What is Workplace Burnout?


It’s been dubbed a sign of the times and a major public health issue, for a good reason!  Occupational burnout is common in today’s workplace when extended working hours and increased levels of job pressure have become the norm. Changes in working habits undoubtedly led to job burnout. Still, with a widespread pandemic and other current global social and political crises, it’s no surprise that workplace burnout is at an all-time high.

The workplace, as we previously knew it, has undergone tremendous transformation. Not only did this development occur quickly, but we haven’t experienced this level of change and uncertainty in a long time. The Covid-19 pandemic acted as a catalyst for these shifts, creating an induced sense of insecurity in people’s professional and personal life. While it is entirely normal to feel weary or drained when confronted with extraordinary amounts of change and unpredictable times, sustained exposure to severe levels of stress can lead to burnout.

While burnout can feel isolating and sometimes never-ending, there are steps you can take if you are on the verge of being – or are already – burnt out.

What is Workplace Burnout?

Firstly though, what is workplace burnout? The concept “burnout” was originally used in 1974 by Herbert J Freudenberger in his book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. He described burnout as the loss of motivation or drive, particularly when one’s dedication to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired outcomes.

Burnout is further defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and is characterised by: 

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased feelings of cynicism and detachment from your job
  • Job dissatisfaction
  • Lack of belief in your ability to complete tasks

Burnout in the workplace frequently sneaks in slowly over time, affecting employees in ways they don’t immediately realise. Chronic fatigue, sleeplessness, physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches, anger, isolation, irritability, depression, and other symptoms are possible. If you find yourself struggling with the most basic tasks, becoming easily frustrated with coworkers, friends or family, and feeling as if you can’t do anything successfully, you may be suffering from burnout.

What are the 5 Stages of Burnout?

Burnout does not occur suddenly. Instead, your thoughts, emotions, and behaviours develop through a succession of stages. The early phases may not seem like much, but they might gradually build to a habitual phase that makes it difficult to carry out your usual workplace responsibilities. 

Typically we move through 5 stages of burnout. It’s important to recognise these stages and understand whether you are slowly moving toward burnout or even becoming habitually burnt out. The five stages of burnout are:

  1. Honeymoon stage
  2. Onset of Stress
  3. Chronic Stress
  4. Burnout
  5. Habitual Burnout

Honeymoon stage

The first stage is the Honeymoon phase and is relevant for new job roles, responsibilities, or projects. There are no symptoms of burnout in the honeymoon stage. Instead, you are full of excitement, dedication, and delight from your job. You are a particularly productive person who takes on every task and opportunity to do your best in this stage. You are creative, enthusiastic, and full of energy, and to demonstrate your abilities, you may take on more than you should. 

At this stage, we must ensure that we are alert enough to recognise and address any stressors and incorporate regular wellness practices into our work routines. If you do not prevent overworking and make time to wind down and rest, this may advance to the next stage before you realise it.

Onset of Stress

The honeymoon period eventually wears off, and you begin to feel stressed more often. Not every minute of your day will be stressful, but you may notice that some days will be more stressful than others. Take note of any physical or mental symptoms when this period begins. You may notice that you lose focus more frequently or are less productive when finishing activities. Physical tiredness might set in, making it difficult to sleep or enjoy activities outside of work.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress develops as a result of repeated high-stress experiences. As a result, your problem-solving abilities and performance suffer even more. You may start missing deadlines and procrastinate more often. Socially, you may distance yourself from usual work-related talks. Small things might also make you angry, resentful, or sad. These sentiments might sometimes follow you home and impact your interactions with friends and family.


This is the stage at which you have reached your limit and can no longer operate normally. If you do not address the previous phases properly, it might lead to severe fatigue, making it difficult to deal with work demands. When your levels of job-related stress are high, you have a general sensation of dread when you think about work. You don’t see a ‘way out’ of the situation and become disinterested in your career. You might also take frequent sick days to escape your stress.

Habitual Burnout

Burnout, if left unchecked, may become a part of your daily life and eventually lead to mental health concerns. Attempts to return to normalcy are more difficult than they have ever been. You may also develop persistent mental and physical exhaustion, which prevents you from functioning normally. If you find yourself in the habitual burnout phase, you may require outside assistance to return to the beginning stages.

What are the Symptoms of Workplace Burnout?

The symptoms of burnout vary depending on the stage of burnout you’re in. The official definition of burnout contains three key indicators to be mindful of exhaustion, increasing mental distance from your work, and decreased professional efficacy.

Exhaustion manifests itself both mentally and physically. It might show as exhaustion regardless of how much sleep you get, inability to relax, changes in sleep habits, and a lack of motivation in non-work aspects of life. You may feel that the energy you usually have has been sapped by persistent tiredness.

