A job should positively affect a person, giving him a sense of satisfaction from a job well done, giving meaning to the environment and to himself. However, sometimes work is a source of damaging factors and stressful circumstances that can result in burnout syndrome. This is related to the nature of the work, the work environment, the conditions in which one works, the team, and the working style and management.

In today’s society, more and more people think that they can no longer cope with situations in everyday life, especially at work. They are plagued by fatigue, fear, sometimes feelings of inferiority, and general exhaustion (Stock, 2010). 

Burnout syndrome is one of the very unpleasant phenomena in a person’s life. Burnout can affect anyone in any job position. It should be distinguished from other negative emotional states such as fatigue, stress, or depression. The difference between stress and burnout syndrome is that anyone can get stressed. However, burnout syndrome only occurs in people who are intensely dedicated to work and have high goals, expectations, and motivation.

Regarding job classification and likelihood of occurrence, the most risky occupations involve working with people with high demands, high responsibility, and a long-term negative balance sheet.

I asked Katarína Hargašová (her statements are marked as KH), who is engaged in psychological counseling of adult clients, more about burnout syndrome. She has experience in a hospital setting (internal ward), in a clinical psychologist’s outpatient clinic, and a specialist unit for people with substance dependencies. She has worked with various mental health difficulties, from anxiety and stress conditions to depressive experiences, and with people who are troubled by relationship issues and desire personal development. 

What is burnout syndrome?

KH: Burnout or burnout is defined as a state of physical, emotional, and psychological exhaustion experienced by the individual. It most often affects work life but also the personal and family spheres.

Burnout does not come on suddenly; it is a gradual process that often takes months, sometimes years, to develop. There is always an initial enthusiasm, enthusiasm, and positive overwhelm about the thing/activity/work. Over time, this can turn into the feeling of general exhaustion and inability to work, as I was able to at the beginning. The initial motivation and enthusiasm wear off and translate into an extreme feeling of disgust, of losing the point of what I’m doing.

DN: With burnout, a person’s performance and effectiveness are reduced, and their engagement is reduced. In the work environment, this can manifest in avoiding responsibilities, rescheduling or canceling meetings, failing to meet deadlines and deadlines, not completing tasks, or drafting them incorrectly. 

Having a burnt-out person on the team, in any position, is primarily bad for the person. He suffers mentally, physically, and emotionally. Over time, he himself begins to realize that he can’t get excited about things and can’t perform as well as he used to.

A burnt-out person isolates himself and loses interest in colleagues, which negatively affects the whole team’s atmosphere. Being stressed, frustrated, and carrying a lot of negative emotions, he often ends up being unable to work. This is due to health problems that reflect the psychological state. They can be, for example, exhaustion, insomnia, headaches, or reduced immunity. 

What are the symptoms of burnout?

KH: There are several symptoms of burnout. They are closely related to the stages, i.e., how one gradually, often subtly, gets to the overall state of burnout. Before discussing what it looks like when burnout is fully developed, it’s good to know the not-so-subtle symptoms.

In the first stage, the person is enthusiastic about what they are doing. He feels joy in his work; everything new interests him, he manages to do a lot, and for a long time, he would even like to give himself away for the good of the cause. If this phase lasts for a long time, and there is no rest and no appreciation (internal or external), the stage of stagnation comes.

It is here that he can feel the first fatigue, physical exhaustion, makes mistakes, and forgets. One sobers up and sees the work’s shortcomings; one may doubt its importance. Typical is denial that he does not feel fine internally and tries to overcome it. In the frustration phase, mood changes are already visible. He feels sad, frustrated, grumpy with the surroundings, unempathetic, and reluctant. In the psychosomatic plane, feelings of anxiety, fear, and panic states from the upcoming obligations become accentuated. Physically, we can discuss heart palpitations, cold hands, increased sweating, sleep disturbances, and indigestion. He knows he is not enjoying his work but is still trying to overcome this.

Socially, the person shies away from contact with others, does not engage in conversations, is more cynical, less tolerant of others, and may even have hateful feelings towards others. Avoiding contact is a defense when he feels it is too much for him.

There is a phase of apathy, resistance, and inability to respond. One no longer does the bare minimum. Loss of interest, isolation from others, disappointment, and frustration are accentuated. There is also a sense of depersonalization – losing contact with oneself.

The last stage is complete burnout. The person is completely exhausted (physically, mentally, and emotionally), often hostile and indifferent, with feelings of emptiness, anxiety, and depression.

Who is at risk?

KH: If we focus on professions, those who work with people daily are at risk, i.e., health professionals, social workers, psychologists, teachers, office workers, legal workers, but also managers and those who work and interact with groups of people daily.

When it comes to personality traits or characteristics, those focused on performance and achieving results struggle with burnout. They are perfectionistic and ambitious; they sometimes need to learn how much to put into their work or where their limits are. They also care about the evaluation from other people.

Those who cannot leave their work behind closed office doors and take it home (physically or mentally) are also at risk; they cannot separate themselves from it in their free time.

DN: The female gender is more prone to burnout. This is probably due to the higher workload, greater emotional involvement, and problem-solving approach in the workplace. Also, caring for the household and the kids has some influence.

Just as there are factors that cause burnout, there are symptoms that can alert us to burnout syndrome. Recognizing your worsening condition is a crucial point for early response. The sooner we realize it, the sooner we can respond to it. 

