Professional burnout: Symptoms, signs and treatment by TKP

14.09.2021 - Articles, Mental health

Professional and employee burnout have been topics that are hidden away, locked up, and the key promptly disposed of. In many cases, it’s often passed off as a poor attitude, carelessness or the employee is written off as being lazy.

The existence of burnout is becoming more and more prevalent in workplaces around the world. As burnout was misunderstood for so long, it went by unmanaged, untreated and not given the empathy it deserved as a severe mental and physical health issue.  

In early 2019, the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) announced that burnout was being added to its International Classification of Diseases. It marked the occasion of burnout’s status being upgraded from a state of exhaustion to a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress. And just like that, burnout became understood in the mainstream. 

What is burnout?

The founding father of the concept of burnout was German-born US psychiatrist Herbert Freudenberger. His 1974 description of the mental condition of some of his colleagues turned out to be a potentially ground-breaking discovery. 

He described it as a “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life“. Since then, extensive research has been carried out on the syndrome in the medical profession worldwide. Much literature has pointed to different phases of burnout or pre-burnout, starting with a very active and over-engaged degree, followed by retreat and ultimately, extreme exhaustion, depression and a loss of perspective. As a result, several tests have been created to see whether one has burnout symptoms, including the Maslach Burnout Inventory.

Burnout’s three main elements comprise the following: feelings of exhaustion, mental detachment from one’s job and poor performance at work.

Although statistics on the prevalence of burnout specifically are hard to come by, 595,000 people in the UK alone suffered from workplace stress in 2018. Over nine European countries recognise burnout as an occupational disease, including France, Sweden and The Netherlands. Some surveys indicate that over 77% of professionals say they have experienced some form of burnout in the US.

Despite this, debate continues over whether the condition is a disease or simply ‘a frame of mind‘. A top US-based psychiatrist recently suggested that a phenomenon appearing so widespread can “lose credibility as it appears to be medicalising everyday distress”.

Causes of burnout

The health issue of burnout itself isn’t as simple as a basic medical diagnosis. Some experts think that other conditions, such as depression, could be underlying factors that may influence burnout. 

Researchers indicate that individual variables, such as personality traits and family life, can play a role in who experiences employee or professional burnout. Regardless of the cause, burnout affects both your physical and mental health. 

Job burnout can result from various factors, including: 

  • Lack of control: When there is an inability to influence decisions regarding one’s job — such as schedule, assignments or workload — a side-effect could be employee burnout. Another could be a lack of the resources one needs to do their work. 
  • Unclear job expectations: When you or an employee is unsure about their level of authority or what their supervisor or peers expect from you, you’re not likely to feel comfortable at work. 
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics: There could be a situation where you are subject to bullying at work, undermined by colleagues, or your boss micromanages your work; this can contribute to job stress. 
  • Extremes of activity: This can happen when a job is monotonous or chaotic, and you need continuous motivation to remain focused — this leads to fatigue and potential burnout. 
  • Lack of social support: When an employee begins to feel isolated at work and personal life, it can lead to higher stress levels.
  • Work/life imbalance: If work takes up so much time and effort, sometimes that pressure leads to not having the energy to spend time with your family and friends.

Stress relief and coping strategies

Whether you’re about to have a job interview or you’re feeling overwhelmed by your child’s behaviour during an outing, it’s helpful to have some stress reduction tools under your belt. Here are some methods to assist you: 

  • Guided imagery
  • Meditation
  • Controlled muscle relaxation
  • Focused breathing 
  • Taking a walk
  • Aromatherapy 
  • Creating some art

Burnout symptoms and treatment

If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of burnout, you should ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Are you beginning or have become cynical or critical in the workplace?
  • Do you lack motivation for going to work, and it feels like a drag? 
  • Have you become short-tempered or irritable with co-workers or clients?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your work?
  • Are food, alcohol, or drugs becoming something you use to escape or not to feel anything?
  • Do you have issues concentrating while you are at work?
  • Have your sleep habits changed recently or become more erratic?
  • Are you experiencing a lack of energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you feel a lack of satisfaction when you achieve something?
  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints? 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, there is a chance that you could be suffering from burnout or burnout in its early stages. It might be wise to consult a therapist, counsellor or medical practitioner as these symptoms can also be related to severe mental health conditions such as depression. See more treatment options here at The Kusnacht Practice

Burnout and stress

As much as burnout and stress are related, burnout is not the same as too much stress. 

Stress is a general term that comprises all of life’s demanding pressures on both the physical and mental side. Keep in mind that people living with stress can still see the light at the end of the tunnel and feel if they were to have everything under control, they would eventually get better. 

Burnout, though, is about a sense of unfulfillment and about not having enough. The core reason comes from being overworked, but being burnt out means feeling empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation and beyond genuinely caring. 

People that experience burnout quite often cannot see any chance of positive change in their situations. When stress levels become excessive, and you feel like you are drowning in responsibilities, burnout is a sense of being all dried up. While you’re usually aware of being under a lot of stress, it is not common to notice burnout when it begins to take place. 

Public figures and burnout

No one is impervious to burnout, and it can impact absolutely anyone. Countless public figures have opened up about their experiences with burnout. Lots of public figures have taken time off for their well-being after identifying their burnout.

Meghan Markle

Quite recently, The Duchess of Sussex made the headlines after postponing an official royal visit to Zambia with Prince Harry, reportedly because of the exhaustion she was experiencing during the early stages of pregnancy. Her wise decision to put her health and their baby first by acknowledging and confronting her burnout, despite their work obligations, was an admirable choice. 


Beyoncé has not been afraid to open up about her multiple episodes of burnout over her career. She has been known to cancel shows due to being overworked, and in 2011 took a year off for her mental health. She once shared with The Sun

It was beginning to get fuzzy ― I couldn’t even tell which day or which city I was at. I would sit there at ceremonies, and they would give me an award, and I was just thinking about the next performance. My mother was very persistent, and she kept saying that I had to take care of my mental health.”

CEO burnout phenomena

Fifteen years ago, executive or CEO burnout was a new phenomenon. That isn’t the case anymore. Today, excessive stress levels are pervasive and growing worse. Re-engineering, downsizing, and increased competition have multiplied these pressures in the workplace.

A 2018 study was published relating to the CEO burnout phenomena. This research drew upon upper echelons theory and existing research on employee burnout in organisations and suggested and confirmed that CEO burnout negatively affects business performance. 

Another study by Forbes found that thousands of business executives and HR professionals worldwide found leaders and employees are burning out at record rates. Interestingly, most executives don’t think they are effective at leading virtually. 

Among the significant findings in Development Dimensions International’s Global Leadership Forecast 2021 are that: 

  • Nearly 60% of leaders reported they feel used up at the end of the workday, which is a strong indicator of burnout. 
  • Approximately 44% of leaders who feel used up at the end of the day expected to change companies to advance; 26% expected to leave within the following year. 
  • Only 20% of surveyed leaders believed they were effective at leading virtually.

Burnout programme at TKP and CEO programme

A study by the World Health Organization estimated that 264 million people globally were living with an anxiety disorder. We all react to stress in different ways. Some individuals may experience an enormous amount of stress and process it healthily. Others may not. Burnout is an anxiety disorder that locks people in a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion. The condition is commonly encountered in a work environment, but anyone in any stressful situation can experience it. It exists when a person is no longer able to function adequately.

Stressful experiences that can contribute to burnout can include a heavy workload, financial or legal difficulties, family arguments, relationship problems, health issues, or losing a loved one. However, with professional help and support from qualified clinical experts, it is possible to overcome burnout by learning to process stress healthily. If you believe you may be suffering from burnout, please contact us.