Managing burnout

Mentally healthy workplaces: Resources for management

What is burnout?

Burnout can be described as a psychological response to prolonged, chronic work-related stress. Research has shown that workers who are exposed to risk factors of emotionally demanding work, low support and low control, are particularly susceptible to developing burnout.

While people commonly refer to being ‘burnt out’ as a result of a variety of personal and work-related situations, burnout is recognised in the research literature and by the World Health Organization as a purely work-related phenomenon. Research on burnout shows that burnout consists of three elements:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or negative or cynical feelings
  • reduced professional efficacy or productivity.

What are some signs and symptoms of burnout?

Emotional exhaustion – Noticeable when a person feels that they have little left to give others.

Negative feelings and behaviours – Feelings include helplessness, hopelessness, anger, impatience and irritability. It can also be characterised by increased tension and conflict with others as well as decreased friendliness, considerateness and courteousness.

Depersonalisation – Characterised by a sense of alienation from others. Observable when others are viewed in a negative light and even those people who were previously cared for or worked with, are disliked.

Physical changes – Signs include low energy, persistent fatigue, weakness, weariness, increased susceptibility to illness, frequent headaches, nausea, muscle tension, back pain and sleep disturbances.

Education, human services and health care professions are particularly at risk of burnout due to the nature of their work (i.e. high emotional demands and low control).

How can burnout be prevented and managed?

Like any other hazard, burnout can be managed by applying the risk management process. By identifying and assessing the risk factors of burnout, organisations can implement controls to reduce the risk of harm to health to workers. The six risk factors associated with burnout are:

  • high, sustained work demands (including work pressure and emotional demands) with insufficient time for rest and recovery
  • low control/decision-making
  • lack of rewards and recognition for efforts
  • poor sense of community, including inadequate support from supervisors and co-workers
  • real or perceived organisational injustice
  • incongruent personal and organisational values.

When conducting a risk assessment for burnout, it is important to consider that some risk factors are always present, and others occasionally present.

Examples of controls for the risk factors associated with burnout include:

  • applying principles of good job design (e.g. designing jobs which provide workers with tolerable work demands, adequate support and control)
  • clearly defining job roles, reporting structures and activities
  • promoting a workplace culture that is inclusive, destigmatises mental ill health and encourages help-seeking assistance
  • establish achievable workloads and performance targets specific to the workplace’s current number of workers and skills mix
  • adjusting workloads
  • rotating jobs for repetitive or highly demanding tasks
  • educating the workforce on identifying the early signs of distress and what to do
  • educating workers on healthy coping strategies and the provision of supporting resources.

What is the difference between fatigue and burnout?

Fatigue and burnout are terms that are sometimes confused. However, they refer to different things. While there is a place to discuss both, in order to manage each of them correctly, organisations need to understand how to distinguish them.

Burnout is solely a psychosocial work-related hazard, whereas fatigue can be both work and non-work-related. The risk factors and symptoms of burnout differ to the risk factors and symptoms of fatigue. Therefore, understanding the risk factors and the associated symptoms for each hazard is important for conducting an effective risk assessment.

Resources

Preventing burnout - Videos

This video series by Deakin University discusses how to manage and prevent burnout, and highlights the critical role of management and supervision. Videos in the series cover prevention and recovery strategies, job crafting, incivility and the impact of supervisors. The series also includes a video case study.

Framework – Reduce job demands

This webpage by the Future of Work Institute provides evidence-based strategies to help workplaces identify and manage excessive demands on their workers.

The nature, causes and consequences of harm in emotionally-demanding occupations

This report by the UK Health and Safety Executive provides a comprehensive literature review on the causes of burnout and a discussion of commonly associated psychosocial hazards and risk factors.

Framework – Increase job resources

This webpage by the Future of Work Institute provides evidence-based strategies to increase job resources to buffer against risk factors for burnout.

Avoiding carer burnout

This webpage by SANE Australia provides information about the causes and symptoms of burnout, as well as strategies that can be helpful in preventing burnout.

Insight (SBS) - Burnout

This episode of SBS's Insight program discusses burnout, where it comes from and what might help.