Micarli Salomon
By Micarli Salomon on December 19, 2022

Burnout syndrome: how to spot it and prevent it.

Burnout syndrome, sometimes translated as "Burnout Syndrome", is a psychological disturbance linked to the context of work that can constitute a disorder due to its harmful effects on quality of life. It has characteristics of depression or anxiety.
The term "burnout" was first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger in his book "Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement". The disorder is usually a consequence of chronic work stress and is characterized by a state of emotional exhaustion, a cynical or detached attitude towards work (depersonalisation), and a feeling of inefficiency and inadequate task performance. This is compounded by a loss of communication skills.
Burnout syndrome is thus one of the main mental health problems and the prelude to many of the psychological pathologies resulting from poor control and lack of primary prevention of this syndrome.
In addition, 65% of companies report that the risk of suffering from burnout has increased in 2022 (+6 p.p. year-on-year). And almost 60% of companies consider that "silent resignation" has increased to some degree in the last year, according to the results of the 2nd Adecco Observatory on Emotional Wellbeing and Psychosocial Factors, which aims to highlight how the psychosocial variable affects companies and their workforces.
Table of content
  1. Factors influencing the development of Burnout
  2. Symptoms
  3. Phases of burnout
  4. Prevention
  5. Intervention
  6. How can HR software help to prevent, identify and intervene in cases of burnout?

1. Factors influencing the development of Burnout

The most relevant factors involved in the development of Burnout syndrome are:

  • The characteristics of the job and the working environment: The company must organize the work and control its development. It is up to the company to train the employee, to delimit and make the organization chart clear so that conflicts do not arise, to specify working hours, holiday shifts, etc. In other words, the company must function as a support for the employees and not as an element of added pressure. The greatest cause of stress is a work environment with tensions between employees, which occurs when the work model is very authoritarian and there is no opportunity to intervene in decisions. According to experts, a team feeling is indispensable to avoid the syndrome. 

  • Shift work and working hours, shift work and night work facilitate the occurrence of this syndrome. The influences are both biological and emotional due to alterations in heart rhythms, sleep-wake cycle, etc. 

  • Job security and stability in times of employment crisis affects a significant percentage of people, especially groups at high risk of unemployment (young people, women, people over 45). 
  • Too much or too little progress, as well as unforeseen and unwanted change, often leads to burnout and stress. The degree to which change is stressful depends on the magnitude of the change, the timing of the change and the level of incongruence with personal expectations. 

  • Organizational structure and climate, the more centralized the organization is in decision making, the more complex (many hierarchical levels), the higher the hierarchical level of a worker, the greater the requirements for formalization of operations and procedures, the greater the possibility of Burnout syndrome.

  • Controllability, a characteristic that can produce psychological equilibrium or degenerate into Burnout, is the degree to which a work environment allows the individual to control the activities to be performed. 

  • Feedback, the degree to which the performance of the activities required by the job provides the individual with clear and direct information about the effectiveness of his or her performance. Generally, workers in jobs with this characteristic have higher levels of satisfaction and intrinsic motivation, and lower levels of emotional exhaustion than those in jobs where this feedback is lacking or insufficient. 

  • Interpersonal relationships are usually valued in positive terms. Work environments that promote contact with people will generally be more beneficial than those that prevent or hinder it.The characteristics of the job and the work environment: The company must organize the work and control its development. It is up to the company to train the employee, to delimit and make the organizational chart clear so that conflicts do not arise, to specify working hours, holiday shifts, etc. In other words, the company must function as a support for the employees and not as an element of added pressure. The greatest cause of stress is a work environment with tensions between employees, which occurs when the work model is very authoritarian and there is no opportunity to intervene in decisions. According to experts, a team feeling is indispensable to avoid the syndrome. 

  • Salary has also been invoked as another factor affecting the development of Burnout in workers, although it is not clear from the literature.

