise and lower your tension level as needed.  Personal power comes in knowing that, although you may not like the difficult situations, you can handle them.  Such feelings enable you to rise to the occasion and to handle difficulties skilfully rather than avoid problem situations.

Path 3:  Build a Support System

A strong social support system make up of family, friends and co-workers can help buffer you against the negative effects of stress.  It’s vitally important that you take active measures to build and maintain your support system.

Path 4:  Skill Building

Inevitably, you will encounter situations requiring skills you’ve not yet developed.  Personal power comes from knowing how to arrange learning situations for yourself.  When you know how to acquire the skills you need, you’ll have confidence to tackle new challenges and handle the unexpected.

Path 5:  Modify the Job

Almost every job has some leeway for tailoring it to better fit your work style.  The ability to mesh a job to your work style increases feelings of potency and enjoyment of work.

Path 6:  Change Jobs

Sometimes the best solution is to change jobs.  Too often, however burnout victims will quit an unsatisfactory job without analysing the source of dissatisfaction or exploring what is needed, and grab the next job that comes along.  Sometimes the new job is as bad as, or even worse, than the old one.  Personal power comes in knowing what you need in a job and knowing how to go out and find it.

Path 7:  Mood Management with Thought Control

You may sometimes feel out of control in the face of your emotions.  If so, you may be a victim of runaway thinking, and not knowing how to curb your thoughts, you respond to every red flag waved before you.  Personal power comes in knowing how to empty your mind of negative chatter so that you can focus productivity on the moment and the tasks at hand.

Path 8:  Detached Concern

Detached concern is a higher-order level of mental control in which personal power is gained by letting go.  This is particularly important for those who work with people having serious or even impossible problems.  It is the attachment to your notions of how things ought to be that can imprison you and make you feel helpless. 

(Potter, Preventing Job Burnout, 1987, p. 18-19)

Other strategies take a more holistic view of the prevention of burnout and how both individuals and organisations can develop work practices and procedures to assist in creating a productive and healthy workplace.

1.  Staff Development

  • Reduce demands workers impose on themselves by encouraging them to adopt more realistic goals.
  • Encourage workers to adopt new goals that might provide alternative sources of gratification.
  • Help workers develop and use monitoring and feedback mechanisms sensitive to short-term gains.
  • Provide frequent opportunities for in-service training designed to increase role effectiveness.
  • Teach staff coping strategies such as time study and time management techniques.
  • Orientate new staff by providing them with a booklet that realistically describes typical frustrations and difficulties that occur in the job.
  • Provide periodic ‘burnout checkups’ for all staff.
  • Provide high levels of work-focused counselling or consultation to staff who are experiencing high levels of stress in their jobs.
  • Encourage the development of support groups and/or resource exchange networks.

2.  Changing Jobs and Role Structures

  • Limit the number of clients for whom staff are responsible at any one time.
  • Spread the most difficult and unrewarding work among all staff and require staff to work in more than one role and program.
  • Arrange each day so that the rewarding and unrewarding activities alternate.
  • Structure roles in ways that allow workers to take ‘time-outs’ when necessary.
  • Limit the number of hours that a staff person works.
  • Do not discourage part-time employment.
  • Give every staff member the opportunity to create new programs.
  • Build in career ladders for all staff.

3.  Management Development

  • Create management training and development programs for current and potential supervisory personnel, emphasising those aspects of the role that administrators have most difficultly with.
  • Create monitoring systems for supervisory personnel, such as staff surveys, and give supervisory personnel regular feedback on their performance.
  • Monitor role strain in supervisory personnel and intervene when strain becomes excessive.

4.  Organisational Problem-Solving and Decision-Making

  • Create formal mechanisms for group and organisational problem-solving and conflict resolution.
  • Provide training in conflict resolution and group problem-solving for all staff.
  • Maximise staff autonomy and participation in decision-making.

5.  Agency Goals and Guiding Philosophies

  • Make goals as clear and consistent as possible.
  • Develop a strong, distinctive guiding philosophy.
  • Make education and research a major focus of the program.
  • Share responsibility for care and treatment with the client, the client’s family, and the community.

Dealing with burnout in any organisation is vital if the organisation wants to grow and support its workers in a productive way.

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