What is work burnout? Symptoms and how to recover

Health Agenda

What is work burnout? symptoms and how to recover

Updated October 2022 | 6 min read
Contributors Professor Gordon Parker, Psychiatrist, Founder of Black Dog Institute; Stephanie Kok, Lawyer, Sprintlaw
Words by Alison Boleyn

Aussie research shows work burnout is most common in people in professional caring roles. Here’s how to find out if you're burnt out and what to do next.

Living with COVID-19 for more than two years has changed the job landscape and permanently shifted the way we work. With the separation between home and work shrinking, combined with the added considerations about our health and that of our families, it’s not surprising the term 'work burnout' has hit the headlines.

In Australia, burnout isn’t listed as a formal medical condition. In fact, the World Health Organization positions it as an 'occupational phenomenon' rather than an official diagnosis.

But what exactly is work burnout, how do you recognise the signs of it and, how can you avoid it?

What is work burnout?

Work burnout often means we’re putting a lot of effort in and not getting a lot out. Symptoms can include exhaustion, poorer work performance, increased negativity, and detachment from work. Work burnout can result from chronic workplace stress and can feel like a lack of motivation and fulfilment in your job.

Australian psychiatrist, Professor Gordon Parker, says this model of burnout is built on a tool from the 1980s: the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI).

Together with researchers from UNSW’s School of Psychiatry and The Black Dog Institute, Professor Parker ran two major Australian studies in 2020 that looked at over 1,000 adults. They found a broader range of symptoms for burnout. These were then collated to produce the Sydney Burnout Measure, a new checklist to help identify burnout. Some of the symptoms they found include exhaustion, cognitive impairment (such as forgetfulness, struggling to focus and difficulty retaining information) and a “loss of lust for life”, says Prof Parker.

As well as affecting work performance, Prof Parker and his team found these symptoms resulted in psychological symptoms like increased anxiety and insomnia, despite feeling tired all the time. Adults in the study were also more likely to report symptoms of depression. Burnout can also lead to more physical symptoms, including a suppressed immune system.

Is burnout the same as depression?

Prof Parker says burnout and depression can overlap. However, he describes burnout as a sense of helplessness rather than the hopelessness of depression.

There are also biological differences between the two conditions. In her 2012 study Burnout and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease, Dr Sharon Toker found depression was marked by an elevated level of the stress hormone cortisol (hypercortisolism), while burnout was associated with low levels of cortisol (hypocortisolism).

What are the signs of burnout?

Signs of burnout can include:

  • withdrawal from friends
  • diminished productivity
  • lowered concentration
  • a sense of stagnation at work
  • constant worrying
  • taking longer to complete tasks
  • not feeling refreshed by sleep.

Which jobs are most likely to lead to work burnout?

In Prof Parker’s studies, work burnout is more likely to affect those in caring professions – doctors, nurses, teachers, police, veterinarians, clerics – and dutiful occupations, like lawyers.

“Burnout is distinctly overrepresented in reliable, conscientious, dutiful and perfectionistic people,” he says.

At 28, Vicky Dawes was a doctor doing her speciality training in the emergency department at a Sydney hospital. She loved the thrilling combination of unpredictability, mental challenges and making a real difference in people’s lives. But in 2008, she started to feel “a dread bordering on terror” at the thought of going in to work. She felt both disconnected from her body: “numb, but also wired”. A peer had taken his life a year earlier and she was withdrawing socially. “It was as if my ‘fight or flight response’ dial was stuck on ‘max’,” she recalls.

“The sad aspect is that burnout is much more likely to afflict ‘good’ people,” says Prof Parker. “People who work hard at their job, people who care for others for endless hours.” Studies have shown burnout is more common among women than men too, while outside of the paid workforce, carers are also susceptible to burnout.

Is burnout and workplace stress an employer’s responsibility?

“Broadly speaking, Australian employers have a legal obligation to minimise workers’ exposure to work-related factors that can increase the risk of stress,” says Stephanie Kok, an employment lawyer with online law firm Sprintlaw. As a result, high workloads and job demands need to be recognised and managed effectively within the workplace.

Prof Parker advises any concerned employer spotting signs of distress or reduced performance in their staff members to ask open-ended questions about what they’ve noticed. “Because if you ask someone, ‘Are you OK?’, you will get a monosyllabic ‘yes’.” Likewise, he encourages anyone feeling burnout to consider having an open conversation with their boss and to talk through options.

How do you treat work burnout?

According to Prof Parker, “you have to get them out of that job, get them to have a decent break, then come back refreshed in a totally different job,” he says. “But because they're perfectionists, they want to hang on to that old job.”

After leaving her job in 2009, Dr Dawes asked herself: “If I left medicine altogether, who was I, if not a doctor?”. She says hiking and camping rejuvenated her and, after completing her masters in counselling, Dr Dawes now has a private practice, counselling doctors and university students.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, recovery from burnout can include:

  • taking time off to rest and recharge
  • asking for help
  • considering changing jobs
  • ensuring you have regular breaks
  • meditation to help develop de-stressing strategies
  • exercising regularly
  • starting a hobby
  • getting enough sleep
  • enjoying a balanced and healthy diet
  • avoiding a ‘perfectionist’ mentality and practising acceptance
  • seeking professional advice.

Mental health and wellbeing support

HCF members can access GP2U Telehealth Australia to speak with a doctor online. You can get valuable information and support about your mental or physical health without having to visit a clinic.

Through our partnership with GP2U, all HCF members with health cover can access a standard online video GP consultation (up to 10 minutes) for a fee of $50. See hcf.com.au/gp2u for more information. 

Eligible HCF members also have access to online video support and navigation to other mental health services as needed, through our partner PSYCH2U^. You can speak to a PSYCH2U expert about your concerns or symptoms from the comfort of your home.

Eligible members+ can also access a HealthyMinds Check-in with a PSYCH2U psychologist.

If you want help with burnout or if you're struggling with depression or anxiety and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14

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