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Burnout Symptoms


What to look and listen for, and how to tell what’s burnout and what’s not
2min read

To know how to manage burnout, you must first know how to recognise it.

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I want to understand the psychology
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I want some practical tools to use

Burnout definition

Burnout is not a standalone mental health diagnosis, though the World Health Organisation does recognise it as a type of occupational hazard in its own right.

Burnout is also not depression, even if many of its symptoms overlap. Most notably, burnout is not just being a bit tired or even very tired, from normal everyday workplace stress.

Burnout is a debilitating affliction normally defined as a triad of emotions occurring together: exhaustion, negativity, and ineffectiveness.

Basically, if Tom is burned out, his work will feel to him simultaneously arduous and unimportant. Every working day, he'll feel irritable, tired, cynical, short-tempered, slow, and about as sharp as a broken pencil. He'll look around at people and fail to understand why they look so animated. Everything will seem far, far away. He'll feel sad, indeed crushed, as if something critical and very deep inside him had simply... given up. In so far as he can think at all, he'll think "what's the point" and "I can't do this" and he will feel, because he'll be, broken.

Burnout is to humans what sand is for gears: if it doesn't exactly bring the whole system to a halt, it will noticeably decrease its performance.

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Burnout can look and feel a lot like depression, but is purely associated with work and the symptoms don’t go as far.

Burnout depression tiredness venn diagram

Employee burnout symptoms

This decreased performance is the second thing that everyone in Tom's team will notice, including his manager. (The first will be his disheveled look of chronic exhaustion.) The third thing they'll notice, consciously or unconsciously, will be his increased and marked negativity.

In short, while Tom is feeling exhausted, hopeless, and overwhelmed, others will see him as lethargic, cynical, and stupider than before. His team will feel confused, worried, irritated, inconvenienced, and eventually demoralised.

It’s also worth watching out for the kind of phrases you might hear Tom saying, either in passing or in one-to-ones. These phrases are typical of someone going through burnout.

Burnout Symptom💛 Employee feels💬 Employee says👀 Manager spots...
FatigueExhausted (I'm tired, exhausted, unfocused)"I just feel so tired all the time"Lethargy (Low energy, slow, quiet, withdrawn)
NegativityHopeless (I'm bad, the world is bad, my future is bleak)"I can't see a way out of this"Cynicism (Hopeless, downbeat, critical, quick to see the worst)
IneffectivenessPowerless (I can't win at this game)"I just don't care anymore"Slowdown (Less switched on, missing things)

Burnout symptoms test

Because burnout isn’t a medical condition, there’s no official ‘yes or no’ diagnosis. However, the Maslach Burnout Index is the most widely used tool for assessing burnout severity. We’ve condensed it down to three questions for a quicker version.

1/3 I am chronically tired and often wake up exhausted

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Download a PDF version here


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