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What is burnout?

Updated on August 10, 2017

Most of us take better care of our cars than our own bodies. Ignoring warning signals, we push ourselves until our gauges read “empty,” and reach a state called burnout. It could be called “reaching the end of your rope.”

Burnout is a loss of enthusiasm, energy, idealism, perspective, and purpose. It's a state of mental, physical, and spiritual exhaustion going far beyond mere discouragement.

Unfortunately, many of us are so used to running on empty we don't realize it. We have learned to accept it as normal. In many cases a pattern emerges giving us a profile of a burnout-prone person.

Burnout is a psychological term

Burnout is a psychological term usually referring to a state of long-term fatigue and diminished work interest. Research shows medical practitioners have the highest rate of burnout. This condition isn't officially recognized in some medical publications although it is recognized in others under such titles as a "State of vital exhaustion," but not considered a "disorder.” It was first coined as "burnout" in the 1970s.

There are many theories about burnout including negative consequences such as, effects on job function; performance, output, etc. Health related issues can increase stress hormones, cause coronary heart disease, circulatory issues, and possibly mental health problems such as depression.

Some studies involving workers describe burnout as "a general wearing out from work pressures." Burnout becomes problematic when symptoms are disregarded in the workplace. It then becomes an organizational problem, not only financially but by taking a toll on employees from long hours, little down time, and continual pressures from peers and customers.

How pressure is dealt with determines how much stress someone feels and how close they are to burnout. One individual may be able to handle only a few stresses, but another a far greater number.

Type A Personality

Type A individuals are hard-driving, excessively competitive, and achievement oriented. They feel pressured to be perfect in order to feel good about themselves. They tend to emphasize quantity rather than quality, having a deep need to a produce more in order to feel appreciated. It's a need that can never be fully satisfied. They continue to work harder for positive feedback. They seem normal until they fail at something. Then they tend to brood over past performance failures. Unable to live up to their unrealistic goals, failure and discouragement becomes an issue, thus pushing them closer to burnout.

Anger and perfectionism

Anger is a major contributor to burnout. People with all types of personalities occasionally get angry and bottle it up. But perfectionists are the most burnout-prone of all. Perfectionists typically grew up with parents who expected too much and are usually the first born. No matter what they did, it wasn't never quite enough.

Replaying childhood episodes in their minds, perfectionists feel no matter what they do, they could be doing more. Perfectionists get angry with themselves and others for not being perfect and feel guilty over their anger.

They realize unresolved anger is wrong, and try to convince themselves they aren't compounding the problem. Holding anger in is a chief causes of burnout.


Closely linked to unresolved anger is bitterness and harbored resentment. We all get hurt, but when things are left resolved it, pressure builds up. At some point, the safety valve has to blow.

Following are some warning signs of burnout:

  • Decreasing ability to function or perform

  • Detachment or withdrawal from people

  • Excessive, chronic fatigue, depleted motivation

  • Exhaustion, boredom, and cynicism

  • Increased impatience and irritability, feelings of being unappreciated

  • Negative changes in work habits and relationships increased paranoia

  • Disorientation, confusion, and inability to concentrate

  • Physical complaints such as headaches, back aches and stomach problems

  • Depression and suicidal thoughts

Unfulfilled Expectations

Unfulfilled expectations include unwritten “rules” people make for others, defining how they should behave and relate to them. The trouble is they can't control other people. When their expectations are not met, they feel cheated and angry.

People have unrealistic expectations of themselves as well. Unrealistic goals and dreams always seem one step ahead. Often they want to achieve and unrealistic notions of the kind of joy they should be receiving from things they do. once they discover the reward isn't what they expected, they become angry at themselves and others.

Wrong Perspective

The media seduces people into trying to lead lives they see played out on TV. But that's not reality. Life's serious problems can't be resolved in 30 minutes. We should expect to encounter trials, but don't expect answers to come between commercials. It takes time. Life is difficult. We live in a world filled with stress points. If there are too many too fast, or too many unresolved overtime, burnout may result.

