What Is Burnout?

Burnout is “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” Corporate burnout is extreme exhaustion “due to stress from working with people under difficult or demanding conditions.”

Whether you are an executive concerned about one of your employees or are wondering how to cope with your own stressful job, burnout is a challenging subject to address.

Workers who feel squeezed might not feel safe talking to their managers about how they feel. Managers who see their team suffering under new demands might be at a loss as to how to make the necessary changes to lower everyone’s stress level.

Burnout is not just workplace stress, but a “sinister and insidious” process that slowly, and often invisibly, saps morale.

Just like the proverbial frog in the pot that does not notice the slow and steady heating of the water, people suffering from burnout often don’t recognize the trouble they’re in until things reach a boiling point. By then, it is hard to recover, because unaddressed burnout eventually leads to “a complete inability to function.”

It is not uncommon for workers to resign in despair or be fired for worsening job performance before anyone recognizes burnout as a problem.

What Are the Signs of Burnout?

It is equally important for employees who value their jobs and managers who want to retain employees to recognize the signs of burnout. Physical changes or ailments are often the first symptoms.

Stressed out workers might gain or lose weight due to stress-related changes in appetite.

They might come into work with bags under their eyes from lack of sleep or exhibit physical problems like headaches, back pain, or gastrointestinal issues.

These individuals might get sick more often, whether or not they’re calling out of work. They might start showing a lack of concern about their physical appearance.

Psychological factors are more difficult to spot.

This is why it’s important for managers to talk to employees regularly and create an atmosphere where workers feel safe to express job-related concerns. Something as simple as saying, “I know things have been hard around here lately,” can help colleagues realize they’re not alone. Workers who are burning out feel disconnected from others and respond by isolating themselves further.

One of the most telltale signs of burnout is irritability.

If you think you’re at risk of burnout, ask yourself how often you’ve felt angry lately. Are you repressing your feelings all day at work and coming home exhausted from the effort?

Are you snapping at family members or coworkers? or feeling cynical or pessimistic? If so, take these warning signs seriously and reach out. People often make the mistake of thinking they can just grit their teeth and “get through it.”

While this might be possible in the short term, it’s impossible to sustain over the long term. When you’re tired all the time, angry, and hopeless, you’re pushing your mind to “run on empty.”

Eventually, you get to the fumes at the bottom of the tank and sputter to a halt.  

What Causes Burnout?

While stress is always a factor in burnout, not every stressful workplace causes burnout. Some types of stress actually have a positive effect on workers and make them love their jobs more.

Positive stress gives people a sense of efficacy and bolsters their belief that efforts will be rewarded. It is an essential factor in personal and professional growth.

Toxic stress, on the other hand, makes people feel taken for granted and like they will not be rewarded for their hard work.

Employees suffering from negative stress feel a lack of control and like they cannot influence workplace decisions. They feel stagnant and hopeless, like nothing will ever change.

The most significant factor in corporate burnout is workload.

The pressure of having to do more work in the same amount of time eventually wears people down. When workload is the main or only source of burnout, you can make measurable changes to address it.

In contrast, the second highest cause of burnout, interpersonal stress, is harder to monitor and regulate.

Measures to combat this common cause of job dissatisfaction often backfire. Policies put into place to cut down on malicious gossip or unfair treatment can drive these issues underground and make employees even more averse to talking to management about their concerns.

This doesn’t mean it’s hopeless—there are many things you can do to improve workplace morale.

How Can I Prevent Burnout?

Burnout can only be prevented if companies and their employees work together to develop a healthy workplace culture that encourages self-care.

For companies, preventing burnout requires setting up the workplace to minimize the common causes of toxic stress.

First, you need to create a culture of openness and transparency.

When you communicate about essential matters and invite all staff to be part of the problem-solving process, you empower and bring out the best in everyone. Make sure workloads are reasonable and encourage work-life balance.

For workers, preventing workout is a matter of practicing self-care and communicating about personal needs.

Taking care of your physical health and having a regular exercise routine are vital in the battle against stress.

To maintain clear thinking and an upbeat mood, make sure you get enough sleep.

To guard against interpersonal stressors, set boundaries and give yourself permission to say “no” when you’re asked to do something that you can’t handle.

How Can I Recover From Burnout?

If you’re reading this and recognizing yourself in the descriptions of burnout, don’t worry that it’s too late. Recovery is possible no matter how overwhelmed you’ve become.

In worst-case scenarios, you might need to quit your job. Sometimes you just need to move on. Having an honest exit interview can help you get a good reference if this is the situation you are in.

If you are an employer, the same rule applies: letting an unhappy worker go can free you to focus on the future and make the improvements you need to make to the workplace.

However, it is often possible to improve things without parting ways. If you’re a manager, encourage your employees to use your employee assistance program (EAP). This allows them to speak honestly about their frustrations without worrying about what managers will think.

Help your employees adjust their workloads as needed and give them time and space to recover.

If you’re an employee, make sure to care for your physical health and regain your sense of control. Talk to human resources and to your manager. Take breaks when you need to take them. Set firm boundaries and don’t agree to projects you’re not ready to take on.

Reexamine your goals and engage in introspection.

In some cases, it might be your personal or family life you most need to change. Allow for recovery One of the most insidious aspects of burnout is the sense of hopelessness it can cause. It’s not uncommon for people or companies to go into “survival mode” and deem change impossible.

Don’t let this be you! Things can and will get better. The first and most important step is to open your doors and start talking to each other.


  • Dr. Teyhou Smyth

    Performance Coach, Adjunct Professor of Psychology, Keynote Speaker, Licensed Therapist (#115137)

    Living with Finesse

    • Do you want to live life with finesse?
    • Do you want to be the best version of yourself?
    • Do you want to reach your full potential?
    • Do you want better work/life balance?
    Discovering the diversity of human existence can be the catalyst you need to begin transforming your life. Many of us have found mental and emotional wellness through self-awareness and unconditional self-love. However, self-discovery can be a challenging process. This is especially true among individuals who feel pressured to conform to perceived expectations regarding job performance, cultural background, or gender identity. Even the highest functioning people can struggle to maintain the self-care necessary for overall well being. Living with Finesse series will help you work on: - Developing emotional intelligence and resilience; - Strengthening professional and personal identity; - Avoiding performance anxiety and fatigue; - Coping with high expectations, personal and professional; - Stress Management and avoid corporate burnout; - Addiction issues and impulse control; - Understanding one’s own gender and cultural identity; - Depression/Anxiety; - Life Transitions. - Relationship Issues