What burnout is and some tips for managing symptoms

By Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald on December 21, 2023

What is burnout?

Burnout is the general emotional and interpersonal exhaustion caused by prolonged exposure to job-related stressors. It is characterised by three dimensions:

  1. exhaustion occurs due to a chronic response to stressors with little to no respite, often leaving an individual feeling overextended and depleted of physical and emotional resources.
  2. cynicism refers to an individual’s excessively detached and callous response to parts of their job.
  3. reduced feelings of professional efficacy, referring to a lack of productivity at work and the individual beginning to self-evaluate through a negatively biased lens where their output is viewed as incompetent.

Cynicism is a coping method when an individual has been experiencing exhaustion and reduced feelings of professional efficacy. Despite the need for social support, cynical reactions (hostility, lack of empathy toward others, and detachment) can lead to less social support in the workplace. This is a problem because perceived social support is a protective factor that reduces the likelihood, and minimises the effect, of basically any kind of psychological distress.

The development of burnout is closely related to the nature and quality of relational transactions people have in the workplace (i.e., the interpersonal aspects of the job with people like managers, co-workers and clients). Some other work-related factors that can contribute to the development of burnout include (MacDonald et al., 2016; Nandan et al., 2023):

Signs that you might be experiencing burnout

The Australian Psychological Society (2021) developed a useful information sheet explaining that “burnout typically happens slowly, over a long period of time” and that because people experiencing burnout may feel overwhelmed by their work and so neglect “relationships with friends and loved ones until ‘the next hurdle’ is overcome”.

In this info sheet, the authors list some useful burnout warning signs to look out for:

Emotional signs

  • Temper tantrums over trivial matters
  • Feeling guilty for resting, doing pleasurable things
  • Feelings of hopelessness.

Cognitive signs

  • Difficulty in making decisions or staying focused
  • A growing tendency to think negatively
  • A loss of sense of purpose and energy.

Behavioural signs

  • Imbalance between work, family, play, hobbies
  • Difficulty getting out of bed in the morning
  • Becoming accident prone.

Physiological signs

  • A general sense of running on empty
  • Muscle tension, headache, backache, tiredness.

Stress builds up over time

The experience of stress in general builds up over time. Our individual experience of stress and levels of tolerance to stressful situations is influenced by several factors. A useful way to think about stress, and associated psychological distress, is the cup analogy. This analogy helps make the diathesis-stress model a little more accessible. This idea is one I know from my training and have used in professional contexts ever since. Basically, we all have varying levels of vulnerability to experiencing psychological distress.

Everyone is going about their daily life with more or less ‘stuff’ in their cup and trying not to let their cup overflow and become completely unmanageable. Some of the stuff in the cup could be genetic, cognitive or behavioural predispositions. There could also be personal history stuff in there, such as traumatic experiences from the past. These experiences and predispositions set a kind of baseline for the person and how full their cup is on any given day.

Work experiences can start filling your cup up with more stuff: workload and timeline demands, conflict between your work and personal responsibilities, as well as relationship problems with other people.

Personally, you probably have some stuff in your cup at any given time about your relationships and expectations with people you love, your financial situation, chores that must be done at home, needing to book a dentist appointment or taking the dog to the vet. Notice that the individual things making up the ‘stuff’ in your cup (stressors) don’t need to be negative to be stressful. They are things that make some kind of demand on the resources (mental or otherwise) that you need to get through your day.

Then there are everyday situational stressors. This is the little stuff, like driving your car and getting caught at yet another red light, or forgetting your keys somewhere. This is usually the stuff that finally overflows your cup because your experience of stress or distress is never really in response to one big stressor alone. It is the build up over time without respite that finally pushes you to the point of psychological distress.

Ways to cope with burnout

In this section I highlight some individual level coping methods for reducing the effect of burnout. But it is important that burnout be seen as an organisational and work-related issue, as opposed to an individual problem. Organisations and people managers need to take responsibility for supporting people in the workplace.

In an article published in The Conversation, Samra (2020) provides some useful practical tips for managing burnout symptoms:

Four types of burnout recovery

Samra (2020) also describes four types of recovery:

Psychological detachment: not thinking about work.

Relaxation: taking a walk in nature, listening to music, reading a book, doing nothing on the sofa.

Mastery: seeking out opportunities to do things unrelated to work such as learning a language or pursuing sports and hobbies.

