Work Burnout: What To Look Out For And How To Act?

26 Sep ‘22
6 min
Stress and anxiety
Work performance
Arianna Freni
Reviewed by psychologist Ida Dommerholt
We don’t like being commonplace, but there is no other way to say it: workplace stress is a big, growing problem. Its prolonged consequences are widespread and well-documented, among which first and foremost there is burnout.


Burnout symptoms at work include feeling exhausted, unmotivated, and unable to cope with your daily tasks. If left unaddressed, it might cause serious difficulties in fulfilling personal and professional commitments. For this reason, it’s important to recognise the symptoms as early as possible and take action.


What about burnout


The facts speak clearly: burnout does not happen overnight, it builds up. According to the World Health Organization, burnout is an “occupational phenomenon” that occurs when “chronic workplace stress has not been successfully managed.”


“Burnout symptoms usually arise quite late in the process when people have repressed stress signals for a longer time”, explains psychologist Ida Dommerholt. “The first response to increased stress is commonly a striving phase, where we are able to take on a much higher load.”


Burnout derives from a persistent imbalance between job demands (e.g., workload or pressures) and job resources (e.g., flexibility or support). Exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced performance are the three primary defining characteristics of this state.


Nevertheless, each individual reacts to workplace stress in their own unique way. Research has shown that people don’t manifest burnout in the same way or for the same reasons, as these vary according to the external context (e.g., job environment) and internal resources (e.g., coping mechanisms).  


One size doesn’t fit all


While burnout at work is not a new concept, the pandemic has intensified the stress and vulnerability of employees. For many, remote work disrupted the work-life balance and blurred the line between high and unrealistic job expectations.


According to Deloitte’s mental health report, half of the survey respondents indicated that they had experienced at least one symptom of burnout, which they primarily attributed to increased job demands, a low level of interpersonal interaction, and a lack of healthy boundaries.


Notably, job burnout does not have a univocal root cause and, in fact, it can be distinguished into three sub-types:


Overload burnout


Overload burnout is the widespread image we all have of burnout. It is very common and occurs when an individual overworked and exhausted keeps working at an unsustainable high pace in the pursuit of recognition or reward.


Under-challenged burnout


Just as overworking can lead to burnout, so can a lack of passion and engagement. This burnout results from feeling underappreciated or underrated in the job you do. It typically happens when employees are not stimulated or committed enough in their careers.


Neglect burnout


As humans, we need a purpose to function properly. This type of burnout derives from feeling helpless and hopeless. It happens when employees lack sufficient guidance and cannot meet job demands.


What symptoms to look out for?


Whatever the cause, work burnout symptoms can affect us physically, mentally and emotionally. Like any other condition, burnout is best managed when early symptoms are detected and treated. The early indicators of burnout can be subtle and generally include:


  • Feelings of exhaustion and inability to cope: this might look like feeling constantly depleted, suffering from headaches, stomach aches and fatigue. It could also manifest through trouble in relaxing, body weakness, getting sick more frequently, disrupting meal patterns, and general numbness.


  • Increased mental distance and emotional fragility: these symptoms can show up as avoidance, irritability, procrastination, lack of focus and cynicism. Other typical indicators are feeling emotionally drained and incapable of meeting deadlines or completing tasks.


  • Productivity loss and reduced professional efficacy: this could manifest as unwillingness to interact or connect with colleagues, lack of creativity, sense of inefficiency and frustration, lack of pleasure in the job and a general sense of alienation.

If you see yourself in some or more of these symptoms, you might be experiencing job burnout. Try to ask yourself these questions and be as honest as possible:


  • Do you struggle to be consistently productive because you run out of energy?
  • Do you have trouble staying focused?
  • Do your accomplishments fail to satisfy you?
  • Do you feel discouraged about your work?
  • Have your interactions with coworkers become tense or impatient?


The best way to prevent burnout is to take action if you answered “yes” to any of these questions.


👀 You might like to read: If You Don’t Want to Go to Work on Monday…

Making a change for the better


Although it is undoubtedly an upsetting and overwhelming state, it is worth mentioning that burnout does not indicate a permanent condition. When burnout is present at work, most people fantasise about leaving everything behind and moving on. 


💡 You might find interesting: Quiet Quitting: What’s Behind the Latest Trend in the World of Work?


However, as work burnout arises from a chronic unpleasant situation,  its recovery doesn’t happen right away. Making changes to your work environment and starting to build habits that make burnout less likely to occur are often the best solutions to treat it. 


Here are some ways you can cope with burnout and make a change for the better (without having to necessarily quit your job):


1. Pay attention to your body


Listening to your body is key to spotting the first signs of burnout. Do you feel exhausted and tired? Do you have headaches, did your sleeping patterns change, do you often feel anxious due to work-related thoughts? If so, these can be indicators that your body is trying to warn you and you need a break. Be sure to keep in touch with your inner compass and take the time for basic needs: eat well, hydrate, respect your sleeping schedule, exercise, and engage in meaningful relationships.


2. Practice self-care


Develop clear strategies and healthy habits to manage stress and prioritise your mental health. Regular breaks from work are essential for your well-being and give you the opportunity to engage in relaxing and recharging activities. Whether it is taking a walk in nature, reading a book, or practising mindfulness, make it a habit of checking in with yourself.


3. Share your concerns


Leadership can make a significant difference in how you experience your workplace and the support you receive. For this reason, it is always worthwhile to approach HRs and managers about issues you may be facing. Changing teams and tasks, or in some cases, switching positions, may be helpful for some people to recover from burnout.


Take it seriously 


Burnout is a workplace phenomenon, but its effects spread to many aspects of your personal life. If you have ever experienced burnout, you know how challenging it can be, so it is crucial to take it seriously and never underestimate the impact it can have on your well-being.


The good news is that there is always the chance to take action and make new choices to feel better. Try to critically think about the factors that are contributing to your discomfort and choose to make your wellness a priority.


“Choose to take action before you are burned out!” recommends Ida. “If you experience high stress for a prolonged time period it is always good to check whether there is something you can do to facilitate your recovery. Preventing is easier than recovering in this case.”


Keep an eye on your mental and physical well-being and do not wait to ask for help, if you feel you might need it. Talking to a mental health professional can help you get back on track and apply the strategies you need to feel your best again.