How to prevent it?

KH: Prevention is critical, so knowing this is happening and can happen to me. If it happens to me, it’s okay because I’m neither the first/first nor the last/last; I can help myself or get help from those around me or professionals.

One should think ahead, i.e., divide the day into work, duties, and relaxation. Just as he has immersed himself passionately in the sphere of work, he should also approach the sphere of rest and personal fulfillment. Focus on what fulfills him, where he can “refuel.” Someone is better suited to active rest, another more to quieting down and stopping. Enjoy the little things, or treat yourself to a few days off to regenerate.

I also have multiple roles in my life – I’m an employee/psychologist, but I’m also a partner, a daughter, and a friend. Something is expected of me in each role, but equally, I need something in it. It is sensing my needs that is the key.

Maintaining contact with loved ones and acquaintances is essential to nurture interpersonal relationships. Isolation and withdrawal at a time when one is not okay is a shortcut to trouble.

It is good to set realistic goals at work, curb one’s perfectionism, see mistakes as part of life, and have room for learning. Learn to appreciate yourself, and last but not least, cultivate detachment and don’t always take yourself so seriously. 🙂

DN: In preventing employee burnout, collaboration between managers, team leaders, and HR is vital. Managers are in close and daily contact with their people, so they are in a position to spot the signs right from the start. Together, they can also find ways to work with the person further or give them tips for professional help.

Self-care should be part of your daily routine anyway. Even if one works long hours, one should remember to infuse a little joy into each day. Set boundaries. Do not overexert yourself. Learn to say “no.”

Good relationships in the workplace are an excellent prevention of burnout. Grab lunch or ice cream with colleagues, take a coffee break together, or play a game of foosball. Having friends to chat and joke with during the day can help relieve the stress of a demanding job, improve your work performance, or carry you through a tough day.

Suppose you can, don’t bring work home with you if you can’t otherwise, try to plan to arrive at work early so you can leave earlier and spend your free time with your family or as you, please. Little things like these can prevent stress from turning into something more serious.

Who makes the diagnosis?

KH: A clinical interview and standardized questionnaires are most often used to diagnose burnout, designed to objectively and subjectively assess a person’s condition.

The diagnosis is made either by the psychiatrist himself or on the recommendation of a general practitioner or psychologist who has already determined the suspicion of burnout syndrome from the examination, the interview, and the given tests.

The first symptoms may already be noticed by those around the person who perceives that the friend or colleague is not “in his or her element” and is showing signs of burnout.

It is still good to distinguish between burnout and other negative feelings such as depressed mood, fatigue, and stress because these conditions are often confused.

The difference between burnout and stress is that anyone can feel stress, whereas burnout is more associated with those who are engaged in increased work and have high goals and demands, as we have already discussed. Stress can occur in all sorts of activities, while burnout is closely linked to working with people.

We can fight fatigue with rest, relaxation, and sleep. However, the sense of burnout does not improve after a short-term relaxation; it can even return after a sufficient vacation because we return to the same working environment.

How long does burnout syndrome take to heal?

KH: Healing itself, or recovery from burnout, is a slow and gradual process and can take months or years. One cannot expect a person’s condition to improve quickly and all at once in all areas. If burnout has already fully developed (a person is in the last two stages – frustration, apathy), it will not go away on its own. This untreated state can develop into forms of depression, anxious feelings, or physical ailments (cardiovascular, digestive problems). It is precious to seek a mental health professional, psychologist, psychotherapist, psychiatrist, or coach with experience of burnout.

Burnout syndrome in a relationship / How to help your partner?

DN: People who work long hours can feel lonely and unappreciated. You can’t relieve a person of stress. However, you can help ease their emotional burden.

KH: Burnout is closely tied to the work sphere, but extending into personal – partner and family circles is natural. It’s understandable that we are not indifferent when we see our loved one struggling.

Rather than quick and initially well-meaning advice and tips on what to do differently, it is better to listen and support them. Often just being able to talk and having someone there to witness their difficulties is vital. Let him know that you are there for him and trying to understand what he is going through. You can also lighten him with specific responsibilities, give him time to relax and comfort him with a kind gesture. Together, try to figure out what would help him.

How to overcome burnout syndrome?

KH: Besides the prevention we mentioned above, it’s best to seek help from a professional. In psychotherapy, the psychologist mainly focuses with the client on changing the approach to work and rethinking one’s own lifestyle.

It is crucial to adopt and follow the principles of psycho-hygiene, to focus on my energy sources – to find what fulfills me and what I enjoy. A psychologist will also help a person suffering from burnout to learn to perceive their body and the signals it gives to show how and if they are coping.

Further, it is about working with assertiveness and setting one’s boundaries. It is also a space to examine one’s self-worth and self-esteem, and in particular, further direction so that burnout does not return.  

DN: The essence is to get back to positive thinking, in a good mood, incorporating humor into everyday life, even work life, even in critical situations. Returning too early to a problem where an employee has burned out is inappropriate. Further burnout will come more quickly, and recovery will take longer.

Burnout syndrome is a common phenomenon associated with today’s times. We can all notice the signs of burnout, even in ourselves. If we see a problem, we must talk about our feelings and fatigue from work. Something different can help everyone overcome burnout. The best prevention is to take care of your physical and mental health. For advanced stages of the burnout process, it is advisable to seek professional help, which a psychologist or psychiatrist provides.