Burnout: An Occupational Phenomenon

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Working in a helping profession can exasperate potential feelings of burnout. This blog will define and identify burnout, and suggest techniques to help.

Burnout: An Occupational Phenomenon

Karen DiDonato ⋅ May 12, 2020

Have you ever felt burned out at work? Does the idea of continuing to work on a project or returning the next day put you in a dark place? You are not alone.

Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” in 1974 after analyzing his own psychological state in response to working 12-hour days in his practice, then working until 2 AM in his clinic. He also saw the effects in the clinic’s formerly idealistic volunteers finding themselves depleted and weary, resenting patients and the clinic.

Dr. Freudenberger said in 1981 on NPR’s All Things Considered: “Burnout really is a response to stress. It’s a response to frustration. It’s a response to a demand that an individual may make upon themself in terms of a requirement for perfectionism or drive.”

As of May 2019, burnout is now recognized as a legitimate medical disorder by much of mainstream medicine. It has even been given its own ICD-10 code (Z73.0 – Burn-out state of vital exhaustion) by the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases, a diagnostic tool for medical providers.

Anyone can experience job burnout for a variety of reasons, but working in a helping profession—healthcare—already puts you at risk.

White haired man wearing labcoat behind laboratory equipment appearing burned out


There are various causes for feeling burned out according to an article from the Mayo Clinic:

  • Lack of control. An inability to influence decisions that affect your job — such as your schedule, assignments or workload — could lead to job burnout. So could a lack of the resources you need to do your work.
  • Unclear job expectations. If you are unclear about the degree of authority you have or what your supervisor or others expect from you, you are not likely to feel comfortable at work.
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics. Perhaps you work with an office bully, or you feel undermined by colleagues or your boss micromanages your work. This can contribute to job stress.
  • Extremes of activity. When a job is monotonous or chaotic, you need constant energy to remain focused, which can lead to fatigue and job burnout.
  • Lack of social support. If you feel isolated at work and in your personal life, you might feel more stressed.
  • Work-life imbalance. If your work takes up so much of your time and effort that you don’t have the energy to spend time with your family and friends, you might burn out quickly.

But why should you address job burnout? It can have significant consequences, including: excessive stress, which can lead to vulnerability to illnesses; fatigue; insomnia; sadness, anger or irritability; alcohol or substance misuse; heart disease; high blood pressure; and/or type 2 diabetes.


Noticing if you have burnout is the first step toward doing something about it. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are three main areas of symptoms considered to be signs of burnout:

Woman with fingers on both temples and eyes closed standing in front of black board with "stress" written multiple times
  1. Exhaustion: Do you feel drained and emotionally exhausted, unable to cope, tired and down, and do not have enough energy? Physical symptoms include things like pain and stomach or bowel problems. 
  2. Alienation from (work-related) activities: People who have burnout find their jobs increasingly stressful and frustrating. They may start being cynical about their working conditions and their colleagues. At the same time, they may increasingly distance themselves emotionally, and start feeling numb about their work. 
  3. Reduced performance: Burnout mainly affects everyday tasks at work, at home or when caring for family members. People with burnout are very negative about their tasks, find it hard to concentrate, are listless and lack creativity.


Addressing it:

If you feel burnout at your workplace, address it by employing these 10 steps:

  1. Changing your perspective: Go to work with positive energy and a positive belief in yourself.
  2. Establishing good self-care: Maintain healthy habits such as exercise, nutrition, interpersonal connections, and limit the use of quick fixes such as alcohol, nicotine or drug use.
  3. Setting healthy limits: Find a way to manage expectations in your workplace so that you do not become overextended.
  4. Keeping a healthy pace: Strive to get into the flow of your work, and take periodic breaks.
  5. Taking breaks from electronic devices: Do this at predetermined intervals so that you are not “always on.”
  6. Attaching your work efforts to something you value: Notice how your work makes something in the world, the culture, or in other people’s lives better.
  7. Being yourself: Do what you can to reduce the strain of having to project an image that is not authentic.
  8. Evaluating your options: Discuss specific concerns with your supervisor. Work together to change expectations or reach compromises or solutions. Set goals for what must get done and what can wait.
  9. Seeking support: Reach out to co-workers, friends or loved ones for support and collaboration to help you cope. If you have access to an employee assistance program, take advantage of relevant services.
  10. Practicing mindfulness: Mindfulness is the act of focusing on your breath and being intensely aware of what you are feeling at every moment, without interpretation or judgment. In a job setting, this practice involves facing situations with openness and patience, and without judgment.

If the work environment is the problem, contact your recruiter with any questions or concerns you may have. Trust in them to have a good rapport with the hiring managers. They can also step in on your behalf to help with concerns about unfair treatment, an unmanageable workload, a lack of clarity about your role, a lack of support, and many other issues.

Whatever you end up doing to help burnout, be kind to yourself. Keep an open mind as you consider your options. Don’t let a demanding or unrewarding job undermine your health.

If you are looking for a new job, we are also available to help. Scroll through our available jobs or give us a ring at (954) 346-3347.

Woman's hand holding a note that says "Take care of yourself"
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Author: Karen DiDonatoKaren, our content marketing strategist, has worked with HCI since 2004. She holds a Bachelor of Science with a concentration in communications. In her free time she enjoys baking, gardening, running, and all things Peloton-related.