Professional Burnout in Healthcare Workers. How to Recognize the Signs and Symptoms

The unprecedented height reached by stress in hospital work and its health personnel is, above all, the result of the combination of a work of intense responsibility with continuously open availability and dedication to the needs of the sick. This can lead to burnout.

In the hospital environment, mental health requires special attention. This is because different factors limit the personal and work development of employees. They include work hours, care for sick individuals who sometimes face crises, feeling caused by death, the increasing demands of people who are not satisfied with the services received.

These factors act directly on the individual and the workgroup, causing discomfort that can manifest itself in strong negative charges, stress, and dissatisfaction, among others. This generates a poor quality of care for the patient. The health worker can exhibit a state of stress exhaustion, also known as Burnout Syndrome.

Burnout Syndrome in Healthcare Workers

The “Burnout” Syndrome is an emotional state that accompanies stress overload, impacting internal motivation, attitudes, and behavior. It is also called “Stress Exhaustion Syndrome.” It is a phenomenon that is not new which tends to worsen with technological progress. This syndrome has been described as emotional exhaustion, bodily discomfort, alienation, loss of motivation, and a feeling of failure, the product of excessive demands on energy, strength, and resources.

Burnout is the consequence of a work situation in which a person feels like they are hitting their head against the wall “day after day.” Despite the interest and dedication to improve the lives of those they attend to (patients), they often see failure and misery in daily training with suffering, poverty, cruelty, danger, pain, death, as well as concern about increasing legal claims for bad practice.

All of the above deeply hurts sensitivity, and many health professionals end up creating a barrier, a kind of anesthesia against the penalties of others. On the other hand, society sees health as everyone’s right. To that extent, professionals must be available to attend to all the needs that arise as a result of the disease. Professionals experience their abduction of physical and psychological capacities. This weakens and transforms them into vulnerable beings, especially when facing difficult situations.

Burnout Triggers in Healthcare Professionals

Burnout develops more frequently in situations where the discrepancy between the nature of the health professional and the working environment is evident. It is an individual problem attributable to character, behavioral and working capacity characteristics.

Instead, many studies have shown that the problem is not only individual but also social. It depends on the working context, how people interact, and how the health professional fulfills his/ her job. For this reason, it can be contagious and involve the entire organizational structure in a health facility.

Burnout stories tell of people who deeply love their work, who for years manage their work duties and interpersonal relationships in an exemplary way, but who at some point begin to perceive that things are slowly changing. They experience situations of discomfort and tension with a decrease in commitment to work with the feeling of having nothing more to offer to patients.

The main factors contributing to triggering burnout are: excessive workload, the monotony of work activities, requests not relevant to one’s role, staff reorganizations.

Personal factors also intervene: introversion, the tendency to set unrealistic goals, a hyperactive lifestyle, feeling indispensable, total self-denial to work.

Symptoms of Professional Burnout in Healthcare Workers

Symptoms can be both psychic and physical. We arrive at an actual pathological manifestation, with the patient who feels tired, exhausted, experiences a feeling of failure, loss of interest in their work, and indifference towards users. There is also a general physical discomfort. This includes the development of symptoms such as insomnia, dizziness, in appetence, anxiety crisis, gastrointestinal problems.

The discomfort, initially felt in the professional field, also reaches the personal sphere with the abuse of alcohol and psychoactive substances.

In summary, the three typical dimensions of burnout in health workers are:

Emotional Exhaustion

It is the first reaction that occurs following stress produced by work overload or major changes. At this stage, the healthcare expert is exhausted both emotionally and physically. They no longer have the incentives to tackle new projects, drained and unable to recover energy. The healthcare expert begins to manifest inappropriate emotional responses (attitudes, feelings, thoughts, others) that can become chronic since the energy of the adjustment and adaptation mechanisms and internal resources has weakened.

Generally, medics must handle the stress that is normal in the health area. They overcome this stress by becoming an armor of unconcern. This can become so strong that it does not allow them to get emotionally involved with the people they help.


In this phase, there is a detachment from work and the people they meet at work. The emotional involvement is reduced to a minimum, up to an abandonment of one’s values. One feels protected by an attitude of indifference and detachment towards work.  Health professionals slowly develop a poor image of people who try to help, mistreat them, and make them feel like they don’t like them. In this sense, “the rules of the game are set by me, I command, and if you don’t do what I say, I don’t attend to you,” and generally, they blame those who come to ask for help (patients).

Visiting a psychologist or psychiatrist can help you deal with this situation. They provide different therapies and prescriptions to manage depersonalization. Relaxation or meditation techniques like mindfulness can also help you manage the symptoms.

Personal Skills Reduction

The healthcare worker perceives that he can’t help anyone, useless, and unable to manage patients needs. This leads to the compromise of working effectiveness and worsening of their professional performance.

Defense attitudes often do not allow awareness of the emotional situations that are happening to workers. The quarrel or joke, the indirect form of communication, arises. This results in disqualification and aggression to patients.

In relation to the previous characteristics, the following can be said:

  • Women have a higher incidence of emotional exhaustion;
  • Men have a higher incidence of depersonalization;
  • Young people are more likely to have the syndrome, as are single people or married people who have no family.

From a psychological point of view, there are characteristics or personality traits of health workers that predispose them to the manifestation of the syndrome:

  • those who have difficulty managing groups;
  • people who are weak, impatient, intolerant, hostile;
  • those with a low tolerance for frustration;
  • those who cannot control impulses;
  • people who have little self-confidence;
  • those who have difficulty expressing feelings and giving affection;
  • Workers whose self-image and self-esteem depend on other people;
  • those who have a great need to be featured or to be successful.

Which Healthcare Professionals are Most at Risk?

All healthcare professional profiles risk facing Burnout. There is a frequent imbalance between demands and resources in healthcare workers, with a high level of demands exceeding the available resources.

Many studies concern nurses, among whom there are more cases of burnout than other professional categories. This is due to direct and prolonged contact with patients with strong emotional involvement as opposed to poor job satisfaction.

Numerous research studies also show a higher incidence of burnout within the structures that treat chronic and terminal diseases: the failure of treatment is a personal failure.

In ICU wards, a study found that 30% of nurses and 40% of doctors experience symptoms of Burnout.

Regarding General Practitioners According to the “International Burnout Study in European Family Doctors,” 30-40% of doctors, who are on average 50 years old, suffer from burnout to the degree that affects professional performance.

Regarding the age, elderly subjects are more dissatisfied both by age and professionally. Burnout is, therefore, a phenomenon that worsens over time. The alarming fact is that the number of doctors at risk of burnout is constantly growing. This negatively affects professional effectiveness with a reduction in the quality of services.

Managing Professional Burnout in Healthcare Workers

  • Identify the phenomenon since the syndrome is contagious, and you should avoid its spread.
  • Locate and resolve sources of tension.
  • Institutions should be concerned with recognizing the participation of professionals in achieving their objectives, classifying them, and minimizing bureaucratic involvement in technical activities.
  • Supervisions should be for development and not for control purposes.
  • Working conditions must be reasonable and based on forums that promote mutual support.
  • The designation of functions should be rotating to enrich the experience of the health professional.
  • Bosses should design programs with the satisfaction of the psychological needs of healthcare workers in mind.

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