Employee Burnout: Signs, Causes and Cures

For two years now, the world has been paying attention to a pandemic that continues to kill people worldwide, caused by the COVID-19 virus. However, this is not the first time in history when humanity faces a turbulent period caused by a pathological agent.

Other diseases are invisible because they are psychological or psychiatric, such as anxiety or depression. According to World Health Organization data, depression affects more than 250 million people worldwide and is considered one of the main causes of absence from work. 

Mental illnesses and disorders have always existed, but, due to their invisibility, they were understood differently depending on when and where they occurred (mostly, they were interpreted as mythical or religious). During the Modern Age, they left the irrational world of natural or divine forces; scientists began to study them from what they really are. The treatment is recent, as well as the appearance and understanding of new mental illnesses/ disorders, like the Burn-out Syndrome.

The American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” in his book ”Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement''. He defined burnout as ''the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.''

He used it to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions. Doctors and nurses, for example, who sacrifice themselves for others, would often end up being “burned out” – exhausted, frazzled, and unable to cope. Nowadays, the term is not only used for these helping professions. It can affect anyone, from stressed-out career-driven people and celebrities to overworked employees and homemakers.

Due to isolation, remote working, interruption of daily routine, millions of people have altered their lifestyles, including working from home to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. On the other hand, essential employees like healthcare providers, grocery store workers, delivery services, transportation workers, first responders, and more still report to work every day to provide the daily services we need. Both types of employees experience stress, anxiety, and fatigue that affect their health and productivity. In other words, they suffer from burnout syndrome. 

This guide discusses Burnout Syndrome, understood as a silent pandemic that affects millions of workers worldwide.


  • The Definition of Burnout Syndrome
  • The Importance of addressing Burnout Syndrome
  • The Signs and Symptoms of Burnout Syndrome
  • The Causes and Factors Leading to Burnout
  • The Main Solutions to Deal with Employee Burnout
  • The Differences Between Stress and Burnout

Definition - What is Burnout Syndrome?

Until May 2019, burnout has been called a stress syndrome. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently updated its definition and included it in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. It is not classified as a medical condition

According to ICD-11, burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Three dimensions characterize it:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's position;
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

An unbalanced lifestyle can put people under extreme pressure, to the point that they feel exhausted, empty, burned out, and unable to cope. Stress at work can also cause physical and mental symptoms. Possible causes include feeling either permanently overworked or under-challenged, being under time pressure, or having conflicts with colleagues. The extreme commitment that results in people neglecting their own needs may also be at the root of it. Problems caused by an unhealthy workplace are a common reason for taking sick leave.

The importance - Why should we care about Burnout?

Work plays a crucial role in our lives. It gives us a sense, significance, and the opportunity to develop ourselves. Every manager wants a team of employees that are highly productive, enthusiastic, creative, and eager to accept challenging projects. Employees who feel they belong to a coherent workforce and contribute to the company’s top performance and bottom line are the definition of fulfilling work.

On the other hand, work may be too demanding, time and resources-consuming, we may be overwhelmed by prolonged stress and deep feelings of failure. Employees drained of energy, physically and emotionally exhausted, frequently make mistakes. They no longer find meaning in work, avoid projects and interactions with others, feel bad, and think about leaving the company - this is what burn-out looks like, burdensome work.

Burnout is a phenomenon that must be approached with honesty both by the organization and employees, mainly because:

# It hurts

Burnout has profound adverse effects on the employee's health and work-life balance. Beyond the numbers, it is worth reflecting on burnout if we truly value the people we work with, the idea of a healthy workplace, and we want to contribute to a harmonious organization favorable to both well-being and professional performance. An employee who has physical and mental balance will provide better and faster results to the company.

# It costs

Ignoring or placing burn-out at the bottom of the priorities list will slowly but surely lead to significant losses for the company, reflected in high employee turnover. According to The cost of work-related stress to society: a systematic review study, burnout has negative effects such as lack of motivation and creativity, reduced productivity, more errors, absenteeism, presenteeism, deterioration of the company's image on the labor market. The employees run on failure mode with discharged batteries. Moreover, burnout tends to stay and spread within a team. We rarely talk about a single employee with burnout syndrome.

