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Stress and Burnout: Burnout Symptoms and Causes

The Origins of Burnout


Updated May 27, 2014

Woman napping with her head resting on desk
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Those who are experiencing high amounts of stress in their lifestyle need to always be aware of the idea of burnout potentially looming in the future. While the term ‘burnout’ is often thrown around in discussions of stress, do you really know what it means, and how it’s caused?

The term “burnout” is a relatively new term, first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger, in his book, “Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement”. He originally defined ‘burnout’ as, “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”

While burnout isn’t a recognized clinical psychiatric or psychological disorder, there are some similar features between burnout and diagnosable conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders or mood disorders. However, burnout is much more common; for example, it’s estimated that 25%-60% of practicing physicians experience burnout! It’s also less severe, more temporary in duration, and clearly caused by situational stressors rather than a biologically mandated chemical imbalance. (It’s kind of like depression’s non-clinical, less intense cousin that just comes for a visit and leaves when you reduce the stress in your life.) Classic symptoms include the following:

  • Depleted Physical Energy: Prolonged stress can be physically draining, causing you to feel tired much of the time, or no longer have the energy you once did. Getting out of bed to face another day of the same gets more difficult.
  • Emotional Exhaustion: You feel impatient, moody, inexplicably sad, or just get frustrated more easily than you normally would. You feel like you can’t deal with life as easily than you once could.
  • Lowered Immunity to Illness: When stress levels are high for a prolonged amount of time, your immune system does suffer. People who are suffering from burnout usually get the message from their body that something needs to change, and that message comes in the form of increases susceptibility to colds, the flu, and other minor illnesses (and sometimes some not-so-minor ones).
  • Less Investment in Interpersonal Relationships: Withdrawing somewhat from interpersonal relationships is another possible sign of burnout. You may feel like you have less to give, or less interest in having fun, or just less patience with people. But for whatever reason, people experiencing burnout can usually see the effects in their relationships.
  • Increasingly Pessimistic Outlook: When experiencing burnout, it’s harder to get excited about life, harder to expect the best, harder to let things roll off your back, and harder to ‘look on the bright side’ in general. Because optimism is a great buffer for stress, those suffering from burnout find it harder to pull out of their rut than they normally would.
  • Increased Absenteeism and Inefficiency at Work: When experiencing job burnout, it gets more difficult just to get out of bed and face more of what’s been overwhelming you in the first place. This may be an unconscious defense against burnout, but those experiencing it tend to be less effective overall and stay home from work more often. (This could also be due to increased illness resulting from lowered immunity, as discussed above.) This is part of why it makes sense for workers to take some time off before they’re feeling burned-out, and why it makes sense for employers to refrain from running their workers into the ground; they might not get back up so quickly!
What Causes Burnout?
Burnout has many causes. They fall into the main categories relating to job structure, lifestyle features, and individual personality characteristics. For more on the causes of burnout, read the following articles:

If you think you're at risk of experiencing burnout, you can take the job burnout quiz, and see these resources on self care and finding satisfaction at your current job.

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