“Burnout” is the physiological and psychological response of the mind and body to chronic work stress, arising primarily from exhaustion. Unlike stress, which is usually high intensity, burnout is more of a feeling of being exhausted or depleted, or as one person put it, “having the joy sucked out of work and personal life.”

A recent survey revealed that 77 percent of workers had suffered burnout at their current job. On the other side of the coin, 69 percent of employers believed that their employees weren’t doing enough to prevent, reduce, or manage their burnout.

Employees suffering from burnout may exhibit signs of a more serious condition, such as clinical depression (technically called “major depressive disorder,” or simply MMD). Although similar in many ways, burnout is not the same as depression. Until fairly recently, depression had been thought to be caused by anger turned inward. Today, clinical depression is generally perceived to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and can usually be treated by medication (such as Prozac, Paxil, or any of the many other “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors,” or SSRIs) or psychotherapy (especially cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT for short), or a combination of the two.

Unlike depression, burnout is work-focused and caused by feelings of resentment directed outward at the job. Of course, this is not to say that burnout can never develop into depression; quite the opposite is true, especially if the burnout is not promptly and adequately addressed.

The World Health Organization identified three elements to burnout:
  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 
  2. Increased mental distance from, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to, one’s job; and
  3. A sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.


Here are some of the subtle signs that an employee may be suffering from burnout. While the presence of one sign may not alone be sufficient to signal burnout, although in some  situations it may, the more signs the employee exhibits the more likely that he or she is suffering from burnout and needs prompt help if he or she is going to continue being an integral part of the team.


An employee’s Loss of self-confidence in his or her ability to do the job could be a sign that they’re suffering from burnout. This could show up as an employee’s feeling that their work is always being rejected and in the future will continue to be rejected, or who becomes more than usual. This lost self-confidence can migrate from the workplace to pervade the employee’s personal life, where people feel as though they’re incompetent, disliked, or unwanted.


Burnout can manifest itself as changes in the employee’s interaction with other employees. The employee may no longer engage in friendly water-cooler banter with other employees and may stop joining other employees for lunch, after-work drinks, or other outside-the-office activities that he or she used to participate in and enjoyed. Now the employee brings his or her own lunch – if even that – to the office and spends the lunch hour and break times alone in his or her office or at his or her desk and can’t wait for the clock to strike 5:00 p.m. so he or she can get out of the workplace and go home. All of this may be symptomatic that the employee is suffering from a more serious condition than burnout, such as clinical depression.


If a once happy, conscientious, outgoing employee with boundless energy who took pride in how she looked and dressed becomes sullen and withdrawn, no longer cares about how she looks or the clothes she wears and seems to have lost all interest in and enthusiasm for the firm and his or her role in it, these are other behavioral changes that are indicative of burnout, if not a more serious condition. Coming to work late or leaving early are other behavioral changes that may indicate burnout in a once conscientious employee who was never late for work and often stayed late after quitting time to finish a project he or she was working on. Eating too much or even too little or not at all can signal a behavioral change that points to burnout. Drinking alcohol to cope with the day’s work schedule is another sure sign of burnout.


A once positive, detail-oriented employee who always finished his or her work on time, if not early, may become less careful in their attention to detail or their attitude. Doing work in a sloppy and careless manner and turning it in late, whereas before you could always count on the employee turning it in early,  may be symptomatic of burnout. The employee may take an unusual number of sick days or adopt a reckless “devil-may-care” attitude toward the job. These changes in behavior and attitude may be a reflection that the employee may be having some underlying problems, such as burnout. The employee’s struggles at work may surface as reflective of their capabilities and success, resulting in the loss of interest in things they would otherwise enjoy.


If an employee is suddenly complaining of numerous physical ailments, such as frequent headaches, body aches, upset or nervous stomach, and being at a greater risk for contracting the flu or colds, along with an increase in days off, these could be signs that the employee is burnt out and is unable to cope with the demands and stresses of work.

As an employer or manager, you need to be cognizant of changes in an employee’s attitude and behavior and be ready to intervene as soon as you suspect an employee has lost interest in his or her job due to burnout. Rather than taking a harsh and confrontational attitude with the distressed employee, you need to exhibit an air of concern, empathy, and understanding of the employee’s state of mind. Ask if any modifications to his or her job might ease some of the employee’s stress. For a valued employee, consider giving him or her a week or two off to decompress from the burnout. Some employees are too valuable to lose, so consider paying his or her way to a burnout or stress management program.

Sometimes the employee will need a leave of absence to recover sufficiently from the burnout in addition to a coping with burnout program or group or individual therapy with a psychologist trained and skilled in this area.

If you suspect one employee is suffering burnout from the job, don’t ignore it! Also, take a close look at your other employees to see how they are doing. If one employee is burnt out, there is a good chance that other employees may be on the road to burnout, so overall changes in the work and/or workplace may be necessary.

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