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Avoiding Burnout

What is the definition and what are the symptoms of burnout? The dictionary definition of burnout is “to fail, wear out, or become exhausted due to excessive demands on one’s strength, resources, and energy.” In the human sphere, burnout is what happens when a person experiences physical, psychological, and spiritual fatigue and is unable to cope. Lack of energy and low vitality are characteristics of physical fatigue. Symptoms of psychological fatigue include depression and loss of sharpness in thinking and feeling. Spiritual fatigue is characterized by lack of interest and meaning in life, resulting in unhappiness and pessimism.1

Burnout Victims

Burnout can strike the businessperson with too many pressures and too little time, the homemaker with too much work and not enough appreciation, and the friend who is tired of being his or her “brother’s keeper.” The following are common types of burnout victims. Do any sound familiar to you?

  • Superpeople, who want to do everything themselves because no one else can or will, and they have never let anyone down.
  • Workaholics, who are driven to meet unreasonable demands placed on them (either by themselves or assigned by others).
  • Burned-out-Samaritans, who are always giving to others while receiving little help or appreciation in return.
  • Mismatched people, who do their jobs well but who do not like what they are doing.
  • Midcareer coasters, who may once have been high performers but whose enthusiasm is gone.
  • Overstressed students, who are holding down full-time jobs and full course loads.2

Burnout is a great equalizer. It is blind to age, sex, color, and creed. It is a condition that can affect both white-and blue-collar workers as well as those who work at home. Job burnout is widespread in modern society. It is hazardous, and it can be contagious. If left unchecked, it can harm individual health, human relationships, and organization effectiveness.

The result of burnout is that a company loses its best people at a critical point, or it leaves them so stressed that their attitude sabotages projects. The result for the individual can be even more tragic, as the following story shows:

We Buried Joe Today

People were surprised when Joe suffered a sudden fatal heart attack since he didn’t seem ill or particularly out of condition. Joe was a salesman in his late 50’s, who went into sales 30 years ago because he could sell anything. He was a great talker, people liked him, and he was known for his tremendous energy. One day, Joe accepted a position with a large corporation. He liked the idea of having a big product to push and wanted the security that working for a big company offered him.

Gradually, though, Joe found that what he had accomplished was under siege by younger people who had the kind of energy and enthusiasm that, after two decades on the job, Joe found hard to muster routinely. The facts before Joe were scary—his mortgage payments and living expenses were high, his children were in college, and the prospect of retirement loomed darkly before him. The benefits of his work—a larger home and more expensive toys—suddenly caused more worry than joy.

Joe became troubled over whether he could maintain the pace that he set for himself and his company expected him to meet. He began pushing himself harder and harder to perform, complaining almost daily that he was losing his touch, that his memory wasn’t as sharp, that he couldn’t make the number of sales calls he used to, and that he couldn’t put in the hours he did 25 or 30 years ago.

Joe’s fears led to increased irritability. He had trouble sleeping and found himself in a constant state of worry. He even began drinking to relax and to help him fall asleep. Trying to overcome his alcohol-induced sleep, he began drinking more and more coffee in the morning to lift the veil of drowsiness. Joe also kept his fears and concerns shielded from what was potentially his greatest support system—his wife and family.

Finally, Joe’s boss called him into his office one day. Joe had been anticipating this particular call with extreme dread for weeks. He had seen the trend—his good accounts gradually were being siphoned to younger people, he no longer was invited to management meetings, and he sensed that people were talking behind his back. Even as Joe became more frantic and desperate, working harder and longer, his territory was dwindling around him. Joe was at the wrong end of a dangerous game of burnout. When the call came, Joe knew exactly what it meant. He never made it to his boss’s office.3

Joe’s is a tragic story about stress and burnout. It is extreme but instructive, because it shows the life-and-death consequences this subject can have. The following is a formula for the burnout process:

Too many demands on one’s strength and resources over a prolonged period of time


High expectations and deep personal involvement in the work one does


Too few actions to replenish the energy consumed in meeting these demands



There are four steps in the typical path to burnout: (1) enthusiasm-this is a time for high hopes and high energy as a task or job is begun; (2) slowdown-at this stage, excitement fades and energy wanes; (3) stagnation-frustration begins with questions about the value of the task or work effectiveness; and (4) apathy-physical and emotional exhaustion is felt, depression is common, and performance deteriorates. Job burnout can be prevented and overcome. This effort requires self-understanding and the support of others.4

Dealing with Burnout

Although a person may be in a state of burnout, one can rise from the ashes to a new level of energy and commitment, depending on the use of corrective strategies. Strategies for dealing with burnout include emergency aid, short-term actions, and long-term solutions.5

Examples of emergency aid are doing deep breathing, engaging in positive self-talk, taking a physical retreat, and talking with a friend. Sample short-term actions are reducing workload, setting priorities, taking care of your body, and accentuating the positive. Important long-term solutions are clarifying values, renewing commitments, making lifestyle changes, and developing personal competencies.