Symptoms and signs - How do we recognize Burnout?

Rarely, mostly in cases of severe burn-out, the employee requesting an extended leave admits it is due to burn-out. Usually, there are signals when burn-out occurs: physiological, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. One of the early visible signals is that the person works too much (frequently works overtime, skips breaks, gives up personal time). Gradually, as burn-out deepens, fundamental issues such as motivation, performance, professional fulfillment, social relationships, health, and quality of life blur, and a persistent negative affects most areas of operation.

Burnout is not a monolithic phenomenon, but rather, it can present as any combination of three distinct symptoms

  • exhaustion (a decline of mental or physical resources), 
  • cynical detachment (a depletion of social connectedness), 
  • reduced sense of efficacy (a decrease of value for oneself).

There are three main areas in which the effects of burn-out are frequently reflected, including in a professional context:

  • the quality of interpersonal relationships
  • performance and relationships with work
  • health and quality of life.

Burnout symptoms that reflect in the quality of interpersonal relationships:

  • More difficult collaborations amid negative emotional mood and increased reactivity: burn-out employees are more irascible and cynical than before, their tolerance for frustration decreases, while the sensitivity to criticism decreases, they have a negative attitude or depressed mood. Sometimes they lead to relationship problems, difficulties in teamwork, and conflicts at work.
  • Unavailability: they no longer have the resources of energy, time, patience, and willingness to connect with people around them. Avoid or shorten discussions, meetings, or socializing opportunities, and alienation may occur.
  • The feeling of helplessness or being misunderstood by colleagues or bosses.

Burnout symptoms that reflect in the performance and relation with work:

  • Decreased productivity and efficiency: difficulties in meeting deadlines, it takes more effort than before to complete tasks leading to delays (in meetings, deliverables) or inability to complete work
  • Problems with concentration, memory, and decision, decreased attention and accuracy; difficulties in completing tasks that require creativity, disorganization (forgets to respond to some requests, postpones decision-making)
  • Presenteeism: the person is physically at work but not deeply connected and easily distracted
  • The difficulty of learning from mistakes
  • Lack of trust, pessimism
  • Low professional satisfaction, morale
  • The tendency to talk about work in a negative way
  • Frequent leaves in the past months
  • Intention to resign.

Burnout symptoms that reflect in health and quality of life:

  • Excessive consumption of substances (coffee, alcohol, sleeping pills)
  • Constant fatigue, lack of energy or vitality on most days (even at the beginning of the working day or after holidays and days off)
  • Deterioration of health: insomnia, migraines, stomach and muscles pain, general condition of tension, nausea, loss of appetite
  • Lack of time for extracurricular activities in the context of work overload

Causes and factors - What are the factors leading to burnout?

While burnout results from poor management of chronic workplace stress, the triggers may be professional and personal. Some individuals can make positive shifts in one or more of these areas and then happily stay in their current position, while others discover that the mismatch is still too significant and decide that it’s time to move on.

Various models and HR software functionalities help to explain and predict burnout. 

Six areas of worklife: A model of the organizational context of burnout (drawn from research by Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter of the University of California at Berkeley and Acadia University, respectively) establishes six organizational factors that lead to burnout: 

