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Wellbeing at work – what are the signs of burnout to look out for?

With a reported 221% increase in searches for the phrase ‘signs of burnout’ in the past 3 months, this post includes some suggestions employers and individuals can consider in order to help improve wellbeing at work and keep burnout at bay.

Burnout – a definition

In 2019, in the 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases manual, the World Health Organisation (WHO) included burnout as an occupational phenomenon and not as a medical condition.

They describe burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.


Putting the term burnout in context

The WHO go on to emphasise that “Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

The 3 aspects recognised in burnout syndrome are inter-related:

  • A feeling of energy depletion or exhaustion which can be mental, physical, and emotional.
  • A slide into cynicism to and mental detachment from one’s job, having been expressed by feelings of pessimism and emptiness and the opposite of engagement at work.
  • A sense of ineffectiveness, complete lack of accomplishment displayed by reduced professional efficacy and a poorer performance in one’s role.


The difference between stress and burnout

Burnout should not be confused with simply going through a stressful period at work.

Many of us feel stressed from time to time due to being faced with numerous pressures and demands. We know, however, that if we get everything back under control, we will be okay and our energy and engagement will return.

Burnout sufferers, on the other hand, describe feelings of emptiness and being demoralised, drained, and past caring. They describe having no energy or motivation, blunted emotions and no hope of their situation changing for the better.

An important difference to note – whilst we are usually aware that we are under a lot of stress, we may not notice that burnout is happening until the symptoms are severe.


The symptoms and signs of burnout

Referring back to the 3 aspects of burnout above, the symptoms to look out for in ourselves and others can include:

For exhaustion:

  • insomnia
  • difficulties with concentration and attention
  • anxiety
  • appetite loss
  • catching frequent infections (e.g. colds)
  • physical symptoms (e.g. headache, dizziness, stomach pain, heart palpitations)
  • anger

For disengagement:

  • pessimism
  • loss of enjoyment, initially with work but eventually with other areas of life
  • feelings of detachment from both people and environment
  • isolation as you want to be on your own more and more, and start to shut people out and avoid interaction

For professional efficacy:

  • lack of productivity and performance by not being able to produce work as you once did and finding it piling up all around you
  • feelings of increased irritability due to the frustration of feeling ineffective
  • acute feelings of apathy, helplessness, and hopelessness where you feel that nothing is worth doing and there is no point in getting up in the morning


Some tips for individuals

The principle that underpins all other actions is acceptance that self-care must become a priority. That this is not self-indulgent ... even superman needs to put his cape in the washing machine from time to time!

Get bored - try and relish what you might do with any time available to you to relax.

Engage your attention to switch off - yoga, dance, creative activities, anything that has the body moving in a meditative, rhythmic, repetitive way.

Build self-care into your working day – take short breaks each day to complete a breathing, grounding and/or mindfulness exercise. Remember - taking a break and focusing on yourself is one of the best ways of combatting burnout.

Establish boundaries to help balance your work and private life – finish work by a set time, turning off mobiles and laptops to mark the boundary.

Develop a sense of autonomy – secure an element of control and self-determination in your role, however small.

Regain a sense of connection – have a strong support system with a peer where you can benefit from mutual support and effective listening.

Adopt healthy lifestyle habits – effective nutrition, regular exercise, set patterns for sleep.

For those feeling detached and cynical - try and engage with others, undertake a kind act such as providing encouragement.

For those feeling ineffective - focus on doing anything that will validate your sense of personal value such as completing a project with a beginning, middle and end.


How employers and HR can help

As with many other psychological issues, burnout can be widespread in an organisation and may be the result of problems caused by little time off, long hours or micro-management.

It needs to be remembered that burnout can co-exist with depression which can lead to thoughts of suicide and suicide completion. The main difference is that burnout is caused by a long period or chronic stress whereas depression may not be as a result of this. It is therefore imperative that employers are proactive. Creating awareness and ensuring systems are in place to offer support, both across the workplace and for those whose role includes managing others.

Some of the causes of burnout include:

  • A high pressure or chaotic working environment
  • Lack of control over an individual’s work
  • Job expectations which are vague or over demanding
  • No recognition or rewards for work achievements
  • Monotonous tasks or work which presents no challenge
  • Low support, high demands and low control
  • Poor career progression opportunities


Short virtual training courses are available

Our trainer, Michelle Spirit, delivers virtual in-house workshops on managing burnout. They increase awareness of the risk of burnout, explore practical actions to restore energy levels and regain a sense of control to improve wellbeing and performance.

Our standard course is 3 hours in length and suitable for everyone in a workplace. However, it can also be tailored to an organisation’s exact requirements.

For example, a leaders’ and managers’ version is available. Also, a short one-hour introductory session suitable for anyone who wants to learn more about the risk of burnout and how to help themselves or others.

A recent feedback comment illustrates the value of delivering this training:
"Very good, trainer was excellent and got everyone involved. Good for reflection and making changes."

Please contact us if you would like any further details about our Managing Burnout training.


Further reading and watching

We have included a section on burnout within our Stress Management Resources page.

One of the articles featured in our Ask the Expert series is Tips and Answers to FAQ's about Burnout which includes 6 short videos with transcriptions.



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