For many people, both the job and the home represent potential sources for high stress and burnout. For this reason, having at least one safe haven is important. Ideally, if things are going badly on the job, rest and comfort can be found in the home. Similarly, if home conditions involve pressure, conflict, and frustration, having a satisfying work life helps. The person who faces stress on the job and stress in the home at the same time is waging a war on two fronts and is a prime candidate for burnout.

The Leader’s Role in Burnout Prevention

What can leaders do to prevent job burnout? Two out of three employees say their leaders play a bigger part in creating stress at work than any other personal, organizational, or environmental factor. Executives can institute the following 10 practices to prevent burnout in the workplace (if you are an executive, make a check mark if you are doing these):

  1. ___Clarify the mission, goals and values of the organization, and live these personally.
  2. ___ Clearly communicate role expectations. People need to know their place in the plan.
  3.  ___ Maintain a healthy work environment—meet physical, safety, and emotional health needs.
  4.  ___ Manage work processes so that individuals and groups are neither overloaded nor underloaded.
  5. ___ Maintain an effective balance between continuity and change. While self-renewing change is vital for keeping up with shifting conditions, change should not occur at a pace so fast that it produces widespread stress.
  6. ___ Foster a spirit of belonging and teamwork throughout the organization through personal involvement, effective communication, and morale-building activities.
  7. ___ To the degree possible, allow people flexibility to work at the pace and manner that will ensure personal satisfaction while maintaining needed productivity.
  8. ___ Provide people opportunity for ongoing involvement in decisions affecting them.
  9. ___ Have career development policies and activities that help people achieve their full potential.
  10. ___ Provide assistance in times of stress. Services ranging from fitness programs to counseling centers can be provided by the organization, and referral networks can be established.6

In Managing Stress for Mental Fitness, Merrill Raber and George Dyck list 10 strategies for supervisors to follow in helping employees manage job stress (if you are a supervisor, make a check mark if you are doing these):

  1. ___ Maintain a safe and organized work environment.
  2. ___ Clarify work unit goals and objectives.
  3. ___ Be sure individual job expectations and instructions are clear.
  4. ___ Evaluate workloads and deadlines. Are they reasonable?
  5. ___ Have regular reviews to provide accurate and timely feedback; give assurance that good work is appreciated.
  6. ___ Show patience, understanding, and support in dealing with employee problems.
  7. ___ Deal with personality differences directly and constructively.
  8. ___ Coach and develop employees to their full potential.
  9. ___ Involve people, as much as possible, in decisions that affect them.
  10. ___ Keep communication lines open with an open-door policy.7


1. Freudenberger, “Burn-Out”: and R. Cropanzano et al, “The Relationship of Emotional Exhaustion to Work Attitudes,” Journal of Applied Psychology 88 (2003), pp. 160-69.

2. C. Maslach et al., “Job Burnout,” Annual Review of Psychology 52 (2007), pp. 397-422.

3. M. Rosenthal, “How to Win the Burn-Out Game,” USA Today Magazine (January 1991), pp.70-72.

4. C. Krucoff, “Careers,” The Washington Post (August 5, 1980, health section), p. 5. See also C. Maslach and S. Jackson, The Maslach Burnout Inventory (Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1986).

5. B. Bryson, A Walk in the Woods (New York: didn’t come through on original scan from UPS

6. R. Hogan, Personality and the Fate of Organizations (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007); L. Lapierre and T. Allen, “Work and Family Supportive Supervision,” Journal of Occupational and Health Psychology 11 (2009), pp. 169-81; and R. Hogan, “The Psychology of Managerial Incompetence,” American Psychology Association and National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health conference, Washington DC, October 1991.

7. M. Raber and G. Dyck, Managing Stress for Mental Fitness (Los Altos, CA: Crisp Publications, 1995); F. Shipper and C. Wilson, “The Impact of Managerial Behaviors on Group Performance, Stress, and Commitment,” in Impact of Leadership, ed. K. Clark (Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership, 1992); and B. Seaward, Managing Stress (Burlington, MA: Jones and Barrett, 2011).

Related Readings

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Sabbath by Wayne Muller

The Traveler’s Gift by Andy Andrews

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

About the Author

George Manning is a professor emeritus of psychology at Northern Kentucky Univer­sity. He is a consultant to business, industry, and government, serving such clients as the AMA, AT&T, General Electric, IBM, Duke Energy, the United Auto Workers, Young Presidents’ Organization, the U.S. Navy, and the National Institutes of Health. He lectures on economic and social issues, including quality of work-life, workforce values, and business ethics. He maintains an active program of research and writing in organizational psychology. His current studies and interests include the changing meaning of work, leadership ethics, and coping skills for personal and social change.

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