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How to recognise who is burned out?


Mental wellbeing

Recognising if your co-worker is burned out or at risk, helps to keep an eye on the wellbeing of the whole work environment. To understand this topic better, we will also take a look at the stages of getting to be burned out and take a look at what causes it.

Burnout is the result of the work environment of recent decades. In the 1970s, Herbert Freudenberger, an American psychologist, started using this term to describe the effect of increased stress and tension in the fields of work, where people were helping others (for example doctors, nurses). In the current times, this term is used more and more, as the issue has spread to other fields as well.

In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) added the term burnout to their International Classification of Diseases. It is described as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

Defining who is burned out

Based on WHO classification, a person is burned out when there are:

– feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
– increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
– reduced professional efficacy.

The World Health Organization ties the burnout term specifically to the context of the work environment and advises that this term should not be used to describe other fields of life.

12 steps to burnout

Here, we’re using Herbert Freudenberger’s work, that divides burnout into 12 phases.

1. Compulsion to prove oneself (excessive ambition).

When we wish to show the best of ourselves and maybe get a promotion or a raise, we wish to prove ourselves. Generally speaking, it can be very positive, that we wish to be good at what we do, but there are limits to it as well.

2. Working harder. 

This often goes hand in hand with the wishes behind the previous point. We wish to maximize our work time and may put in some overtime, even, if we could avoid it.

3. Neglecting own needs. 

How many times have you skipped your lunch break, because there is so much work to do?

4. Displacement of conflicts and needs. 

There are changes to the way we see our work tasks, understanding our own needs, prioritizing.

5. No longer any time for non-work-related needs. 

You should be taking care of your health, see a doctor or something of that sort, and you don’t, because that would mean missing time off work? Maybe your family is waiting for you to come home after your workday has ended, but you keep thinking that you need to finish x amount of tasks and keep staying late at work?

6. Increasing denial of the problem, decreasing flexibility of thought/behavior. 

You do not have a real understanding of how much you keep thinking about work when your workday has ended, or how your personal life is suffering.

7. Withdrawal, lack of direction, cynicism. 

Confusion sets in, you cannot understand anymore, why are you struggling with work, work is creating negative emotions.

8. Behavioral changes/psychological reactions. 

Anxiety, high-stress levels, etc. You may be acting unpleasantly towards others as they cannot understand the situation you are in.

9. Depersonalization: loss of contact with self and own needs. 

You are not really taking care of yourself anymore. If you may have thought about canceling some things before, then now it has become automatic.

10. Inner emptiness, anxiety, addictive behavior. 

Mental health problems are increasing.

11. Increasing feeling of meaninglessness and lack of interest. 

This phase is pretty self-explanatory as was the last one. Mental health is definitely at a low and the issue may show on a physical level already.

12. Physical exhaustion that can be life-threatening. 

In addition to mental health issues and exhaustion, there is also physical fatigue and the feeling that you are unable to do anything, work-related nor anything else.

When you read this list of phases, you may analyze where in this scale you see yourself and where you see the people around you. The issue keeps getting greater at each phase, but you can keep taking steps back, when taking appropriate action – the process of burnout is not one-way and it can be stopped.

What creates burnout at work?

There can be multiple different sources of stress at work that could lead to the feeling of burnout. The main reasons are often brought out to be unequal treatment, unrealistic workload, the ambiguity of roles, communication issues, and too much time pressure.

Negative stress at work can also be caused by conflicts with colleagues, uncertainty towards the future, lack of required skills, etc. The stressors are not always external. People can add additional stress and burnout risk through internal pressuring. Internal, self-caused stress can be caused by fears, repetitive thought patterns, worrying about the future, or setting unrealistic expectations for themselves.

How to recognise when your colleague may be burned out?

An important symptom of burnout is physical and emotional exhaustion. This type of exhaustion can show in different ways. You may notice that your colleague always looks tired, they are mentally not there, their under-eyes are dark or they always seem like they have not slept. This constant exhaustion can also cause physical issues with health. Meaning that the person is sick more often and misses work. When the physical exhaustion is making someone feel bad as it is, then every small added health issue is automatically much greater for them.

Burnout can also be accompanied by depression, anxiety, insomnia, and loss of appetite. These issues will lead to both physical and emotional difficulties. It is hard to function and complete daily tasks when you have not slept or eaten. Being productive at work seems like a tall order in that situation.

You might notice that your colleague often starts their workday late. Or it seems that they can never wait for the workday to end. Those might be signs of burnout. When burnout is developing, the employee may start to have less interest in their work tasks. This issue has the potential to grow into trying to avoid work altogether. The employee can also be more and more pessimistic and frustrated about their work and surroundings. They may wish to isolate themselves (refusing lunch, group tasks, etc). They may start increasingly avoiding and missing work, saying that they have health issues.

What you may not initially tie to burnout, but is also a sign of it, is when an employee does not want to discuss future plans or work performance. When an employee is already negatively minded about work and not able to be productive, they are usually thinking negative thoughts about their future in their job.

How to move forward?

There are many things that someone facing burnout can do to help themselves. The issue must be first acknowledged and analyzed, then the next step is to find support and decrease stress levels. The first recommendations to start taking care of your mental health is usually physical movement and sleep.

For employers, we would advise starting to make changes by working on the 5 main reasons for burnout in the workplace.

Read more what our psychologists have to say about burnout.

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