The Dangers of Burnout


Feb 16, 2015 by James

The term burnout was coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger, a German psychologist, and is used to describe employees who are completely mentally and emotionally exhausted by their work, to the point that they have lost almost all interest in it - and often any hobbies and pastimes they previously enjoyed. Burned-out employees often show clinical signs that are similar to depression, which has led some to suggest that burnout is a form of depressive illness.

The modern world of work is often blamed for burnout, and new research from Surrey University suggests that failing to look after the health of workers is as dangerous for employers as it is for their staff.

In a study of 262 employees (119 male, 143 female), from a wide range of occupations, the results suggest that workers who show signs of burnout are likely to show its effects in their work. According to the study, burned-out workers often try to avoid making decisions but when they do, those decisions are more likely to be irrational and risky. That can be really bad news for employees and employers alike, in most jobs but particularly in critical areas like health care and social work.


Management opportunities

The University of Surrey researchers have urged managers to design working environments that support employees, however, another study suggests that managers who try too hard to do this may end up burning out themselves.

Researchers from Michigan State University in the US found that bosses who try to be completely fair and make their workers happier, while simultaneously doing their best for the company, often find themselves mentally worn out - even though their staff and employers often appreciate their efforts and consider them to be good at their jobs.

As the Michigan researchers point out, several studies have shown that employees (including managers) who are mentally tired are more likely than others to steal and cheat, because exhaustion destroys much of their self-discipline, and that burnout can reduce the quality of employees' work.

Therefore, the researchers suggest, managers who find themselves burning out should look after themselves, for example by:

  • Getting enough sleep.
  • Taking short mental breaks during the working day.
  • Eating a healthy diet.
  • Detaching completely from work when away from the office: for example by refusing to look at work-related e-mails or other materials after the working day ends.


Good advice

Those tips could help almost all employees to maintain their own mental health - and performance at work. Other hints for dealing with or preventing burnout include:

  • Don't be a perfectionist all of the time - sometimes good enough is fine.
  • Develop good time management skills.
  • Break tasks down into manageable pieces.
  • Track progress - it can be incredibly heartening and show how much is being achieved.
  • Don't overload free time however limited it is - sometimes it can be most helpful simply to do nothing and recover from work.
  • Seek support from friends and/or family.
  • Delegate effectively.
  • Only make as many decisions as are necessary.