Business strategy can cause burnout: companies with a cost-minimisation strategy in which staff is reduced by expanding the roles and responsibilities of workers; those that do not invest in staff training and development; those that do not invest in equipment and work materials for staff to perform their duties properly, limit breaks, etc.
Personal factors:
  • Lack adequate preparation for the job.
  • If you have difficulties in asking for help from colleagues or in working as part of a team.
  • When it does not share the company's ideas, goals and values.
  • You experience feelings of fear or guilt when you have not done something you should have done.
  • You are not able to share your worries or fears about your working life with your partner, family or friends.
  • Not enough rest when tired.
  • You cannot find another job when you want to change companies.
  • Family problems, financial problems, etc.

2. Symptoms

  • Alienation from work-related activities: People experiencing burnout see their jobs as increasingly stressful and frustrating. They may become cynical about their working conditions and the people they work with. They may also become emotionally detached and begin to feel numb about their work. 

  • Physical symptoms: Chronic stress can cause physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach aches and intestinal problems. 

  • Emotional exhaustion: burnout causes people to feel drained, unable to cope and tired. They often lack the energy to do their work. 
  • Reduced performance: burnout mainly affects everyday tasks at work, or at home, when someone's main job is caring for family members. Individuals with burnout feel negative about tasks. They have difficulty concentrating and often lack creativity.
If you want to know if you are suffering from job burnout, ask yourself if you...
  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Are you dragging yourself to work and having trouble getting started?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, bosses or clients?
  •  Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you find it difficult to concentrate?
  • Don't your achievements give you satisfaction?
  • Do you feel disillusioned with your work?
  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or just not feel?
  • Have your sleeping habits changed?
  • Are you worried about unexplained headaches, stomach or intestinal problems, or other physical complaints?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be experiencing burnout at work. Consider talking to a doctor, as these symptoms may also be related to health problems, such as depression.

3. Phases of burnout

Burnout occurs especially when work exceeds eight hours a day, if there has been no change of working environment for a long period of time and when the financial remuneration is inadequate. Occupational burnout also occurs when there is dissatisfaction with colleagues and superiors, when the person is treated badly, and when the working environment is inadequate. The person suffering from the syndrome goes through four different phases:
  • Initial phase, enthusiasm phase: This phase appears when we are offered a new job that we want and in which we have good prospects for the future. At this time we experience great enthusiasm, we seem to be full of energy and even don't mind staying longer than usual at work. 

  • Stagnation phase: Much to our regret, we realize that those positive future prospects that we had are not being fulfilled. We start to think things over, until we reach the point where we feel that the relationship between the effort we make and the reward we receive from our work is not balanced. At this point there is an imbalance between demands and resources with what seems to be a hopeless problem of psychosocial stress, so that we feel unable to respond effectively when faced with the day-to-day problems of work. 

  • Frustration phase: At this point, as we become more and more demotivated with our work and the environment surrounding it, an unpleasant feeling of frustration, disillusionment and demoralization inevitably appears. That job that seemed wonderful to us no longer has anything to do with what we experience now, it no longer makes any sense to us, we get easily irritated with anything that comes up and of course problems appear with the rest of our colleagues. Things start to go wrong, our health may even start to fail, we are emotionally unwell, we behave differently from the way we really are, and we may even have physiological problems. 

  • Apathy phase: The situation becomes almost unbearable and as a kind of defense we change our attitudes and behavior, for example, if we work in front of the public we behave in a distant and mechanical way towards customers. We avoid stressful tasks or go away to avoid doing them. We put up with less and less, that's why we use defense methods. 

  • Burnout phase: Now we have reached rock bottom, our body decides that it can't go on any longer and we have an emotional and cognitive collapse that has important consequences for our health. This situation can push us to leave our job and drag us into a professional life of frustration and dissatisfaction.
The downside of this evolution through all these phases is that the burnout syndrome is cyclical in nature, so that it can be repeated in the same job or in other jobs.

