What is Burnout (And What Does It Look Like)?

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 Against last year’s tumultuous backdrop of public health crises and dramatic work and lifestyle changes, it is unsurprising to hear that reported cases of burn-out among employees increased by 33-69% in 2020 (Anders, 2020; Papandrea, 2020). But what exactly is burn-out and how can we recognise it in ourselves? What can we do as individuals to prevent or address it?

What is burn-out and what does it look like?

First conceptualised in the 1970s (Freudenberger, 1974), burn-out is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress (NHS, 2019). It is a psychological syndrome resulting from chronic exposure to interpersonal stressors in the workplace (Maslach & Leiter, 2016). It has three key dimensions which undermine psychological wellbeing and occupational performance: overwhelming exhaustionfeelings of cynicisms and detachment from the job; and sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.  

Burn-out often presents as a combination of the following observable symptoms: excessive stress and anxiety; feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; detachment; low mood or irritability; difficulty concentrating; negative attitude towards job or colleagues and reduced professional efficacy (Leka & Jain, 2010; World Health Organization, 2019).

What can cause burn-out?

Evidence suggests that burn-out has several individual and organisational risk factors, many of which have been exacerbated by workplace changes during the Covid-19 pandemic. The prevalent Areas of Worklife (AW) Model(Leiter & Maslach, 2004identifies six key organisational causes of work burnout:

1. Work Overload
2. Lack of Control
3. Insufficient recognition and reward
4. Poor sense of community
5. Perceptions of injustice in procedures or outcomes
6. Difference of values between individuals and organisation

How can individuals prevent or address burn-out?

Preventing burn-out is the most efficient coping mechanism and  the importance of developing a balanced lifestyle cannot be overstated. We encourage you to proactively assess risk factors and symptoms within yourself and your working environment. Do you notice any? If so, which ones? Communicating these concerns and risk factors is important to overcoming them. One possibility is to discuss your concerns and risk factors with your employer or work’s HR department. 

However, if this does not feel possible, or you would appreciate free informal and independent advice, here at The Occupational Psychology Practice International we run weekly “Issues@Work” Clinics where our Occupational Psychologists can discuss and advise on workplace issues, including burn-out. Click here to book your place at our Issues@Work Clinic


ADA Medical Knowledge Team. (2020, February 26th). Retrieved from: 

Anders, G. (2020, October 8th). Burnout signs have risen 33% in 2020; here are seven ways to reduce risks. Retrieved from:, on 5th July 2021

Freudenberger, H. J. (1974). Staff Burnout. Journal of Social Issues, 30, 159-165.

Leiter, M. P., & Maslach C. (2004). Areas of worklife: a structured approach to organizational predictors of job burnout In: Perrewe PL, Ganster DC. (eds). Research in occupational stress and well‐being, Vol. 3 Oxford: Elsevier. pp 91‐134.

Leka, S., & Jain, A. (2010). Health Impact of Psychosocial Hazards at Work: An Overview

Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. Word Psychiatry, 15 (2), 103 – 111. doi: 10.1002/wps.20311

Papandrea, D. (2020). Learn how to beat job burnout. Retrieved from:, on 5th July 2021

World Health Organisation. (2019, May 28th). Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases. Retrieved from:

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