Burnout syndrome: symptoms, causes and treatment

4 April, 2021
This article has been written and endorsed by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana
Burnout syndrome is a characteristic disorder in people who work to care for others. However, it can appear in any profession, causing symptoms such as physical and mental exhaustion or low personal fulfillment.

Have you heard about burnout syndrome? It’s a disorder that involves a series of physical and psychological alterations derived from work, or rather, from work overload. It appears mainly in health professionals, but also in police officers, teachers, etc.

The evaluation of 535 people in a study by Miranda-Lara et al. (2016), which sought to evaluate the prevalence of the syndrome in healthcare personnel, determined that 33.8% of workers suffered from the disorder, and that 6.7% suffered from it to a high degree.

Of the study participants, 44.1% had emotional exhaustion, 56.4% had depersonalization, and 92.9% had low personal fulfillment. These three symptoms mentioned are the typical symptoms of the disorder. But what else do we know about it? Why is it produced? How can we treat it? We’ll be looking at the condition in depth in this article.

Burnout syndrome: what is it?

Burnout syndrome can lead to depression.
If burnout syndrome isn’t treated, the appearance of depression is possible.

According to an article by Pereira et al. (2002) published in the journal Clínica y Salud, burnout syndrome is a pathology that can affect very different professions: healthcare, teachers, police, among others.

In general, it occurs, above all, in occupations that frequently have to attend to and interact in a supportive way with some type of user or “client”.

This user or client usually has a varying of different needs. The first people who spoke about this syndrome were Maslach and Jackson (1981) who characterized it as a syndrome in which emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of personal fulfillment were manifested.

Those affected develop very different symptoms that interfere with their daily functioning in a negative way (health, work, personal, and social life). Starting in 1996, the original model proposed by these authors was modified (Maslach, Jackson and Leiter, 1996).

In this new model, non-healthcare professionals were also included, and the symptoms that the authors highlighted then were emotional fatigue, cynicism, and personal efficacy. As we will see, this personal efficacy (or rather, the feeling of being effective or efficient) is negatively affected in the person who suffers from this disorder.

A physical and mental alteration

These first definitions and models have undergone changes over the years, and, currently, burnout syndrome is known as a psychological alteration linked to the work context, which can become a disorder due to its negative effects on health.

A person who suffers from it can develop mood disorders (such as depression) or anxiety disorders, among other alterations that we will mention below.

Symptoms

In each person, the symptoms of this syndrome may vary slightly (and its degree of intensity or interference with the person’s life as well). However, there are a series of characteristic symptoms, which are the following:

Physical and mental exhaustion

There is significant mental exhaustion (exhaustion or mental fatigue). This is mainly related to the professional field, that is, it derives from the work itself. It can lead to the person developing physical exhaustion as well. Because of this, a loss of energy appears.

As we said, this exhaustion usually occurs due to the person having to perform certain work functions, which are mainly related to people who need to be cared for. That is why it’s a very typical syndrome in healthcare personnel.

Depersonalization

This is defined as a subjective experience characterized by an alteration in the usual way the people perceive themselves and their own bodies. People with depersonalization tend to see themselves “from the outside”, as if they were not the ones who are experiencing the situation.

It’s a temporary sensation in which the person feels “outside” of their own body. They feel strange, as if they were living in a dream. And, as we’ve mentioned, another of the symptoms of burnout syndrome is depersonalization.

In this sense, negative attitudes in relation to users or clients and an increase in irritability may appear at work, in addition to a loss of motivation.

Lack of personal fulfillment

Another characteristic symptom of this syndrome is the lack of personal fulfillment. When we say personal fulfillment, we’re talking about a feeling of satisfaction at work, feeling useful in it, fulfilled, encouraged, etc.

When a person suffers from this syndrome, this satisfaction disappears, and personal and work self-esteem also decreases. A feeling of frustration with expectations as well as symptoms of stress appear on a behavioral, physical, and cognitive level.

Causes of burnout syndrome

So, what causes burnout syndrome? Well, it’s actually the result of a combination of many different factors. These have to do, above all, with work, but they can also be related to a difficult or sensitive moment in life, with specific personal characteristics, with a certain vulnerability, etc.