Avoiding Burnout

Burnout affects the whole person. In order to avoid burnout, you must address the following:

  1. Express feelings appropriately. Don't bottle up emotions; sooner or later, the dam will break. Maintain a good support system of friends, that practice a high accountability of fellowship. Verbalize and share emotions engaging in both laughter and tears.

  2. Know your limitations. Choose tasks that fit within them. Don't add goals beyond your capabilities.

  3. Have a proper perspective on work and relationships. Everyone has different priorities. Although we all start with the same amount of weekly hours everyone divides them up differently. Set a balanced set of priorities and commit yourself to keeping them. Periodically reevaluate them to make sure they remain realistic.

  4. Deal with intimidation well. Look for kernels of truth in criticism, but don't fall apart if you find none. You can survive without everyone's approval. There will always be critics. However, if you try to be all things to all people, you are well on the way to burning out.

  5. Base your self-worth on who you are not what you do. From early childhood, many are taught they are commodities in the marketplace, only worth something when they're producing something. But in actuality they are always worthwhile because of their relationship with God and identity in Christ.

  6. Develop an attitude of humility. This involves a day to day awareness of your human limitations and total dependence on God.

  7. Spend time daily in quiet. This is a powerful tool in avoiding burnout. While some individuals can cope with burnout, the best way to truly prevent burnout is through a combination of education and organizational change. There are a variety of ways to deal with burnout. In general, resting proves to be very effective.

Self Test:

  • More and more, I can hardly wait for quitting time so I can leave work.

  • I feel as if I'm not doing any good at work these days.
  • I am more irritable than I used to be.

  • Lately I've become more cynical and negative.

  • I have more headaches and other maladies than usual. And I often feel hopeless.

  • I drink more or take tranquilizers just to cope with everyday stress.

  • My energy level isn't what it used to be. I'm tired all the time.

I feel a lot of pressure and responsibility at work please days.

  • My memory isn't as good as it used to be.
  • I don't seem to concentrate or pay attention as well as I once did.
  • I don't sleep as well as I used to.
  • My appetite is decreased these days, or else I can't seem to stop eating.
  • I feel unfulfilled and disillusioned.
  • I'm not as enthusiastic about work as I was a year or two ago.
  • I feel like a failure at work all the work I have done hasn't been worth it.
  • I can't seem to make decisions as easily as I once did.
  • I find I'm doing fewer things at work I like or do well.
  • I often tell myself, “Why bother? It doesn't really matter anyhow.”
  • I don't feel adequately rewarded or noticed for all the work I've done.
  • I feel helpless, and can't see any way out of my problems.
  • I think my career has just about come to a dead end.

Now count up your check marks. If you agree with the majority of these statements it's suggested you make major stress-reducing changes in your lifestyle.


Some have theorized the burnout process can be divided into 12 phases:

  1. The compulsion to prove oneself.

  2. Excessive ambition. This is one's desire to prove themselves in the workplace. This desire turns into determination and compulsion.

  3. Working harder
    Because they have to prove themselves to others. They tend to focus only on work and take on more then others usually would.

  4. Neglecting their needs
    Since they have devoted everything to work, they now have no time and energy for anything else. Friends, family, eating, and sleeping become seen as secondary.

  5. Revision of values
    People isolate themselves, avoid conflicts, and fall into a state of denial towards their basic physical needs. They change their value systems. Work consumes all energy they have left.

  6. Denial of emerging problems
    The person begins to become intolerant and anti-social. It's not uncommon to blame their increasing problems on time, pressure, and amount of work they have, instead of on the ways they have changed, themselves.

  7. Withdrawal
    Social contact is at a minimum, soon turning into isolation. Alcohol or drugs may be used for release. They often have feelings of hopelessness or direction.

  8. Obvious behavioral changes
    Coworkers, family, friends, and others can't ignore their behavioral changes.

  9. Losing oneself
    Losing contact with themselves, it's possible they no longer see themselves as valuable.

  10. Depression
    Burnout may include depression. The person is exhausted, lacks hope, is indifferent, and believes there's nothing left to look forward to and depression sets in.

  11. Burnout Syndrome
    They collapse physically and emotionally. In extreme depression cases, suicidal thoughts may occur. However, only a few have actually taken that step.


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