While this headline is accurate, and it’s good to see burnout recognised as a serious workplace concern, it feels important to acknowledge that burnout is so much more than a threat to employee engagement.

Burnout disrupts job performance and engagement, but also people’s lives. Burnout can wreak havoc on relationships, families and health.  While some of the consequences can be mitigated, or resolved over time, for some people the effects of burnout can be life long and life changing. Sometimes the impact is positive  – we all know people who have changed careers or moved countries to recover from burnout and create better lives.

We use the term burnout to describe physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. It’s more than the fatigue you may experience at the end of a demanding week or month, rather it’s the exhaustion that doesn’t ease up after a long weekend or holiday recharging the batteries. Many of the symptoms of burnout overlap with the hallmarks of depression, including extreme fatigue, loss of interest and passion, and increasing cynicism and negativity. You may notice feeling “checked out” and that you don’t have the energy to care anymore, when you used to care a great deal, or work hard to make a difference. Burnout can also lead to anxiety symptoms – feeling on edge all the time or experiencing full blown panic attacks.

At times, burnout will effectively stop a person from functioning – Arianna Huffington was so exhausted from the pace of running the Huffington Post media empire that she collapsed.

Often though when we track back from the collapse we find there were plenty of warning signs that either the person didn’t spot or that they noticed ignored! We’ve worked with plenty of people who say “I’ll just finish project X”, or “If I can just get to the end of the financial year/the summer holidays I’ll be ok”.

Sometimes of course, they are ok. But if their body and brain takes over and decides to call a halt burnout may be the result. Burnout can also be a vicious cycle – once you are feeling exhausted and negative about everything, you are likely to disengage and to stop doing things that may help you feel better.

Do we know what causes burnout?

We know that burnout can appear when the demands of a situation (job, caring responsibilities, relationship stress) outstrip a person’s ability to cope with the stress. The types of demands appear to be important. In her research work on burnout Christina Maslach (University of California, Berkeley) identified six key components of the workplace environment that contribute to burnout: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. We know therefore that people are more at risk of burnout if these factors are present in your work.

Barry Farber at Columbia University has also classified three categories of burnout –  frenetic, underchallenged, and worn-out to capture some of the these contributing components. Ironically, not enough challenge can contribute, as well as too much.

We know therefore that people are more at risk of burnout if these factors are present in your work:

  • Lack of control – unable to influence decisions that impact work or a lack of the resources needed to work effectively.
  • Unclear expectations or insufficient reward mechanisms.
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics – including bullying.
  • A mis-match in personal values from organisational values.
  • The work itself is often monotonous or chaotic -which can both lead to fatigue.
  • Lack of social support and connection – both at work and when away from work.

How do we help people recover from burnout?

The key to recovery is in fact, recovery! Usually people require a period of mental, physical and emotional recovery to fully heal from burnout and to get back to their usual level of performance. What this recovery looks like will vary from person to person however it usually requires some or all:

  • Either time off work or a change in work duties/environment. Sometimes a secondment or a sabbatical can be helpful, alongside a holiday or time completely away from the demands that have felt overwhelming.
  • More priority given to physical wellbeing. Sleeping more and better, exercising more, particularly restorative forms of exercise such as yoga and eating well are vital.
  • Rediscovering non-work activities and passions that are pleasurable, energy enhancing and restorative. For some people these may be creative pleasures, or involve community participation or taking up a new hobby.
  • Connecting with important people and accepting help. Allowing others to care and to help in emotional and practical ways.
  • Understanding and addressing the factors that have contributed to the burnout – sometimes this requires major life changes, sometimes it can be more minor tweaks. 

Burnout can impact teams

It is important to note also that burnout doesn’t only impact individuals, it’s possible for whole teams to be burnout. We have seen too many examples of this recently, where the tone of the team is highly negative, there are high levels of dissatisfaction and cynicism, and strong negative emotional reactions and distress.

Burnout leaders are also problematic – if leaders are frenetic and worn out they are unlikely to be able to help their teams effectively manage work demands and reward effort and achievement. Likewise, managers may notice their staff are getting burnt out also but feel unable to do anything proactive to intervene.

When whole teams are burnt out?

Each person will need the opportunity for personal recovery. Then team/orgnaisational interventions will be required to address the workplace factors that have contributed and to improve these.

Want to know more?

If reading about burnout resonates with you, and you want to understand if you’re are burnt out or there is risk of burnout in your team, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have you become regularly cynical or negative at work?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you lack a sense of satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
  • Are you troubled by poor sleep, unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints?

Here at Umbrella, we can conduct a psychological assessment to give a clinical diagnosis of burnout, and sometimes this is necessary for medical insurance or sick leave to be granted. You may also want to consider conducting a team wellbeing assessment which will highlight early signs of burnout – before these impact performance and engagement. Please contact Umbrella for more information 0800 643 000

Umbrella specialises in designing and delivering tailored programmes to improve resilience and wellbeing within organisations in New Zealand and internationally. Umbrella is New Zealand owned and operated with offices located in Auckland and Wellington. For more information, please visit