Author: Zawn Villines
Burnout is a reaction to intense and usually chronic stress. Most research discusses burnout in relation to a person’s job. However, other roles, such as being a parent or caregiver, can also sometimes lead to burnout. Burnout symptoms can affect a person’s work and relationships, as well as their emotional and physical well-being.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in the 11th revision of its International Classification of Diseases. Many diagnostic guides, including the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), do not. According to the WHO, burnout is not a medical condition, but it may cause physical symptoms.
Burnout tends not to be an individual phenomenon. Instead, it often arises when there is systemic or organizational dysfunction, such as in abusive or chaotic workplaces. It can also happen in unusually stressful situations, such as those that healthcare professionals and unsupported parents or caregivers faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Identifying burnout symptoms can help a person get help, address the issues with their job or role, and ultimately improve their health. Keep reading to learn more.
Burnout is a type of stress that a person experiences in a job or role that makes them feel drained, overwhelmed, or powerless. It causes a person to lose interest in their role, feel less equipped to do it, and lose a sense of purpose. In many cases, a person experiencing burnout may no longer want to do their job.
Burnout can negatively affect job performance, as well as physical and mental health. A 2020 review of research involving nurses with burnout found that burnout increased turnover, illness, and absenteeism.
Burnout may affect people other than the person experiencing stress. It can cause job performance to decline and increase the chance of errors, potentially having catastrophic effects. The review found that among nurses, burnout correlates with more medication errors, worse patient safety and experience, poor care quality, infections, and patient falls.
The symptoms of burnout vary from person to person, and not all people with burnout experience all of the possible symptoms. However, they may include:
- compassion fatigue, which may reduce a person’s ability to feel compassion for people who are depending on them for care
- fatigue and exhaustion, which can be physical or mental
- a reduced sense of competence and achievement at work
- increased physical health complaints, such as headaches or joint pain
- sleep problems
- symptoms of depression, sadness, or hopelessness
- use of alcohol or other drugs to cope
- fantasizing about leaving the job or role
- mistreating others, such as when a parent or caregiver treats a child badly or a manager mistreats a subordinate
- a lack of a sense of purpose, joy, or identity from the role
A 2018 review looking at burnout among physicians found that emotional exhaustion was the most common symptom, with 72% of participants reporting this symptom.
Burnout symptoms may vary depending on the cause. A 2020 review of two studies suggests that the symptoms of parental burnout may be distinct. In addition to traditional burnout symptoms, parents also report neglecting and being violent toward their children. People with job burnout, in contrast, were likely to report that they intended to leave the job.
Anyone working in a highly demanding situation — including unpaid work as a caregiver or parent — may develop burnout. However, some risk factors include:
- long working hours
- unsatisfying bureaucratic or administrative work
- work-life balance issues, which can occur due to having a stressful job with little support at home or working long hours and then being up frequently overnight with a baby
- poor flexibility or lack of control over a person’s work or working environment
- lack of support from a manager or leadership team
- doing a job that conflicts with a person’s values
- a toxic or unsupportive working environment
As burnout is more likely to occur in a dysfunctional or abusive working environment, the most effective treatments address the underlying cause of burnout by preventing it in the first place.
People experiencing burnout may need to leave their role, take time away from work, or ask for changes to their working environment. Some other interventions may improve their ability to manage stress. These include:
- strategies that boost resilience, such as psychotherapy
- taking time away from work
- measures that improve well-being, such as exercise and meditation
- self-care measures
- finding ways to improve work-life balance
- treatment for any underlying mental or physical health conditions
- mindfulness-based practices, which can improve stress management
The likelihood of recovering from burnout is high when a person seeks treatment and has institutional support at work.
Without treatment, burnout can erode physical and mental health. In extreme cases, it can lead to serious complications, including addiction, and even suicide. Seeking help early can mitigate the negative health effects of burnout.
A person should seek help if they are:
- experiencing stress-related symptoms, such as headaches or chronic pain
- feeling overwhelmed, unhappy, or dissatisfied at work
- developing depression or anxiety related to work
- using drugs or alcohol to cope with the stress of work
Sometimes, it may be necessary to look for a new job or seek more support within another role. For example, a family caregiver may need to bring in a home health aide to help them support a parent needing daily care, or a person may need a relative, friend, or babysitter to help shoulder the burden of child care.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 800-273-8255.
Numerous strategies can prevent burnout. Many of these fall under the responsibilities of employers and managers. They include:
- constructing collegial, supportive environments
- providing leadership support for workers
- ensuring that workloads are reasonable and manageable
- acknowledging and rewarding hard work
- offering well-being programs
- offering greater flexibility
- supporting a good work-life balance
- giving employees greater control over their work and workload
- developing an organizational culture that reflects workers’ values
Burnout can erode worker mental health, make parenting or caring feel overwhelming, and harm the people whom organizations and individuals aim to support. It does not have to be an inevitable part of any job, even a difficult one.
With the right institutional support, a person can avoid burnout. Even without this support, strategies that help a person better manage stress and boost resilience can help.
Ultimately, a person may need to leave a toxic or draining work environment to escape burnout, especially if there are no options for improving the working conditions.