Burned out, exhausted and stressed: The symptoms of burnout

Burnout syndrome refers to a work-related state of exhaustion. Although “burnout” does not appear as a separate diagnosis in doctors’ manuals in Germany, the condition is a reality. One in five Germans feels burned out, complains of too high a workload and thus belongs to the burnout risk group (Stressreport Deutschland, 2012). In technical jargon, the cumbersome diagnosis problems related to difficulties in coping with life with the subcategory exhaustion syndrome is often made. In this article, learn what burnout specifically means, whether you or someone close to you is at risk, and what treatment options are available.

Is it stress? Or a sign of burnout?

In our hectic world, stress is part and parcel of the working world. Anyone who isn’t stressed today probably doesn’t seem to take their work seriously. But there is a clear distinction to be made between short-term stress, which is what enables us to perform at our best in the first place, and chronic stress, which paralyzes us in the long run. For burnout sufferers, exhaustion is the permanent condition. Nevertheless, stress is only one factor in the development of a burnout syndrome. Not everyone who suffers from stress at work necessarily develops a burnout syndrome. The overview shows the multi-layered factors that can contribute to the development of burnout (adapted from Burisch, 2014). Among others, the following aspects are relevant:

  • Disappointed role expectations at work
  • Unmet needs, e.g., for recognition
  • Lack of control
  • Helplessness
  • Unfavorable work environment, e.g., one-sidedness, no specific goals
  • Missing collegiality
  • Personality factors such as excessive ambition

Warning Signs Burnout

We can all recall a moment in our lives when we were simply exhausted, unable to act, drained and worn out. Usually, our coping mechanisms are sufficient to escape this state. In the case of an acute burnout, however, our own resources are burned out according to the name. The complete breakdown is usually the undesired climax of the burnout. It is preceded by a number of warning signals, which can vary from person to person. Increased attention is required, among other things, for the following symptoms, which are especially apparent in the early phase of a burnout:

Lack of energy, insomnia, reluctance, weariness, poor concentration and memory, loss of productivity and creativity.

Not being able to switch off, feeling like you never have time, hyperactivity and denial of your own needs, extreme focus on work, sleep disturbances, weight loss.

Accordingly, the complete breakdown does not happen all at once. It is a gradual process in which it is necessary to listen to oneself and carefully observe one’s own feelings and behaviors.

Multi-layered burnout symptoms

Once the vicious cycle of burnout has begun, complex feelings and behaviors are added that are characteristic of the disease. However, the symptoms described here are only an excerpt, because burnout can take on highly diverse forms. On the emotional level, burnout is often characterized by:

  • Pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Bitterness
  • Unspecific anxiety
  • Nervousness

The mood can change from one moment to the next. However, there is often an inner emptiness and indifference. Even the relatives notice the changes and suffer from it. For example, increased irritability of the affected person can lead to disputes and conflicts within the social environment. This leads to a loss of the much-needed social support for burnout patients.

Restrictions at work and in everyday life

If the burnout syndrome progresses, there are frequent absences from work and late starts to work. This often aggravates the situation with colleagues or the employer. The professional situation sometimes comes to such a head that a loss of the job is imminent. In everyday life, hobbies that were otherwise enjoyable are abandoned and social contacts are avoided.

Possibly an increased consumption of addictive substances such as coffee, tobacco or alcohol occurs. At the end of the vicious circle, a breakdown may occur. The affected person is then no longer capable of acting and needs immediate help. But the “break-down” is not necessarily the result of a burnout. It often takes a while before it occurs, and there are many things that can be done to prevent it.

The body also reacts

Impairments can also occur on a physical level. Examples include a weakening of the immune system, increased blood pressure, tension, indigestion, chest tightness and breathing difficulties (Burisch, 2014). For some sufferers, these physical symptoms are in the foreground, so that an initial fruitless search is made for an underlying physical illness before the burnout is recognized (Wittchen & Hoyer, 2006).

In the jungle of diagnoses: burnout syndrome

It is important to note that burnout syndrome, by definition, arises in the context of work. This statement also distinguishes burnout from depression, which affects all areas of life (Senger, 2018). Nevertheless, overlaps exist between the two disorders. To learn exactly how depression is recognized, click here. Only a specialist doctor or psychotherapist can make a diagnosis. It should be noted, however, that when it comes to burnout, don’t think too narrowly. Pupils and students can also suffer from burnout. Volunteers and people who care for relatives are also considered at risk (Burisch, 2014).

Finding help

The diagnosis of burnout is a reality, so many therapeutic approaches have developed in recent decades. From stress or self-management training, relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, organizational development strategies to psychotherapy specifically adapted to the work context, the treatment options are constantly expanding. The warning signs and indications of burnout should therefore be taken seriously before a breakdown occurs. If you realize while reading this article that you already have one foot in the stress trap, the word now is: don’t panic! Do not continue to fidget, but remain calm.

The most important step has been taken: you have noticed that the stress is getting too much. Reflect on what is good for you and on things that have otherwise kept you afloat during stressful times. Think about how you can escape the stress trap step by step and trust your inner strength.

Subsequent note (07/23/2019): Burnout was first recognized as a disease by the WHO in May 2019. In January 2022, the new ICD-11 classification list is scheduled to come into effect. It explicitly states that burnout should only be used in a professional context and not in private areas of life. A long-lasting debate about the much-discussed topic of burnout has thus come to an end.


(1) Burisch, M. (2014). The burnout syndrome. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg

(2) Lohmann-Haislah, A. (2012). Stress report Germany 2012: psychological demands, resources and well-being. Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

(3) Senger, K. (2018). Burnout 2.0. PiD-Psychotherapy in Dialogue, 19(03), 13-14

(4) Wittchen, H.-U. & Hoyer, J. (2006). Clinical psychology & psychotherapy. Berlin-Heidelberg: Springer

(5) ZEIT ONLINE, AFP, dpa, ale (2019) https://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/2019-05/gesundheit-burnout-who-krankheiten-transgender Accessed on: 23.07.2019

Categories: Burnout

Verena Klein
Autor Verena Klein
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