Control: choosing how to spend your time and doing things the way you want to do them.

A note on detachment: consider who you spend time with and the way you use electronic devices. If either of these things are reminding you of work, then you are not recovering.

Finally, Samra (2020) notes that some recovery experiences are more suited to some people than they are others. For example, exercise is:

more effective for workaholics than nonworkaholics, possibly because they make psychological detachment from work easier. If you don’t feel you have much control over your job, psychological detachment and mastery experiences have been shown to be the most effective for recovery. If you feel exhausted due to time pressures at work, relaxation is most protective.

Will things get better in my workplace or should I move on? Some questions to ask yourself

Over the Summer 2023/24, I did some media on the topic of burnout and returning to work. One question that audience members had was ‘How do I know if I should keep going at my current workplace or find a new job?’

This is a great question – it means you have been able to take some perspective and not simply keep pushing through in survival mode. Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer. Here are some questions that might help you find an answer for yourself, along with some red flags to look out for:

  1. Where is the major stress coming from?
    • Is the stress something you can control with some planning and problem-solving?
    • Is the stress situational or long-term?
    • Red flags: the major stressors in your life are work-related, long-term with no indication of easing anytime soon, and you have no personal control for making the necessary changes.
  2. What are your core priorities and values at work?
    • Does your work or workplace clash with your core values?
    • Does the work you are being asked to do have the potential for reputation or other risks for you?
    • Answering yes to either of the above is a red flag.
  3. If you were feeling better / more rested, would the workload / workplace be manageable?
    • Red flag: feeling like no amount of rest will make you feel as though you could manage the workplace or expected workload.
  4. Can you work a little slower or with less effort and still have an acceptable outcome at work?
    • How do your standards and expectations of your performance align with your manager’s standards and expectations of your performance?
    • Red flag: Feeling as though the goal posts (performance expectations) move and are more often than not unreasonable.
  5. Who are your support crew?
    • Can you access reliable and safe support from one or more of the following?
      • Friends
      • Family
      • Work colleagues
      • Management at work
      • The HR department of your organisation
      • The Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at your workplace
      • Your GP.
    • Red flags:
      • Everyone else at work is in survival mode, stressed and overwhelmed.
      • There is a dog-eat-dog mindset amongst your colleagues, where they compete for resources or approval from management rather than collaborating and supporting each other.
      • Your manager doesn’t listen to your concerns or take them seriously seriously.
      • Your manager is overwhelmed and in survival mode themselves.

Author note: More burnout related info

Here are some links to my research papers, conference presentations and industry presentations about burnout:

Aged Care Research and Industry Innovation Australia (ARIIA) have a Knowledge & Implementation Hub that provides access to evidence and resources on a range of priority topics for aged care, including staff burnout. I am on the Expert Advisory Group and helping to inform the development of evidence-based resources for aged care workers and organisations relating to staff burnout.


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Australian Psychological Society (2021). Dealing with burnout. Date accessed: 19 December 2023. Retrieved from: https://psychology.org.au/getmedia/994934a8-2916-4599-8806-aa3e0d2fd3c3/dealing-with-burnout-climate-change.pdf

MacDonald, J. B., Saliba, A. J., Hodgins, G., & Ovington, L. A. (2016). Burnout in journalists: A systematic literature review. Burnout Research, 3 (2), 34-44.

Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., Leiter, M. P., (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52 (1), 397-422.

Nandan, C. , MacDonald, J. B. & Wiener, K. K. (2023). Burnout in aged care workers. Traumatology, 29 (1), 46-56. doi: 10.1037/trm0000365.

Plumlee, G. L., Wright, A., & Wright, D. N. (2016). He wrote, she wrote: Gender similarities and differences in written business communication. Journal of Business Diversity, 16 (1), 78–85.

Samra, R. (2020). How to recover from burnout and chronic work stress – according to a psychologist. The Conversation. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/how-to-recover-from-burnout-and-chronic-work-stress-according-to-a-psychologist-133259

Schaufeli, W. B., Leiter, M. P., Maslach, C., & Jackson, S. E., (1996). The MBI-general survey. In C. Maslach, S. E. Jackson, & M. P. Leiter (Eds.), Maslach Burnout Inventory Manual. Consulting Psychologists Press.

World Health Organization (2020). QD85 Burn-out. Interpersonal statistical classification of diseases and related health problems (11th ed.). http://idwho.int/icd/entity/129180281