How to recognize work burnout

The economic downturn has driven burnout rates way up. How to recognize it when you see it—or feel it

“I think I broke my president.”

On the phone was the chairman of a multibillion-dollar corporation for which Amir Georges Sabongui, a Montreal corporate psychologist, had previously consulted. The company’s president, a star hire and stellar performer, was crashing, burnt out after a cataclysmic slump in business. It wasn’t really his fault: Amidst a deepening recession, the entire industry was reeling, hit by an 80% drop in sales in one three-month period. But this executive was unaccustomed to such setbacks, where all his efforts seemed futile. His psychological collapse, reports Sabongui, “shook the whole company, from the top down.”

This type of high-ranking and high-driving executive—CEO, entrepreneur, top salesman—isn’t the typical candidate for burnout. The condition usually affects front-line staff or middle managers who grow overwhelmed or disillusioned in their jobs. But the recent downturn has proven different from previous recessions because the bounce-back is slow to materialize, says Sabongui. “It’s something these high performers can’t control. They don’t do well in that kind of environment. You can put them in the ring to fight a dragon, but don’t tie their hands behind their backs.”

Amidst layoffs and hiring freezes, many organizations today are looking for more productivity from fewer people. And staff burnout is a growing concern. A recent Canadian study found that almost three out of five health-care workers may be heading for burnout as they struggle under “role overload,” and the risk is highest among managers, who face pressure from both their bosses and subordinates. According to a December survey by, a third of polled companies worry that employee burnout will affect their ability to retain top staff. The condition even made the celebrity news when the Spanish chef Ferran Adria announced in January he was closing his world-famous restaurant, El Bulli, for two years, claiming creative burnout.

While as many as 75% of respondents to some polls report burnout in their jobs, these numbers are likely inflated, as many mistakenly equate burnout with high stress and overwork. In reality, burnout is a distinct condition that may result from exhaustion, but can also be brought on by boredom or disillusionment. The defining symptom is a sense of futility, of lacking control. (Research pegs burnout prevalence at 5% to 10%.) “Nobody ever burns out because they work too much,” says Sabongui. “They burn out when they put a lot in but don’t get enough out.”

The effects can range from apathy and absenteeism to major health problems or depression. The quality of people’s work drops and they procrastinate or miss deadlines. They dread coming into the office and take longer breaks. Whether they’re juggling too many responsibilities or facing monotonous, unrewarding tasks, the main early symptom is physical, mental and emotional fatigue, says Mark Gorkin, the self-styled “Stress Doc” who consults and writes about burnout and depression. That’s usually followed by shame and self-doubt. One small tell-tale warning sign? Frequent sighing.

In response to that feeling of insecurity and ineffectiveness, many people become cynical and abrasive. They start avoiding colleagues and rarely speak up in meetings. Previously sociable workers grow cranky and gung-ho achievers become apathetic. It’s a kind of armor, says Gorkin, and as the condition deepens, that armor starts to show cracks: a slight can set off an overly sensitive reaction; envy a colleague’s success starts to resemble sibling rivalry.

These behaviours are often accompanied by physical symptoms, from headaches and insomnia or hyposomnia (wanting to sleep all the time) to high blood pressure, even heart attacks. When assessing a patient’s risk of burnout, Sabongui asks questions like: Are they more tired when they wake up than when they went to bed? Do they have unexplained aches and pains? Do they have colds that just won’t go away? He similarly evaluates their mental condition (are they clock-watching? making more errors or bad decisions?) and their emotional state (are they losing their sense of humor or laughing at inappropriate things?).

Sabongui first became interested in burnout while researching the impact of stress on different individuals. Some people shine like diamonds under pressure while others turn to dust. The diamonds, he found, tend to be those who feel their destiny is in their hands—that they control their lives.

It’s these driven A types on whom the protracted recession seems to be taking an unusually high toll. “They feel like there’s nothing they can do that can change the outcome,” says Sabongui. And as they struggle with their own fears and doubts, they’re often facing an overburdened, demoralized work force and unhappy shareholders.

