Burnout symptoms can feel like symptoms of stress, and burnout is not a medically diagnosed condition. However, burnout can affect one’s physical and mental health if it is not acknowledged and remedial action is not taken. It massively reduces a person’s energy and can have the effect of making people feel hopeless, negative, and resentful. Burnout keeps employees from being productive and its effects can also damage their home, work and social life. 

What is burnout? 

According to WebMD* “burnout is a form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped. It is a result of excessive and prolonged emotional, physical and mental stress. In many cases, burnout is related to one’s job. Burnout happens when you are overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to keep up with life’s incessant demands.” 

 Burnout can have many symptoms. Three telling signs that an employee is suffering from burnout are: 

  • they report feeling tired or exhausted, 
  • they have no enthusiasm, and express feelings of negativity toward their job, 
  • they exhibit an inability to perform their job. 

The road to burnout is gradual 

Burnout does not happen immediately. It is a gradual process that can build due to stressors within a person’s home life and/or job. Signs and symptoms can be subtle at first but the longer they are left unaddressed, the worse they will become, ultimately leading to full-blown burnout.

Here are 12 cumulative steps to be aware of in the road to burnout. 

1. Losing work-life balance 

People in this stage may be driven to succeed and prove their worth, often by taking on too many tasks and sacrificing personal time for career advancement. For instance, some may take on extra work or overtime to demonstrate their commitment and loyalty to the company.

With a possible link to imposter syndrome, drivers may be: 

  • Self-doubt 
  • Perfectionism 
  • Negative self-talk 

  2. Becoming a workaholic 

At this point, an employee’s workload may have become unmanageable, yet they feel compelled to continue working at the same rate despite experiencing chronic fatigue or exhaustion, or even feeling as if they are close to physical collapse. They may work a lot of overtime and feel guilty taking time off, believing they should be working instead. It is important to understand that toxic productivity can be detrimental on the road to burnout.  

 3. Neglecting self-care and own needs 

The third stage toward burnout is that an employee directs most of their focus on work, neglecting self-care and their own needs. While neglecting one’s own needs starts fairly early in road to burnout, it has some of the most serious outcomes. There is a growing body of research that has proven continuously working long, uninterrupted hours without respite can lead to chronic health conditions such as: 

  • Heart disease 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Insomnia 
  • Anxiety 
  • Depression 

 4. Engaging in conflicts with others 

Engaging in conflicts with others is often the result of feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope. This stage toward full-blown burnout involves the steady process of becoming more intolerant of others – and possibly even beginning to feel threatened by others. At this stage, employees will start to become irritable and become defensive as a form of perceived self-preservation. Social interaction may become increasingly difficult for them, and the person’s social life may also begin to suffer. It is important to recognise these behaviours as a sign of burnout as this can help prevent misunderstandings and even inform the cause of disciplinary hearings.  

 5. Compromising personal values 

While having a fulfilling career is important, it is also essential for employees to be mindful of its fit with their values and beliefs. The fourth stage of burnout flips this on its head as it entails re-evaluating personal values and beliefs to see if these fit with their career path. At this stage, an employee may start to question their purpose or their direction in other areas of their life, questioning how these values coincide with work. Examples of compromising values include:  

  • Putting family interaction on the back burner to focus on work 
  • Making career decisions that are contrary to personal values and beliefs 
  • Focusing on short-term gains rather than long-term effects 

 6. Denial of emerging problems 

This stage is similar to stage four in terms of interpersonal conflict. It is where employees begin to display signs of intolerance, aggression and outright hostility at work. An employee will deny emerging problems and may even lash out at their colleagues or manager. They may also feel that their mounting pressure is due to a lack of time to divide between work and daily life. They may shy away from social interaction even more, not even wanting to answer work emails and messages.  

7. Withdrawal 

Leading on from stage six, in the withdrawal stage of the burnout process, employees may begin to totally withdraw from friends and family in their effort to escape the stress of work. Instead of accepting social invitations, they will choose to stay at home and may feel relief as they avoid social contact. It is important to remember that social interaction plays a significant role in maintaining emotional and mental wellbeing. Research studies have shown that stress and isolation can also lead to a higher risk of alcohol and substance abuse. Employees could turn to drugs and alcohol as a means of coping with their growing experience of burnout.  

