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What is workplace burnout?

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Dr. Rob McCartney17 July 2022|4 min read

We’ve all heard someone say that they were burnt out at work, or even said it ourselves when feeling tired and overwhelmed.  Feeling like we have too much to do, and too little time to do it, is not a rare experience in today's world. 

Did you know that not only is burnout a real experience that can devastate workers and cost workplaces, but the World Health Organisation has been telling us to sort it out since 1994?

Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion 
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job 
  3. A sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

Burnout is what happens when high levels of stress in a workplace are not managed and we move from a place of stress and overwhelm - too much work, too much pressure, too many work needs we can’t manage – to a place of exhaustion, cynicism and withdrawal – too little energy, too little care, too little left. 

It is not considered a medical diagnosis, but it is a reason that people will go to health services for help.

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The 5  stages of burnout

Burnout does not suddenly appear, it is a result of that ongoing (and not managed) stress.  We often talk about 5 stages of burnout, with symptoms of each rolling into the higher levels.

1. Honeymoon phase

Usually a new workplace or a new role. Everything is exciting and new, we’re often happy to take on more, producing well. If you can stay here, excellent!

Ideally, this would be the best time to put in place boundaries and routines to protect yourself. Most of us aren’t great at that, and in our enthusiasm, we take on more, setting ourselves up for the next stage. 

2. Onset of stress phase

This is where we start becoming aware of some stress, but not every day. We lose some of our optimism, have lower productivity and job satisfaction, and may avoid decision-making.

Some symptoms of stress show; anxiety, fatigue, and irritability. We might be getting less, or not as good sleep, and it could affect memory and social interactions. 

Physically stress can affect blood pressure, and we can even get headaches, heart palpitations or cardiovascular symptoms. 

3. Chronic stress phase

Anxiety every day, the feeling that “this is your life now”. Symptoms from the previous stage would intensify.

There can be increased resentfulness and aggressive behaviour or social withdrawal. We may be feeling pressured or threatened. There is chronic exhaustion, a cynical attitude, procrastination, and apathy.

Some people increase alcohol/drug consumption as a coping mechanism or have decreased sexual desire. 

4. Burnout phase

We’ve now run out of energy, with that physical and emotional exhaustion. Feeling detached from work and social life but obsessed with our problems and pessimistic outlook. Behaviour changes, self-doubt, neglect of personal needs and social isolation.

Physical symptoms increase and intensify, including headaches, and gastrointestinal problems. 

5. Burnout as a lifestyle

As nothing gets better, this experience becomes part of our sense of self. At this stage, we have chronic sadness, mental and physical fatigue, and low mood. 

Once people get to these last two stages, it can take a lot of work and a long time, maybe over 12 months to recover.  This is definitely a case of prevention works much better than the cure. 

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Signs and symptoms of burnout

The signs and symptoms of burnout can present in our physical and mental health and also how we show up at work.

Physical signs and symptoms:

  • Weight gain
  • Elevated cholesterol and blood pressure
  • Back, neck and shoulder pain
  • Prolonged fatigue
  • Respiratory and digestive problems

Psychological signs and symptoms:

  • Poor sleep and sleep quality
  • Low mood
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability

Workplace signs and symptoms

  • Increased mental distance from your job
  • Feelings of negativism or cynicism toward your job
  • Reduced professional efficacy
  • Lack of motivation and enthusiasm for work

What causes burnout?

There have been many attempts to explain what causes burnout, all of which come down to a mismatch between what a job demands from the worker and what it gives back.  

  • Work overload – Is there too much work to do?
  • Control – Do you get a say in the work, how the job works?
  • Rewards – Do the rewards – salary and otherwise – seem reasonable?
  • Community – Do the people you work with cause stress?
  • Fairness – Are decisions made by your work fair, and do you get treated with respect?
  • Values – Do the values of the workplace match your values?

On an individual level, high achievers are more likely to develop burnout – often being given more work because they are so good at getting things done, and they have high standards for themselves.  

Burnout was first identified in healthcare workers and workers in human services, and they are still strongly associated with burnout, although it can occur in any workplace. 

Commitments outside of the workplace have an effect too. Women or people who have a higher burden of care outside of work are also at higher risk.

Younger people or people earlier in their careers generally seem to be at higher risk, however, the risk increases again as people take on care of their parents at a later age. 

Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board July 2022

Dr Rob McCartney is a physician who has specialised in the field of Occupational and Environmental Medicine for over 20 years. His career goal is to maximise the health, wellbeing and productivity of working people. Rob is a passionate and highly experienced doctor with a track record of managing risk and solving problems at the worker/workplace interface. Rob is a member of the healthylife Advisory Board.

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. If you have any concerns or questions about your health you should consult with a health professional.