Michael Leiter, director of the Centre for Organizational Research and Development at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., and one of North America’s top authorities on burnout, links this phenomenon to a loss of hope. Right now a number of industries, from auto manufacturing to the media, are facing long-term upheaval, even the possibility of obsolescence. “People are feeling like their whole sectors may fade away, and that brings sadness or loss,” says Leiter. “And the loss of hope is what really drives burnout.”

These days, Leiter sees burnout hitting two groups harder than most. Young people entering the work force are finding their ambitions thwarted by the economic realities, and after six months to a year, many burn out—not from overwork but from disillusionment caused by the chasm between their expectations and the rewards. Burnout also hits single, childless people more frequently than happily married moms and dads, who find affirmation in their family lives even if those lives are more hectic.

Another group Leiter finds at increased risk are people in mid-life, many of them already highly accomplished, who see future opportunities growing limited and are giving in to cynicism about their prospects. “They’ve lost the spark and don’t see the spark coming back,” he says.

Bringing people back from the brink of burnout requires, fundamentally, reigniting their spark. Sometimes, it can be as simple as a switch to a more suitable role. Sabongui had one patient who had fought for a promotion to manager and when she finally received it, she discovered she was a lousy leaders. After a year of complaints from subordinates, feeling like failure, crying jags and eventual burnout, she asked for her old job back, at which she had been outstanding.

Other high performers, frustrated by a lack of agency, opt to go out on their own. While entrepreneurs are notorious workaholics, they’re less given to burnout than, say, corporate middle managers because they have autonomy. Back during the Internet boom, crazy work hours and blurred boundaries between work and leisure were part of the zeitgeist along with teenage millionaires and dogs in the office, but burnout wasn’t a big concern. Says Sabongui, “If you have a strong sense of purpose and are getting results, even if you’re working 20 hours a day, you’re not going to burn out.”

That ability to be effective is crucial. Burnout was first identified in the 1970s in studies of overworked, overstressed “helping professions,” such as health workers and teachers, who found all their efforts never slowed the flow of pain and despair. Ironically, these days, disillusioned corporate stars often look to the non-profit sector or careers that produce a concrete social good to revive their sense of worth and engagement.

To keep burnout at bay, people need to monitor their own mental and physical health, like gauges on a dashboard, and refuel with sleep, exercise, a healthy diet and fulfilling leisure time that includes reconnecting with friends, family and colleagues. What won’t necessarily prove helpful is working less. “Taking time off doesn’t always fix the problem,” says Sabongui. “The time has to be spent understanding what went wrong and taking active steps.”

Organizations should also take proactive steps. Statistics pertaining to burnout are hard to come by, but Health Canada estimates that stress caused by work or family conflict costs Canadian businesses about $3.5 billion a year in absenteeism alone. Burnout goes further, however, sapping companies’ resources through loss of productivity or “presenteeism” (putting in time while accomplishing little), accidents, staff turnover and insurance costs. During workshops, Gorkin encourages managers to hold team meetings where staff are encouraged to talk about the pressures they face—what he calls the meetings’ “wavelength” portion—so those having trouble coping feel less isolated. And when the work piles up, managers need to help employees prioritize and give them some control over their schedules. “When everything is urgent, nothing is important,” he points out.

If a top executive or key manager appears burnt out, the problem’s urgency is even higher, because that one individual’s apathy or callousness can quickly produce a toxic workplace. “Burnout is more contagious than swine flu,” says Sabongui. “I often see people at the top who are burnt out, and then the VPs become burnt out, and then the whole company is sick.”

That president whose boss reached out to Sabongui did end up going on a leave of absence. Though he wanted to stay off until he was 100% better, the psychologist persuaded him to return after three months, part-time. Sabongui also helped him figure out how to refuel his tank and realign his responsibilities—toward more mentoring, for example—so he had a greater sense of purpose and personal reward even as the business slump continued. A year after he first hit burnout, the highly valued executive remains with the company. What it took, says Sabongui, was “getting him to accept that he wasn’t broken forever, that he just had a sprain.”