Stress and Burnout

By definition, burnout is a condition experienced by workers and other professionals, in which they develop depression-like symptoms as a result of aspects of their role. Burnout may manifest as showing signs of physical, mental and/or emotional exhaustion as a result of stress related to their job or workplace.1

The stressors of a job or workplace causing burnout may affect a person’s life in a variety of ways. A number of possible physiological and psychological symptoms may develop, and these will significantly affect their overall quality of life. Common signs of burnout in the workplace include:

  • Anxiety

  • Headaches

  • Lack of sleep

  • Fatigue

  • An increasingly cynical outlook on life and work

 

Physicians and teachers are among the types of employees who most commonly experience work-related stress, leading to being diagnosed with burnout. However, experiencing work-related stress, becoming burned out and feeling overwhelmed to the point of ill-health due to the demands of one’s job or work environment can happen to any employee, in any job, and at any stage of professional life.

Recognizing the signs of burnout

Spotting the early warning signs of burnout in a coworker, employee, boss, someone with whom one is in a relationship, a family member or friend can be difficult, as the condition can develop over weeks or months, as their response to work-related stress evolves.

The symptoms to look out for may be different for every person. For instance, two coworkers in the same job role may respond to the same stressors in different ways; one may become burned out and the other may not. Alternatively, they may both become burned out, displaying different signs and symptoms from the wide range of possible symptoms that can characterize mental and/or physical burnout.

People affected by burnout from work-related stress may experience mental burnout, and present with some or all of the following psychological symptoms:

  • Reduced performance and productivity

  • Anxiety

  • Detachment

  • Feeling listless

  • Low mood

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Lack of creativity

  • Fatigue

  • Negative attitudes towards one’s coworkers or job

  • Low commitment to the role

  • Loss of purpose

  • Absenteeism

  • Quickness to anger

  • Job turnover

  • Cynicism

  • Emotional numbness

  • Frustration

 

Physical symptoms of burnout may include:

  • Exhaustion

  • Generalised aches

  • Headaches

  • Gastrointestinal disorders

  • Hypertension

  • Difficulty sleeping and/or a disrupted sleep cycle

  • Increased susceptibility to colds and flu

  • Muscle tension

 

Unsure if you, or a loved one, may be experiencing signs of burnout? Download the Ada app, your personal health guide for a free symptom assessment.

Signs of burnout, or stress?

Although burnout is caused by work-related stress, the symptoms that an employee exhibits when they are burned out, and the signs that they may be becoming burned out, are different to the signs and symptoms of an employee experiencing stress. There are some key differences between the signs and symptoms of stress and burnout, as described in Harvard’s Helpguide:

Stress causes an employee to overengage with their work environment. Feeling anxiety that their productivity levels are not high enough, they will display symptoms like hyperactive, urgent behaviour, perhaps standing out from their coworkers.

In contrast, an employee who has experienced work-related stress to the point of becoming burned out will exhibit symptoms like disengagement and a lack of productivity, due to feeling detached from their work environment.

The damage to the health of an employee, from stress, is primarily physical; an employee who is experiencing stress continually is at increased risk of neurological and physical changes, due to having elevated levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Symptoms of stress which an employee may display and experience include a decreased sex drive, insomnia and muscle tension.

An employee who has burned out has already been affected by these stress levels for weeks or months, during which time they will increasingly lose their energy. They are unlikely to experience new physical symptoms related to the ongoing work-related stressors that have caused them to burn out, as the physical 

 symptoms of burnout are those of ongoing stress. Instead, the symptoms a person who is burned out will experience are primarily psychological, related to feeling increasingly listless and unmotivated in the workplace.

In general, becoming burned out follows on from experiencing a prolonged period of work-related stress. This means that both the physical symptoms of burnout, such as gastrointestinal disorders, and the psychological symptoms, such as cynicism, are likely to build up gradually over time, before a person, or their coworkers, family and friends, begin to realise that they have become burned out.