  1. Workload: When the workload matches the work capacity, the individual gets the work done, has opportunities for rest and recovery and finds time for professional growth and development. When chronically feel overloaded, these opportunities to restore balance don’t exist. To address the stress of workload, try to make progress in these time-management skill areas:  planning your workload, prioritizing your work, delegating tasks, saying no, and letting go of perfectionism.
  2. Lack of control: There’s a hidden cause of burnout that we don’t talk about much. And it has nothing to do with overworking. Shocker, right? Feeling like you lack autonomy, access to resources, and a say in decisions that impact your professional life can take a toll on your well-being. If you find yourself feeling out of control, step back and ask yourself, “What exactly is causing me to feel this way?” This feeling of powerlessness is the main reason why so many people find themselves getting sick, going on stress leave, and often eventually quitting.
  3. Reward: If the rewards for your job don’t match the amount of effort and time you put in, then you’re likely to feel like the investment is not worth the payoff. Look within and determine exactly what you need to feel properly appreciated. For example, perhaps you feel you deserve a raise or promotion. Maybe you need more positive feedback. Experiment to see which rewards would make what you are doing worth it.
  4. Community: In many cases, we can’t choose our colleagues and bosses, but we can improve the dynamic. It could be as simple as asking others how their day is — and really listening. Or sending an email to someone to let them know you appreciated their job. Or you are choosing to communicate something difficult in a respectful, nonjudgmental way. Burnout can be contagious, so to elevate your individual engagement, you must shift the group’s morale.
  5. Fairness: Do you believe that you receive fair and equitable treatment? Do you get acknowledgment for your contributions, or do other individuals get praised, and your work goes unnoticed? Does someone else get regular deadline extensions or access to additional resources when you don’t? If you feel that a lack of fairness intensifies your burnout, start by speaking up. 
  6. Values mismatch: If you highly value something that your company does not, your desire to work hard and persevere can significantly drop. Ideals and motivations tend to be deeply ingrained in individuals and organizations. When you’re assessing this element of burnout, you need to think carefully about how important it is to you to match your values with those of the organization. If you have firmly held values and those with influence in your organization differ from yours, you may need to look for a more harmonious opportunity.

Besides the organizational factors, there are also personal factors that trigger individual burnout:

  • Frequent negative emotions and pessimism (tendency to see the empty side of the glass)
  • Perfectionism, competitive nature, always under the pressure of time
  • Low resistance to stress and increased sensitivity to criticism
  • Unrealistic or idealistic expectations for work
  • Low level of assertiveness, excessive shyness
  • Lack of confidence in personal abilities and the tendency to attribute successes to external factors 
  • Reduced or problematic interpersonal relationships
  • Lack of recreational activities.

5. The Main Solutions to Deal with Employee Burnout

Don’t despair once you acknowledge burnout. Take a deep breath, relax, and check out the following tips showing how to deal with burnout at work:

Take a vacation

Talk to your manager as soon as possible and take a break. Not a five-minute break, and not a couple of days at home. You need a complete and total cut-off from work. Basically, you need a vacation.

Ideally, you should be gone for at least two weeks with zero office contact. Don’t make yourself available for calls. Don’t check your emails. If at all possible, go somewhere that is the complete opposite of work and do whatever makes you genuinely happy. Don't underestimate the harmful effects of burn-out.

Find a pressure relief 

Burn-out can build, leading to a pressure cooker of stress. If you don’t open that release valve from time to time, you are going to explode emotionally, have outbursts, or maybe do something that could hurt your career.

Generally, physical activity is ideal for stress release. The way you release your frustrations is not important, as long as it’s not harmful to yourself or others. What matters is that you find a way to let off steam.

Take a break from drinking coffee and alcohol

A lot of people deal with stress by turning to the bottle or dosing up on coffee, energy drinks, cigarettes, or even food. While these can sometimes be soothing in moderation, you can quickly become dependent upon them, especially if you’re using them to cope with significant or growing stress at work. Dependency leads to addiction, which isn't good.

Although something as simple as coffee seems harmless, it can deprive you of much-needed sleep. There's no secret to the dangers of alcohol and tobacco, and poor eating can lead to weight gain and associated health problems. So, while you may think you need them more than ever, find something else to calm and soothe your nerves. 

Ask for different responsibilities

As the old saying goes, "a change is as good as a rest," so talk to your manager about taking on different responsibilities. Perhaps you can swap accounts with someone else who is not worn out.

If you are good at your job, the organization will want to keep you and help you feel better at work. Every company wants to avoid employee turnover, especially if you are a talented creative. They would much rather put your skills to good use on a different account than lose you.

Have an honest conversation with someone close

Another way to relieve a little pressure is to share your problems, thoughts, and concerns with someone who genuinely cares about your well-being. It could be a spouse, your best friend, a neighbor, or a trusted co-worker. The person simply needs to be a shoulder to cry on, which is often all you need to release some of that bottled-up frustration and despair.

