One symptom of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.

—One symptom of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.

Burnout is a very real threat to people in challenging and stressful jobs. It mainly strikes highly-committed, passionate, hard-working, and successful people, who lose all motivation and interest in their work.

What is Burnout?

According to Ayala Pines and Elliott Aronson, burnout is “a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in emotionally demanding situations.” Herbert J. Freudenberger defines it as “A state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.”

Understand Burnout

These definitions embrace the two key components of burnout – exhaustion and disillusionment. Together they highlight the irony of burnout. Anyone can become exhausted, but burnout only strikes people who are highly committed to their work. While exhaustion can be overcome with rest, a core part of burnout is a deep sense of disillusionment and a loss of a sense of meaning.

Making time to relax and think about the things you value in life can help you to avoid burnout.

Recognize the Symptoms of Burnout


High achievers, in particular, should watch for burnout

As you get less satisfaction from your work, the downsides of the job become more troublesome. As you get more tired you have less energy to give and it becomes more difficult to stay on top of an increasingly demanding workload.

If your organization fails to support you, you can grow increasingly disenchanted with it and lose faith in what you are doing. You can become cynical and disenchanted. This is full-scale burnout.

Physical Symptoms

These are much as you would expect them to be and can include: Physical fatigue

  • Frequent illness

  • Sleep problems

Emotional Symptoms

These may include:

  • Disillusionment with the job

  • The loss of a sense of meaning

  • Cynicism towards the organization

  • Feelings of frustration, and a lack of power to change events

  • Strong feelings of anger against those you hold responsible

  • Feelings of depression and isolation

Behavioural Symptoms

These reflect exhaustion and a loss of satisfaction with work:

  • Increasing detachment from co-workers

  • Increased absenteeism

  • An increased harshness in dealing with your teams

  • A marked reduction in your commitment to your work

  • Increased alcohol consumption

Find the Right Level

Many of us get our sense of identity and meaning from our work. We may have started our careers with high ideals or high ambitions and may have followed these with passion. We are hard-working, effective, full of initiative, energetic, and selfless. Not surprisingly, with this level of commitment and resilience, we are often spectacularly successful at what we do.

Avoid Over-Commitment

The trouble starts when things become too much for us. It’s not just that we are exhausted. Other factors come into play, too. The problems that we are facing start to seem too large, or we lack the resources that we need. Perhaps supportive mentors move on and are replaced by people who do not subscribe to the same ideals as us. Maybe we feel that we are no longer appreciated, or the physical and emotional demands on us are just too great. This can be where burnout begins to set in.

If you are having problems at work, share them with a supportive colleague, who may have dealt with a similar situation before.

Check Yourself for Burnout


Rate each question on a scale of 1–5, where 1 = Not at all and 5 = Very often.

Do you feel run down and drained of physical or emotional energy?

Do you find that you are prone to negative thinking about your job?

Do you find yourself getting easily irritated by small problems, or by your co-workers and team?

Do you feel misunderstood or unappreciated by your co-workers?

Do you feel that you have no one to talk to?

Do you feel that you are achieving less than you should?

Do you feel under an unpleasant level of pressure to succeed?

Do you feel that you are not getting what you want out of your job?

Do you feel that you have more work than you have the ability to do?

Now add up the scores and check them against this list.


You show no signs of burnout.


There is little sign that you are at risk of burnout.


Be careful – you may be at risk of burnout.


You are at severe risk of burnout – do something about this urgently.


You are at very severe risk of burnout – do something about this with the greatest urgency.

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