At a work level, a bad environment at work, poor relationship with colleagues, excess workload, excessive stress, difficulties in delegating and working with people (especially in their care) can favor the appearance of this syndrome. We’re going to summarize all these causes below:

A feeling of a lack of control

This can lead to an inability to influence decisions that affect one’s work, related to schedules, roles, workload, definition of tasks, etc.

Dysfunctional dynamics

Dysfunctional dynamics at work, especially in relation to colleagues, can also promote this syndrome. These “toxic” dynamics create a lot of stress and discomfort.

Bad time management

Time management is essential in order to avoid stress. Thus, if we organize ourselves poorly, we can end up working more than necessary and thus accumulate physical and mental fatigue.

Lack of social support

If, when we leave work, or even actually at work, we don’t feel that we have a social support network to lean on, then the symptoms of this disorder may intensify. Thus, the person may feel more and more alone and isolated, and feel that they can’t count on anyone to share what’s happening to them.

Unclear job expectations

Not being clear about what our boss expects of us, for example, can also cause a lot of stress and discomfort. If you don’t speak clearly with them, then all that discomfort accumulates and the person, in addition, may end up having to do tasks that don’t correspond to them, and, in this way, they accumulate even more workload.

Not caring enough

Beyond the work environment, if the person is neglecting their health, then the symptoms of the disorder can intensify a lot. That is why it is important to maintain healthy lifestyle habits regarding food, sleep, exercise, schedules, etc.

Treatment

Patients with burnout syndrome may require medical attention.
Going to the psychologist or psychiatrist is an excellent option to start treating this syndrome.

So, how can we treat burnout syndrome? There isn’t any treatment we could regard as being specific for this disorder, but we do have measures that can help to combat it. Among them, we can find the following:

  • Seeking psychological support: If we realize that the symptoms are overwhelming us, then we can always ask for psychological help.
  • Make small changes: Try to take short breaks at work, spend time outside the office, spend time with colleagues, connect with what you were passionate about regarding your work…
  • Practice self-care: It’s very important, at these times of so much physical and emotional stress, that you look after yourself. So, we recommend that you follow a balanced diet, do exercise, and ensure that you get enough sleep.
  • Reduce sources of stress: Try to reduce, as much as possible, sources of stress at work and outside of it.
  • Organize your time: Organizing your time is the key to reducing the stress that is causing you so much damage.
  • Find moments of disconnection: When you get out of work, you need to completely disconnect. Do something you like, or just rest. Turn off your mobile, go for a walk, but, above all, try to stop thinking about work.

If you have the typical symptoms of burnout syndrome, then don’t hesitate to act. Listen to yourself, don’t repress your feelings, and ask for help. The worst thing you can do when this happens to you is to just let things continue as they are.

Face your symptoms and analyze what is happening and why. This is the first step to raising awareness about this state that can damage your health both physically and mentally.

“A calm mind brings inner strength and self-esteem, and that is very important for mental health.”

-Dalai Lama-

  • American Psychiatric Association (2004). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV-TR (Text Revision). American Psychiatric Association.
  • Bianchi, R.; Schonfeld, I.S.; Laurent, E. (2015). Burnout-depression overlap: A review. Clinical Psychology Review, 36: 28-41.
  • Maslach, C. y Jackson, S.E. (1981). Maslach Burnout Inventory, Manual. Palo Alto, University of California. Consulting Psychologists.
  • Maslach, C. y Jackson, S.E. y Leiter, M.P. (1996). Maslach Burnout Inventory Manual. Third Edition, Palo Alto, Ca.: Consulting Psychologist Press.
  • Maslach y Leiter (1997) The truth about burnout. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
  • Miranda-Lara, V.R. et al. (2016). Prevalencia del síndrome de burnout en personal de enfermería de dos instituciones de salud. Rev Enferm Inst Mex Seguro Soc., 24(2):115-22.
  • Pereira, B. et al. (2002). La evaluación específica del síndrome de Burnout en psicólogos: el “inventario de Burnout de psicólogos”. Clínica y Salud, 13(3): 257-283.
  • Santos Barrios (2017). Conoce y Supera la Despersonalización y la Desrealización: Trastorno de irrealidad. Amazon.