The Danger of Burnout in the Workplace

Working from home is hard. As a leader, this is important to recognize — not only in yourself but your followers too.

From little in-person interaction with people other than our families, blurred work-home boundaries, increased workloads and frequent video conferences, more and more people are reporting symptoms of burnout.

Referring to the effects of chronic drug abuse, the term “burnout” was first used to describe the psychological phenomenon we are familiar with in a 1961 novel by Graham Greene titled A Burnt-Out Case. The main character in the story experienced extreme fatigue, loss of idealism and loss passion for his job. As a result, he escaped the city and set off on a voyage into an African jungle.[1] [2]

Today, when people describe themselves or others as experiencing burnout, they mostly refer to the symptoms of extreme physical and mental fatigue, as well as feelings of emotional exhaustion and depletion.

However, the real danger of burnout lays beyond the experience of exhaustion and fatigue. Such emotional and physical exhaustion prompts the burnt-outs to distance themselves emotionally and cognitively from not only the work itself, but people they work with. They do so to cope with the overwhelming workload and other work-related requests. Meanwhile, by treating others (coworkers and clients) with a cynical and emotionless attitude, it makes others’ demands more manageable.

As a result, those who are burnt out are more likely to initiate interpersonal conflicts at work, be hostile towards others and exhibit a lack of concern. This is because their extreme fatigue and exhaustion has inhibited their abilities to be considerate of others and to regulate their overwhelming emotions.

Consequently, the affected individuals will feel a diminished self-efficacy, lack of personal competency and productivity, and a low self-evaluation.

Leaders should pay attention to these dangerous signs. Sometimes, it is not as simple as this person is having a bad attitude or has poor work ethics. When you sense these signs in your team, your people may actually experience severe psychological burnout.

Together with the feeling of exhaustion, the cynical attitude and reduced feelings of personal accomplishment can severely affect people’s work performance, work relationships, along with their mental and physical health. [2]

People who experience chronic burnout have a 26 to 35 percent higher risk of early mortality (mortality under the age of 45) and pain problems,[3] are three times more likely to have increased risk of experiencing future depression and coronary heart disease,[4] and have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 200 percent.[5]

If we don’t deal with burnout properly, the great price of health will be paid by individuals, and the organizations will also experience financial and human capital loss in terms of lowered performance, absenteeism, turnover, replacement and retraining and a large amount of medical bills.

Therefore, we cannot only rely on individuals to combat their own burnout symptoms; it is also the leader’s and the organization’s responsibility to help prevent burnout and offer interventions to those who are already experiencing it.

In my next two posts, let’s look together at what are the main culprits in organizations that lead to employee burnout and what we can do to prevent it from happening.


  1. Greene, G. (1961). A burnt-out case. New York: Viking Press.
  2. Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual review of psychology52, 397-422.
  3. Ahola, K., Vaananen, A., Koskinen, A., Kouvonen, A., & Shirom, A. (2010). Burnout as a predictor of all-cause mortality among industrial employees: A 10-year prospective register-linkage study. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 69, 51-57.
  4. Melamed, S., Shirom, A., Toker, S., Berlliner, S., & Shapira, I. (2006). Burnout and risk of cardiovascular disease: Evidence, possible causal paths, and promising research directions. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 327-353.
  5. Melanmed, S., Shirom, A., Toker, S., & Shapira, I. (2006). Burnout and risk of type 2 diabetes: A prospective study of apparently healthy employed persons. Psychosomatic Medicine, 68, 863-869.

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August 19, 2020 at 10:19 am

This is a great read! I'm already looking forward to the next two posts. I think a lot of us can relate to feeling burnout at times in our life, not just from pressures at work, but also the pressures of life. The death of a parent, while experiencing health problems, the loss of a job, and not enough money to make ends meet left me feeling burnout several years ago. It took a long time to recover from that, and it didn't happen over-night.

I appreciate this series of articles for shedding light on this issue. Thank you.


Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.