 8. Odd changes in behavior 

At this time, family and friends will probably notice changes in their loved one’s behaviour. These behavioral changes can be extremely alarming. They include: 

  • Overt anxiety 
  • Sleeping way more than usual or insomnia 
  • Total withdrawal from social activities 
  • Decreased interest in hobbies 
  • Acting out of character 

 9. Detachment and depersonalisation  

Detachment is a typical sign of severe anxiety, where a person feels disconnected from their own emotions and thoughts. Sufferers may also feel that everything is surreal or like they are living in an alternate reality from the outside, looking in. This can come across as seeming indifference, forgetfulness and disinterest in things. Depersonalisation stems from a person no longer feeling valuable. Depersonalisation can stem from feelings of helplessness, guilt and shame and so can aggravate negative self-thinking. It can also aggravate an employee no longer recognising their own needs in terms of practicing self-care.  

 10. Inner emptiness 

Helplessness and a general feeling of emptiness are the classic terms used by people affected to describe their burnout. Employees who suffer from inner emptiness feel as if they no longer have any purpose in life. Many in this stage will turn to unhealthy forms of fulfillment since work is no longer satisfying. These unhealthy coping mechanisms can include risky sex, binge eating or alcohol and drug abuse. 

 11. Depression 

Depression is a common sign of burnout. Employees at this stage may have difficulty engaging in activities they once enjoyed. They might also have difficulty concentrating or making decisions. Signs include regularly arriving late at work, missed meetings or absent days, procrastination, missed deadlines and reduced productivity. The following symptoms of depression offer a guideline** for what to look out for in your employees: 

  • a persistent low mood 
  • increase in absences, late arrivals, calling in sick a lot with varying reasons 
  • a drop in productivity or work quality 
  • verbalising a sense of worthlessness, pessimism, or hopelessness 
  • poor concentration or memory — they seem to have brain fog 
  • difficulty making decisions 
  • signs of substances misuse 
  • seeming irritable or aggressive with coworkers, customers, or clients 
  • fatigue or low energy — they seem tired all the time 
  • weight loss or gain 
  • expressing physical pain with no known cause 
  • slow speech and body movements 
  • talking about death or suicidal thoughts 

If any of these symptoms are apparent, it is important for them to be guided to seek professional help from a mental health professional.  

12. Full-blown burnout syndrome 

The final stage of burnout has very serious consequences, as it can lead to total mental or physical collapse. At this point, your employee is likely to be experiencing physical exhaustion, mental confusion, or emotional numbness.  


How to help an employee with burnout 

It may be tempting for a manager to dismiss an employee’s self-described burnout as an exaggeration. However, people who have reached full-blown burnout will need to take a break from work to recover.  

It is also common for individuals in this stage to have developed various physical illnesses or have existing illnesses worsened. Professional help from a doctor and mental health professionals may also be required to diagnose and treat the more serious mental and physical issues of burnout 

  •  Take the time to understand the root cause of your employee’s burnout:  There are many potential contributing factors: a heavy workload, lack of leadership, no clarity around roles or expectations, and unfair treatment are common work-related causes of burnout.  
    • Have in-person conversations 
    • Do not make assumptions  
    • Ask questions  
  • Serve as an advocate for your employee: Depending on the reason for the burnout, the way you advocate for your employee can take on different forms. 
    • Protect their time 
    • Offer a more flexible work schedule 
    • Provide access to relevant resources 
  • Demonstrate compassion and empathy: Remind yourself to view the situation through a compassionate and empathetic lens. This will make it easier to get through the challenge in a way that is good for the person while also being what is best for the team.   
    • Do not take it personally 
    • Do what is best for the team  


Burnout is a psychological response that is often associated with chronic stress at work. It reveals itself through three primary symptoms: feelings of exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment, and a perceived lack of accomplishment. It is not just an individual problem but can also affect company culture. To address work burnout, employers can take a proactive approach in creating a culture that supports employee wellbeing. This can include promoting work-life balance, providing resources and support for stress management such as offering flexible work arrangements. By taking a proactive approach to preventing the issue of burnout, organisations can create a culture that supports employee wellbeing and productivity. 

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Over to you for sharing your comments and experiences.

About the Author: Kerstin Jatho

Kerstin is the senior transformational coach and team development facilitator for 4Seeds Consulting. She is also the author of Growing Butterfly Wings, a book on applying positive psychology principles during a lengthy recovery. Her passion is to develop people-centred organisations where people thrive and achieve their potential in the workplace. You can find Kerstin on LinkedIn, Soundcloud, YouTube and Facebook.

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