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Burnout: recognize and recover

Burnout: recognize
and recover

Burnout these days is like a respiratory infection. You either have it now, had it before, or will have it later. Learn how to identify it and act.

Things you should know from the very start:

Recently, burnout was officially recognized by the World Health Organization. The syndrome is resulting from unmanaged “chronic workplace stress”

Systemic labor flaws and personal inability to self-regulate are to blame

Pollsters say burnout is experienced by up to 75% of workers

Covid-19 and growing work from home practice added to the cause

Millions quitting their jobs in Great Resignation driven by Covid and burnout

In the 1970s, burnout was viewed as a hazard for idealistic young service specialists who became discouraged and depleted through their experiences in bureaucratic systems. It was about frustration arising from a clash of organizational values with personal values.

Today, fifty years after the term “burnout” was brought into the research lexicon, the syndrome has become omnipresent. It takes place when there is a continuous effort-reward imbalance, that is when stressors, including deadlines and demands, outstrip recognition, relaxation, and other rewards. So much for the digital era.

Some of the factors that put you at risk of burning out:

Inability to influence decisions that affect your job

Lack of social support

Unclear job expectations

Dysfunctional workflow

No work/life balance

Poor work culture

Conflict between stated and real values of the organization

Heavy workload

Helping profession (health care, emergencies)


Signs of burnout at work


Permanent tiredness, draining of energetic resources


Distancing from work, negative feelings toward colleagues or clients


Feelings of incompetence and a decreased sense of accomplishment

The effects of burnout can be numerous. They can include an increased likelihood of heart diseases, high blood pressure, respiratory issues, insomnia, depression, substance abuse, self-isolation, job dissatisfaction, and growing unproductivity.


Burnout is a condition that brings dysfunctional patterns into the work of the two most important stress-response systems of your body – the sympathetic adrenal medullary axis (SAM) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). SAM is about a rapid body response to the initial phase of stress while the HAP turns on a long-lasting hormonal mechanism.

Once these axes are activated by a combination of stressors, they generate a response that can start within seconds and might endure for months, promoting metabolic changes, suppression of the immune system, and even structural and functional brain changes. For example, some studies show that burnout people have a slightly enlarged amygdala and a thinner medial prefrontal cortex – a brain area essential to cognitive functioning.

Putting it simply, burnout is about the depletion of your body’s stress-response mechanisms.

Can it be diagnosed?


Burnout is not yet seen as a medical issue, it’s an occupational condition. However, some of the most developed countries, including Sweden and the Netherlands, already treat it as a disease.

Even if you don’t reside in Amsterdam, you can always take a test.

The “golden standard” is the Maslach Burnout Inventory or MBI. It’s a test developed by Christina Maslach, a pioneer researcher of burnout, whose 1976 publication “Burn-Out” made the concept popular in the healthcare community.

You can purchase the $20 test here.

Another popular (and free) test is the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory or OLBI.

You can take it here.

Such tests can’t be treated as an official diagnosis but they can ring a bell if you are in the burnout risk group.

How to deal with burnout?

Addressing burnout is a complex issue as it requires changes both on an individual and organizational levels. On a personal level, specialists see several experiences that help recover from burnout. These include detachment (not thinking about work after working hours), mastery (a positive challenge to learn new stuff), and control over nonwork time.

Also, this short TED video will help you understand how to recover from burnout if you work remotely. Hints: create a ritual to resemble the time you used to spend commuting and favor audio over videos.