If you cannot find anyone to talk to, another option is to write a letter to the person, or people, who are adding to your burnout, such as your boss, a co-worker, or a client. Put down everything you want to say, but DO NOT send it to them. This is merely an exercise to get your frustrations off your chest.

Make work more fun and interesting

In some industries, exciting projects can alleviate several problems that come with an exhaustive schedule. Yes, you’re busy, but you’re having so much fun it’s not an issue. When you’re burning the candle at both ends on projects that do nothing to inspire you, that’s when burnout can really take hold. When this happens, find ways to do the jobs you’re working on more fun.

Work away from the traditional office

A change of scenery can do you a world of good, even if you’re still working 12-hour shifts seven days a week. Especially during the past year, most organizations shifted towards remote work. Find a local coffee shop, museum, or park.

Yet, avoid working from home. When you are experiencing burnout, you need to make every effort to separate work life from home life. The last thing you should be doing is bringing work home with you. That association compounds the problem, and before you know it, you associate home with the same feelings you have at work. Draw the line, and do not cross it.

Sleep, exercise, and eat healthy food

It goes without saying that when we get stressed, we look for ways to comfort ourselves. For many of us, that involves eating comfort foods, drinking alcohol, and collapsing on the sofa to binge-watch TV. However, those activities rarely cure burn-out and, in fact, can make you feel worse. Don’t reach for the chips and the remote. Instead, create a plan to exercise more and eat healthier foods. Get a good eight hours of sleep every night. A few weeks, or months, of this, and you will feel ready to take on the world.

Quit your job to cure your burnout

As a last resort, if the stress is too much, you may have to quit. For some people, it’s a choice between quitting and finding a more reasonable way to earn a living or persevering to the point of a breakdown. In that case, it’s no choice at all. You cannot afford to become so mentally and physically ill that you end up incapacitated. 

You will find other ways to earn a living, be it freelancing or finding a new career path altogether. Some people quit to start an entirely different line of work and become happy and stress-free.

If it comes to either quit or risks your sanity, then quit. Do whatever you can to relax and recharge. Burnout is serious, and its effects on your mental, emotional, and physical health shouldn't be underestimated. 

6. The difference - How can we differentiate stress from burnout?

Burn-out may result from unrelenting stress, but it isn’t the same as too much stress. Stress, by and large, involves too much: too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and mentally. However, stressed people can still imagine that they’ll feel better if they can just get everything under control.

Burnout, on the other hand, is about not enough. Being burned out means feeling empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring. People experiencing burnout often don’t see any hope of positive change in their situations. If excessive stress feels like you are drowning in responsibilities, burnout is a sense of being all dried up. And while you are usually aware of being under a lot of stress, you don’t always notice burnout when it happens.


Individuals bring their personality, expectations, and, especially, their personal and family problems to work. Personal and organizational risk factors have been described. Since burnout is a significant cause of absenteeism, mental health problems, and an unhealthy work environment, it is possible and essential to recognize the problem before arriving at a work stoppage. 

Preventing burnout is not only an individual concern but the company’s concern as well. Managers have a key role to play. Before an absence, the manager can become actively involved with the employee since it can detect the warning signs of burnout or absence. This type of proactive approach will often make it possible to prevent or shorten a work stoppage due to burnout.

Burnout is painful and disruptive, but it also has the potential to lead us to a much happier life. 

Believe it or not, there can also be a bright side to burnout. 

As Dina Glouberman explains in her book The Joy of Burnout: burning out may literally save our lives by stopping us before we suffer a more severe or fatal illness. It operates like a circuit breaker that keeps the whole system from blowing. On another level, burnout saves our life by showing us how and when our life lost its old meaning and by forcing us to do something about it. We may not save our old life, but we can free ourselves to be more fully alive. 

Coming back from burnout requires that we change our lives, but we know instinctively that we cannot recover without them. Once those changes have been made (whether deliberately or simply because we can no longer continue the way we have been), we discover joy in living that we thought had been lost in our lives. Burnout has literally saved our lives – it has taken us through the darkest places and deposited us, finally, in a world in which we find more space, time, balance, and ultimately perspective.

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