Recognising the 5 key signs of burnout

The definition of burnout and the questionnaire to help diagnose the condition were developed more than thirty years ago. To provide a clearer definition and a more accurate outline of the diagnostic criteria, researchers at KU Leuven identified five key signs of burnout and two additional ones. The new questionnaire will be presented by the team at the end of the year.

The improved analytical and diagnostic features of the questionnaire will help businesses reduce worker absenteeism due to preventable health issues. The boundaries between stress, depression and burnout will also be more explicitly defined, allowing employers to intervene much sooner.   

Koen Van Hulst, Head of Mensura’s Psychosocial Department: “Changes in behaviour usually indicate that something deeper is going on. Three correlated symptoms used to serve as the basis for burnout diagnosis, whereas now we are looking at five key signs.”

1. Physical and psychological exhaustion

The employee often experiences extreme fatigue and exhaustion. They feel not only physically drained but also mentally. “One of the signs is when an employee who is usually very active during meetings has become quieter and keeps to the background more often”, Koen explains. “The difference in energy is really noticeable. You can tell that their battery is running low.”

2. Memory and concentration problems

A burnout also affects cognitive performance, which means the employee will struggle to remain focused. Koen: “They start missing deadlines and make mistakes where they previously wouldn’t have.”

3. Emotional bursts

While most employees are able to control their feelings when being reprimanded or receiving feedback, burnout sufferers often struggle with this. Their tolerance threshold is much lower, which may cause frequent outbursts of anger or crying fits. “Someone who is experiencing burnout often responds very emotionally to minor setbacks. To colleagues, it may seem as if this person is simply overreacting.”

4. Mental (and physical) detachment

The employee starts putting up more and more resistance to his or her workload. For reasons of self-protection, this person may mentally (and sometimes physically) disconnect from all work-related matters. Koen: “This is most apparent during meetings and presentations, where their former enthusiasm is slowly replaced by indifference. This is a clear sign that something else is going on.”

5. Symptoms of depression

Burnout is sometimes wrongly diagnosed as depression, as decreased performance and feelings of exhaustion often lead to low spirits and feelings of guilt. “The main difference is that burnout is an energy disorder while depression is a mood disorder”, Koen continues.

These five key symptoms sometimes go hand in hand with other stress symptoms, such as physical pain, sleep problems and panic attacks. The employee will often take action only when those stress symptoms are becoming bothersome. However, taking action sooner is much more effective.   

Preventing burnout

Preventing burnout begins with an analysis of psychosocial risks. All your employees will be asked to take part in a survey to help identify the main risk factors and points for improvement within your organisation.

Koen: “Employers should focus on the following two things: creating a solid buffer against burnout by providing a great work environment, a positive experience at work, and proper training for all employees. However, it is equally important to take immediate action as soon as you notice any changes in behaviour.”

Managers and supervisors will need to acquire the necessary stress awareness skills and promote open communication to be able to adequately deal with these issues. “They need to approach and talk to those workers who are displaying changes in behaviour and ask them whether there are any obvious causes”, Koen adds. “Together, they may be able to find a solution that addresses the reduced level of energy felt by the employee. What gives your employee the most job satisfaction? Is it possible to create more variety in their job duties? Or are there any projects they need assistance with? By recognising the tell-tale signs of burnout and taking preventive action, in other words by applying the principles of Mental Health First Aid, employers can considerably reduce the risk of burnout among their workers.”

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