If you suffer from workplace burnout, you may experience a growing mental detachment from your job and perceive it as increasingly unpleasant and irritating. You may grow cynical about your workplace and your colleagues. Avoidance, impatience, procrastination, forgetfulness, lack of attention, arriving late or leaving work early, cynicism, and difficulty following through on or finishing assignments are symptoms of mental distance. You may also find yourself emotionally separating yourself from your work and becoming numb to it.

Reduced professional efficacy might show as a reluctance to communicate with coworkers, delays in completing important work, a lack of enthusiasm in continuing education, working on other projects during work hours, and feeling lost or disconnected in meetings. You may feel as though you’ve lost interest in tasks that used to bring you enjoyment. Your typical creativity may also decrease, and you may find it difficult to focus.

In simplified terms, burnout occurs when your productivity has decreased, you are fatigued, and are experiencing resentment for your job. However, burnout is a complex topic, and the effects differ from person to person.

The goal of the 2021 Workplace Burnout Study was to draw a clear line between those suffering from burnout and those who are not. The survey asked participants to rate their present general wellbeing, productivity, and quality of work in comparison to the previous year.  It discovered that burnout was increasing in three major dimensions: fatigue, cynicism, and decreased performance. If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, you may be suffering from workplace burnout.

What Causes Burnout in the Workplace?

Job burnout can occur at any point in a person’s career, but according to a recent study, the average worker may experience burnout as early as 32 years of age. The most prevalent causes of burnout in the workplace include working long hours and taking on too many responsibilities. Other issues include a sense of obligation to be continuously ‘on’ at work and not taking enough days off. To address and overcome employee burnout, we need to understand the underlying causes of burnout in the workplace. The following reasons tend to be the top reasons for job burnout. The following factors are likely to produce more stress and take a more significant toll on employees:

  1. Workload
  2. Lack of control
  3. Lack of Reward or Recognition
  4. High-stress environments
  5. Poor leadership

How to Reduce Burnout in the Workplace

We often perceive employee burnout as a personal issue that individuals can solve with self-help practices. However, evidence suggests that applying personal, band-aid remedies to an epic and multiplying workplace phenomenon may be damaging, rather than helping, the struggle. With the World Health Organisation officially recognising “burnout,” the responsibility for managing it has shifted away from the employee and onto the organisation. 

Workplaces are becoming increasingly aware of occupational burnout and its negative impact on attrition, wellbeing, productivity, and culture. These are critical aspects of an organisation’s ability to achieve company goals. While there isn’t a single fix for every employee, organisations can be aware of some general factors. Here are some ways businesses can help their employees manage and reduce burnout in the workplace.

  1. Manageable Workload
    Evaluate your team members’ workloads and make sure they are manageable. If necessary, re-allocate work more equally, re-prioritise tasks and projects or consider employing extra personnel to manage the increased workload. Don’t allocate additional work to your team at present and assume they can handle it. The most effective way to understand your employees’ workload is to schedule regular meetings to discover how they find their current workload.
  2. Train Managers to Identify Stressors
    Burnout is a new concept for both managers and team members. If managers are accountable for supporting their team members, they need proper training to recognise stressors and indicators of burnout. A DISC assessment is an excellent tool for managers to understand better their workers’ specific stressors and how they can help alleviate those stresses. Attending a DISC workshop is another effective tool managers can use to understand how to use DISC profiles to manage and reduce stress and employee burnout.
  3. Make Wellbeing Central to your Culture
    It may sound cliche, but workplace wellbeing must take centre stage, and companies need to integrate it into their business strategy now more than ever! An organisation that encourages working overtime hours or during personal time and generally putting work before family or friends will find it tough to overcome such burnout-inducing practices. The culture of wellbeing must be driven from the top down and incorporated into the company culture. It is not enough for leaders to talk about it; they must lead by example.
  4. Focus on Strengths-Based Feedback
    Employees who are given the opportunity to do what they do best at are 57% less likely to experience burnout regularly. Individuals who have the opportunity to utilise their strengths are more engaged, more productive, less stressed, and working to their natural behaviours. High-performing leaders understand where their staff shine and hunt for career possibilities that allow them to put their abilities and strengths to use. Managers place their team members in such a way that they are engaged as people while also adding value to the organisation. A DISC profile is an excellent way to identify your employees’ strengths.
  5. Encourage Teamwork
    Team members can provide emotional support to one another because they often understand the demands and stress of completing work better than managers. Employees who are struggling might rely on their coworkers for emotional assistance. However, this does not imply that managers should remain on the sidelines. On the contrary, it is the manager’s role to foster a work atmosphere in which collaboration flourishes, individuals assist one another, and everyone has someone at work who is prepared to listen. Great leaders create devoted, highly cohesive teams with solid relationships.