Article Date: 6/1/2002

EMPLOYEE BURNOUT: Are You and Your Staff at Risk?
Recognize the signs before it becomes a crisis.

According to a recent study conducted by ReliaStar Life Insurance company, four out of every 10 Americans say that they're stressed on the job. Furthermore, those who feel stressed are twice as likely to suffer from burnout than others.

Your practice's ace performers (including yourself) could be among the next victims of job burnout. Recognizing the signs early can make the difference between salvaging a good employee and losing her.

What is burnout?

Burnout's not just feeling stress -- it's the mental, emotional and physical effect of overwhelming stress or not dealing effectively with stress. Burnout is a pathological response to work stress, even if the workload isn't overwhelming. As a result, productivity and performance may suffer.

Stress at work becomes chronic and spills over into personal life. Those who feel that they're not in control are especially prone to burnout. You may think that your assistants and receptionists are more susceptible than you are, but the fact is, a growing number of physicians and other healthcare professionals are suffering from burnout, largely because of constraints on their mode of practice mandated by third parties.

Seeing the signs

One of the biggest complications of recognizing the early stages of burnout is that everyone -- especially those in the caring professions -- experiences stress and frustration from time to time. The condition surfaces when these symptoms become chronic.

Some people describe early-stage burnout victims as having "lost a little of their sparkle." You may notice that they laugh a little less, their voice is a bit more subdued or they lose their temper with co-workers more often. Basically, you're dealing with someone who just doesn't enjoy their work, or their life, anymore.

The employee may insist that their job is not the problem, that everything would be fine if only so-and-so would cooperate.

How burnout affects a person

"The biggest misunderstanding about burnout is that there's something wrong with the person -- that they're not tough enough," writes Christina Mashlach, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and co-author of The Truth About Burnout. Left unchecked, interpersonal relationships will eventually suffer.

You also might notice an increase in tardiness or in absences. Some people unconsciously try to cope with their unhappiness at work by oversleeping. As stress begins to take its toll on the immune system, you'll notice that the employee becomes a germ magnet, catching every cold they're exposed to. Frequent headaches, backaches and other chronic health problems may manifest without a clear cause. "Someone who's always sick is almost certainly burning out or has compassion fatigue," says Doug Fakkema, a compassion fatigue expert with the American Humane Association.


Key Signs to Recognize


Here are some common signs of burnout.

  • chronic displays of anger and other negative emotions

  • breakdown of interpersonal

  • hopelessness

  • health problems (e.g., back ache, headache and frequent colds)

  • substance abuse


Unfortunately, ignoring the symptoms of burnout can lead to severe problems (see "Key Signs to Recognize"). Co-workers usually notice that an employee is having a problem when these signs begin to show, but you may not. Why? Employees are likely to confide in their peers but not in their boss.

Unfortunately, most coworkers won't know what to do or how to help. And if the affected worker is the boss, the situation can be disastrous. It's one thing for you to counsel and direct an employee to get help but can you imagine an employee trying to do the same for you?

Burnout is contagious. One unhappy employee (or worse, an unhappy boss) can create tension and stress that quickly spreads. You need to do something to fix the situation before it becomes a crisis for your practice.

Are there any quick fixes?

The American Society of Training and Development suggests several steps to reduce burnout on the job. Among them is giving employees control over how they do their work.

Being supportive of employees and talking openly with them are also helpful steps. Allow staff adequate time off and check that they make use of it. If only one staff member is affected, talk to him and make sure he understand he's not being reprimanded and listen to him sympathetically.

Many insurances cover treatment for stress-related illnesses. Encourage him to schedule time for exercise, meditation, hobbies and family. Concentrate on developing positive coping skills (see "Coping Skills," below). The sufferer may also find some Web sites on the topic useful. "Set Your Sites" provides just a few of the many available.

If the problem has spread to more staff members, consider calling in a professional who has experience treating burnout. This professional may be able to help you identify the root cause of burn-out in your practice. An outsider may have a fresh outlook on ways your practice can lighten up without letting go.

Coping Skills


  • talking with peers and/or counselors
  • humor
  • exercise and/or meditation
  • time out for hobbies and family


  • substance abuse (e.g., drugs, alcohol, food, other)
  • withdrawal/depression

Pointers for burnout sufferers

If you or one of your staffers experiences burnout, avoid making major life changes (e.g., getting a divorce, moving, etc.) until the sufferer resolves the problem. What seems inevitable today may be regretted later when recovering from burnout.

That's why experts also suggest that a person suffering from burnout not quit his job or start a job search at this time. He should recover first, they counsel, then decide if he can stay in his present position or make a permanent change. Chances are, a change in the way a person handles his job will correct the situation.

Who to turn to

While most experts suggest that burnout sufferers seek treatment from a therapist or physician, Fakkema is adamant that the sufferer talk to a peer, someone who has experienced the same stresses. If the sufferer chooses a therapist, physician or member of the clergy, he should be sure that they're familiar with burnout and its treatments.

Some of the more common treatments they may recommend include taking time off, improving your diet, regularly exercising, taking stress-management or meditation classes and regularly scheduling appointments for hobbies and family.

Always the best medicine

Through everything, never forget to laugh. Laughter's the best medicine and humor is a valuable tool for handling stress. Those suffering from burnout have almost universally forgotten how to use it. As you or your staffer works at recovery, try recapturing his or your sense of humor and practice using it at every opportunity.

Dr. Schwartz, a member of OM's editorial board, lives in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, with her husband and her dogs. Some people say she burned out. Others suggest she just found a better antidote for stress.


Set Your Sites

Make this list available to your staff so they too can recognize and manage burnout.

A breakdown of burnout into three stages

More information on burnout from Dr. Pfifferling

Psychology site explains burnout

Find out your burnout potential



Optometric Management, Issue: June 2002