Understand Burnout on symptoms and how to treat

Burnout symptoms and treatment

In the last two years, the world has experienced disruption on a large scale. As a result, the workplace, as we once knew it, has gone through significant levels of change.


Not only did this evolution happen rapidly, but we had not experienced similar levels of change for a long time. The catalyst for these changes was the Covid-19 pandemic and it created an induced sense of uncertainty in people’s professional and personal lives.


While it is a normal reaction to be fatigued or exhausted when faced with unprecedented levels of change and volatile times, continued exposure to extreme levels of stress for prolonged periods of time can cause people to burnout.


Nowadays, the word ‘endemic’ is regularly surfacing, and scientists predict that Covid-19 will become endemic over time and that outbreaks will still be an occurrence across the world.


Safe to say that Covid-19 is here to stay and unlikely to disappear for a while. Therefore, burnout demands our attention.


Based on statistics from the 2021 Workplace Burnout Study,  burnout is on the rise, and it has increased by more than 5% in the last 12 months.


This study authored by Dr. John Chan of Infinite Potential and burnout expert Sally Clarke took place across 30 countries including Australia and had 3,273 respondents. Its findings were that 34.7% of those surveyed were experiencing burnout, up from 29.6 % in 2020.


This leads to the growing problem of burnout not being specific to some industries or countries. Instead, it spans across all industries and borders. This article will provide some insights on what burnout is, its causes, and how to combat it.


What is Burnout?

The origins of the term “burnout” dates to 1974 and was first coined by Herbert J Freudenberger, 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”.


Whilst we are increasingly becoming aware that people are burnout, it is important that we clearly understand what burnout is.


We do know that burnout is having a negative impact on attrition, wellbeing, productivity, and culture, which are key elements in an organisation’s ability to achieve its commercial objectives. Below are some of the quantifiable impacts of burnout.

Workplace Burnout Study

Burnout is often associated with feeling tired and stressed, but this is a misconception about what burnout truly is. This fundamental misunderstanding creates over-reporting in the media and distracts from formulating viable data-supported solutions.


To clear up misconceptions, in 2019, the World Health Organisation defined burnout as “A syndrome… resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.


This definition highlights that burnout is a product of chronic workplace stress and proclaims that burnout is caused by organisations.


In doing so, it shifts the paradigm of cause away from the individual or their circumstances. Conversely, the effects of burnout negatively impact individual’s professional efficacy, wellbeing, and cynicism, and is a reaction to chronic or prolonged workplace stress.


Burnout is characterized by three dimensions:

• feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

• increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and

• reduced professional efficacy.


In simplified terms, if your productivity has dropped, you are feeling exhausted and have resentment for your job, then you are showing signs of burnout. However, burnout is a complex issue, and its effects vary from one individual to another.


The 2021 Workplace Burnout Study set out to create a clear demarcation between individuals experiencing burnout and those who aren’t.


“The study asked respondents to rate their current overall well-being, their level of productivity and the quality of work compared to a year before”.


It found that burnout was on the rise in the three main dimensions – exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced performance, as illustrated by the graph below.

Burnout trends graphic

Causes of burnout

The root cause of burnout needs to be identified and addressed if we want to resolve this growing predicament for wellbeing and productivity.


Following on from the definition of burnout from World Health Organisation, it implies that managers and organisations have control over the chronic workplace stress it exerts upon employees.


The study highlights two (2) core factors as the root causes of burnout – Team and Organisational factors.


• Team factors

Lack of manager support

Unreasonable time pressure

Unmanageable workload

Unclear and inconsistent communication from managers

Unfair/Inequitable treatment


• Organisational factors

Poor senior leader role modeling

Lack of support structures and guidelines

Structural under-resourcing

Adherence to outdated modes of working

Values mismatch


Tackling work burnout

There isn’t a simple or straightforward solution to burnout but there are actionable steps that can be implemented to reduce work-related stress. Below are some of the standout actions.


1. Manageable workload

Review the workload of your team members and ensure that it is manageable. If needed, re-allocate the work more evenly or consider hiring additional resources to cope with an influx of work. Recruiting temporary team members might be a viable and cost-effective solution if it is a temporary influx in workload. Don’t pile on the work onto your existing team and hope that they will cope.


2. Train managers to identify stressors and signs of burnout

Burnout is a new concept for managers and team members alike. Managers need training in order to clearly understand what the stressors and signs of burnout are if they are responsible for helping their team members. After all, how can they address what they don’t understand. Make no mistake, burnout cannot be mitigated without appropriate training for those in charge. 


3. Make wellness central to your culture

Might sound cliché, but wellness needs to take center stage and be embedded as part of the business strategy. The wellness ethos needs to be driven from the top-down and woven into the culture and fabric of the organisation. It isn’t enough to talk about it, leaders need to truly lead by example and live it every day. 


4. Increase visibility of workload

Leaders need to have clear visibility of the workload team members are shouldering and be across the capacity of everyone within the team. This links into manageable workload and without visibility, it’s an educated guess at best that managers are making. Increased visibility will help reassignment of work and easing of workload if and when necessary.  


5. Adjust unreasonable expectations

Leaders need to practice managing unreasonable expectations thrusted upon them and their teams by clients and stakeholders. The key term here is unreasonable. Leaders have targets to meet and key deliverables to adhere to but professionally challenging unattainable deadlines or goals needs to be a point of discussion and negotiated with tact with clients and stakeholders where possible.   


6. Set boundaries – Days off and weekends

Boundaries need to be established and respected. Team members need time off to recuperate and be productive. Leaders should avoid contacting team members on their days off and weekends. Minimal contact outside of business hours would also be recommended, however, that’s not always feasible when operating a business. 


7. Set an example

Champion and role-model behaviours that are in line with your wellbeing program. Team members need to witness firsthand that it is the norm to have a day off and not work on weekends. They also need to observe their leaders negotiate for reasonable deadlines and manage expectations so that they in turn feel empowered to do so.


8. Mental health day

Team members need to be afforded the ability to take a mental health day without being asked too many questions upon return. Ensure that your team members are supported and know where to access relevant services like an employee assistance program (EAP), however, allow them to take the mental health day without having to come back to an interrogation. If you don’t strike the right balance and your team members really need the mental health day, they won’t take it due to apprehension of the questions it will prompt.


burnout at work symptoms and how to treat


Similarly, to the Covid-19 pandemic, burnout is here to stay, and leaders will need to play an integral role in shaping how their teams are supported to deliver in this ever-shifting environment. In order to thrive, organisations will need to have an engaged, highly productive, and agile workforce.


Furthermore, processes will need realignment and cultures will need to shift to better support team members. The only way this is possible is if burnout is addressed as part of the wellbeing initiatives an organisation embeds in its strategy.


In this article, we have laid out eight (8) actionable steps that can be implemented to reduce work-related stress, utilise them to deal with burnout, and use them to further your competitive advantage.


Undeniably change is never easy to manage or implement but effectively doing so, should result in a more engaged workforce with higher productivity and the capability of prospering despite any adversity they might face in the future.


At HR Expertise, our HR Consultants provide different engagement and wellbeing solutions to help businesses address burnout.


We partner with clients to formulate a holistic wellbeing initiative that ties into their strategic plan, and we utilise various methods to tackle burnout. If your team is showing signs of chronic or prolonged workplace stress, contact our hr health check service. We would love to work with you.