Understanding the Symptoms of Burnout

white and brown cigarette sticks

In the first post of this series (Whose Problem is Employee Burnout?) I explored burnout as a indication of a sick work environment. What do we mean by “burnout?” Let’s start first by defining the mental and physical symptoms of burnout and how that definition pertains to the workplace.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a reaction to prolonged or chronic job stress and is characterized by three main dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism (less identification with the job), and feelings of reduced professional ability.

Burnout, Symptoms and Treatment, Elizabeth Scott, MS

Authors of The Truth About Burnout, Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, describe burnout as an “erosion of the soul.” 1The Truth About Burnout, Maslach and Leiter, pg. 17 It occurs when the employee becomes disconnected from “the values, dignity, spirit and will” of the work they do. That erosion is seen along three dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of reduced professional ability.


Burned out employees may feel 2 types of exhaustion 2Stress and Burnout Symptoms and Causes, https://www.verywellmind.com/stress-and-burnout-symptoms-and-causes-3144516:

  • Physical exhaustion – this is an extreme level of fatigue that manifests itself in the body. The sufferer may experience headaches, aching muscles, or gastrointestinal issues.
  • Emotional exhaustion – such as lack of energy, inability to concentrate, and moodiness.


Cynicism is a form of depersonalization. It’s used to psychologically distance a person from a situation that is overwhelming or painful. Employees demonstrating cynicism will become sarcastic, negative, or callous towards others and will not display an interest in their work. Cynicism is an outward manifestation of the erosion of engagement that’s occurring internally. 3Beating Burnout, https://hbr.org/2016/11/beating-burnout

Feelings of reduced professional ability

Feelings of reduced professional ability may begin as a true lack of resources needed to perform a job well during difficult times. But in people experiencing burnout, these feelings are amplified because they are battling fatigue and a disconnection from their work. This can show itself as a lack of motivation or creativity in performing their job or can be as serious as dropping out of their work or social circles altogether.

Presence of some, one, or all dimensions

Burnout is not “one size fits all.” The severity of burnout may look different depending on the person. A sufferer may not have visible symptoms in all 3 dimensions. Or the manifestations may be more or less intense. This is why it can be difficult to self-diagnose and why checking in with employees regularly is so critical to monitoring burnout in employees.

Burnout Stages

While there are no set stages of burnout (online articles offer anywhere from 3-12 stages), there is a progression burnout. Paraphrasing an article from ThisIsCalmer.com 4This is Calmer, https://www.thisiscalmer.com/blog/5-stages-of-burnout, here is what that progression looks like:

This progression doesn’t have to happen because burnout is reversible when interventions are deployed earlier.

Burnout is a workplace syndrome

The World Health Organization (WHO) added burnout as a syndrome to its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). Burnout syndrome is an “occupational phenomenon.” It is not a mental illness. It is not the sign of a weak person. It is a form of trauma that occurs because of sustained and increasing levels of stress in a work environment.

Because burnout is related specifically to work environments, the “focus should be on fixing the workplace rather than . . . fixing the worker,” writes Sara Berg 5WHO adds burnout to ICD-11. What it means for physicians, https://www.ama-assn.org/practice-management/physician-health/who-adds-burnout-icd-11-what-it-means-physicians.

But what are factors that can cause burnout? We’ll explore that in the next post.

Published by Susan Moore

Co-chair Charlotte Carolina Club - Carolina Club Ambassador - Former Chair Jacksonville (FL) Carolina Club - Former Carolina Alumni Admissions Program representative

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