Exhausted and Burnt Out? What Is Burnout and How Can You Prevent It?

Laura Piana
Personal skills

Defining burnout—What does it entail?

Burnout is a major concern in our fast-paced, complex and challenging work environment. Burnout—and its impact—should not be underestimated. The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, known as the ICD, defines burnout as "being burned out" and "a state of complete exhaustion" (WHO, 2019). The German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger described burnout as a "breakdown due to overwork and stress" (Freudenberger, 1974). Burnout can affect anyone—managers and students, parents and retirees, children and young professionals.

Causes of burnout—How does burnout happen?


Why do some people stay healthy while others develop burnout? There are several risk factors that contribute significantly to burnout. Usually, several of these risk factors come together when burnout occurs.

  • Unfavorable work and organizational factors, such as a conflict-ridden corporate culture, different demands from different people, time pressure or lack of autonomy, are considered breeding grounds for burnout.

  • Similarly, the lack of separation between work and personal life can lead to burnout, as is often the case in home offices.

  • In addition to these factors, an individual's coping style—the way he or she deals with these demands and stresses—plays a critical role in the development of burnout. When you can't find a good way to deal with your worries and stress, you feel overwhelmed and the current situation seems unmanageable.

  • Personality also plays a role in the development of burnout. People who are highly ambitious, achievement-oriented and prone to perfectionism have a higher risk of developing burnout. Especially if appreciation is very important to them and they don't handle criticism well.

The stages of burnout—How does burnout progress?

The progression of burnout is quite similar for most people and can be divided into three stages.

1. Stage:

Characterized by strong commitment and high performance.

2. Stage:

In this stage, short recovery times and high work demands deplete resources. It is no longer possible to disconnect from work at the end of the day. Dissatisfaction sets in. Individuals exert themselves to the point of complete exhaustion. This often leads to the third stage: the actual burnout syndrome.

3. Stage:

This third stage is characterized by total physical and emotional exhaustion. In addition to exhaustion, typical signs of burnout include cynicism and a sense of alienation, as well as reduced performance.

Symptoms of burnout—How can it be detected?


How can you tell if you are burned out and suffering from a burnout? There are a number of physical and psychological signs to look out for. In addition to feelings of exhaustion, cynicism, and decreased performance, these include listlessness, muscle tension, sleep problems, fatigue, irritability, resignation, rumination, difficulty concentrating, and more. Burnout can manifest itself in many different ways. For this reason, burnout is also referred to as a syndrome, a combination of different symptoms that typically occur simultaneously. Not all individuals experience the same symptoms. Moreover, it is not always easy to distinguish burnout from other illnesses. For example, some of the symptoms mentioned may also occur in depression.

Burnout test—How can I tell if I have burnout?

The Maslach Burnout Inventory is the most widely used burnout test (Maslach, Jackson & Leiter, 1997). You can use this test to find out if you may be experiencing burnout. If you agree with statements such as "I feel emotionally drained from my work," or "I feel exhausted at the end of a workday," or even "I feel tired when I get up in the morning and see a new day of work ahead of me," this could indicate that you are indeed suffering from burnout. Physicians and psychologists may want to conduct further diagnostic tests to make a more definitive diagnosis.

What is the treatment for burnout?


Having burnout doesn't mean you'll be sick forever. Burnout can be treated and is curable, although recovery will take time. The first step is to acknowledge the condition and accept that you may not be able to perform at your best for a while.

Two important things help against burnout: time and professional support! If you feel psychologically burdened, you can seek help—for example, in the form of psychotherapy. Psychotherapeutic interventions help to sustainably improve one's own lifestyle and living conditions. Burnout rarely cures itself. However, with support it is usually much quicker and more effective! Another good thing to do for burnout is to take an unpaid leave of absence. Ideally, you should take at least two weeks away from your everyday life and work-related stressors. During this time, you can rest and take care of yourself and your own needs.

The amount of time you take for an unpaid leave of absence depends on how severe your burnout symptoms are. Not to mention the severity of the burnout determines the recovery time—and therefore your time off work. While for some it takes several weeks to get better, for others it may well take several months. The average unpaid leave of absence for burnout lasts about two to three months, however recovery can sometimes take longer.

Burnout prevention— effectively prevent burnout with self-care


It's best to take care of yourself and your needs before you feel exhausted. This way you can recharge your batteries and recover without the risk of running yourself ragged. To do this, the following tips may help you:

Develop healthy routines!

In concrete terms, this means getting enough sleep, eating healthily and exercising regularly. Use your lunch break for an active break, prepare a healthy meal of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats for your lunch break the night before and turn off your cell phone at night before you go to bed.

Maintain your social relationships!

Humans are social creatures—closeness, exchange and a sense of belonging are important to us. Furthermore, spending time with good friends, or your partner and family members usually has a stress-relieving, anti-depressant, and self-esteem-boosting effect.

Just do... nothing!

Just take some time to listen to your own thoughts. Allow yourself to just do nothing without pressure. Maybe try sleeping-in peacefully, starting the morning relaxed, and so forth. This reduces stress and will do you good.

In general, an effective stress management and coping with emotionally stressful situations—such as conflicts—are also helpful in preventing burnout. Knowing how to communicate with respect and appreciation also makes dealing with difficult counterparts less stressful.

The opposite of burnout: the boreout

Maybe you've heard of the so-called "boreout". In a way, this is the opposite of the burnout syndrome. Boreout is triggered by too few or no challenging tasks in the daily work routine, resulting in permanent lack of challenge. In the case of boreout, one's own work is experienced as boring and usually not very meaningful. Like burnout, boreout is caused by problems at work, but in the opposite way. The symptoms of burnout and boreout are usually identical, so sufferers with boreout also suffer from sleep disturbances, exhaustion, nervousness and concentration problems. Boreout should also be addressed with a physician.

Let's summarize: If you feel stressed and/or exhausted for an extended period of time, don't be afraid to contact a doctor and seek professional help. Ideally, however, you should intervene before the first symptoms appear and give your body and mind the time they need to recover.

Learn more about burnout and how you can prevent it from happening in our training: Understanding and Managing Burnout Better

Freudenberger, H. J. (1974). Staff burn-out. Journal of social issues, 30(1), 159-165.

Maslach, C., Jackson, S. E., & Leiter, M. P. (1997). Maslach Burnout Inventory Scarecrow Education.

WHO (2019). Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases. Retrieved 10/11/2023 from https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases.

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