4. Prevention

Prevention is key in this type of syndrome, which is why it is necessary for individuals to pay attention to components such as adapting expectations to daily reality, training properly in emotions, balancing vital areas (family, friends, hobbies, rest, etc.), among other things. When carrying out treatment, it is vital to identify the factors that stress each person and address them in order to reduce them. It is important to have a good personal knowledge of oneself and to be able to analyze one's own reactions and reflect on them.
This syndrome is easier to deal with in the initial phase than when it is already established. In the early stages it is possible that colleagues may notice it before the individual, so friends, colleagues or superiors are often the best early warning system for detecting Burnout and therefore all professionals in the team have to realize that they themselves are the best prevention for their colleagues.
As a preventive method, there are different techniques:
  • To provide information about Burnout Syndrome, its main symptoms and consequences in order to make it easier to detect it in time. 

  • Monitor the working environment conditions by promoting teamwork. 

  • Design and implement workshops on leadership, soft skills, management development, etc. for senior management. 
  • Implement induction and job and organizational adjustment courses for new staff. 

  • Anticipate change by providing workshops that help develop skills, knowledge and coping strategies.

5. Intervention

Burnout syndrome affects many areas of life, so it is important that interventions are carried out on three levels:
  • At the individual level: consider employees' cognitive processes of self-assessment, and the development of cognitive-behavioral strategies that enable them to eliminate or mitigate the source of stress, avoid the stressful experience, or neutralize the negative sequences of that experience in order to adapt to the circumstances. 

  • At the group level: to promote the development of social skills and social support in work teams. 

  • At the organizational level: eliminate or reduce the stressors in the organizational environment that lead to the development of the syndrome.
Intervention strategies within the organization focus on trying to reduce the situations that generate work-related stress. Modifying the physical environment, organizational structure, job functions, human resource management policies, etc., with the aim of creating more horizontal structures, decentralization in decision-making, providing greater independence and autonomy, fair internal promotions that seek the career development of employees, flexible working hours, competitive salaries, etc.

burnout syndrome

6. How can HR software help to prevent, identify and intervene in cases of burnout?

HR software such as OpenHR can be the fundamental weapon for Occupational Health and Safety departments to prevent, identify and intervene in cases of burnout.
Through powerful internal communication tools we can attack several of the triggers of this problem, as it will significantly improve the factors that can lead to this condition.
Improvement in the characteristics and situation of the job.
  • Simplifies and improves the organization of work schedules and shifts. 

  • Through training programmes we can help employees to adapt better to their position in the company. 

  • It facilitates the organization of work and allows us to establish a clear system of hierarchies, for example by means of organization charts. This will avoid uncertainty on the part of the employee. 

  • It allows employees to be self-sufficient, as they themselves can plan their activities, plan their holidays, and request changes in their working hours. 
Internal communication tools allow managers to give feedback to their employees.
The extensive employee assessment system, the generation of staff surveys or medical check-ups will detect when an employee has or is starting to experience stress in the workplace, allowing HR to act as soon as possible to tackle the problem.
If an employee, despite prevention and early identification, also develops a severe case of burnout, we can also take action, e.g. by creating specific training for these employees, by creating therapy sessions or, if the employee is on sick leave, by arranging for a replacement.
At the workplace level, prevention interventions should be implemented and work dynamics and problems should be reviewed on a regular basis. Employers need to be aware of the costs and economic losses resulting from burnout. Increased absenteeism, low productivity and occupational accidents, among others, have a negative impact on the economic profitability of companies.
Those in charge of Occupational Risk Prevention have an arduous task to identify those employees who may find themselves in situations of work-related stress like this in order to prevent the situation from worsening and becoming a serious problem both for the person who suffers from it and for the company itself, which will be negatively affected, not only because of the loss of productivity of the worker, but also because this will probably lead to the employee being dismissed from the company.
burnout syndrome