Twelve core symptoms of burnout according to ‘The Sydney Studies’

A woman with  glasses, brown skin and short black curly hair sits in front of a white unmade bed crying | burnout symptoms | Tempo Therapy and Consulting

11 Jan 2023

There is a lot of information and talk about burnout these days - and rightly so. Our world is fast-paced to the point of enormous suffering - mentally, physically, emotionally, relationally and spiritually. But what is burnout? And how can you tell if you are affected by it? In this blog we outline the key symptoms of burnout as described by 'The Sydney Studies' - research undertaken by the team at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

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What is burnout?

The concept of burnout was first described in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger in relation to the workplace. The World Health Organization's 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an "occupational phenomenon" outlines three components:

  • emotional exhaustion (energy depletion; fatigue from the cumulative toll of caring)
  • depersonalisation (a sense of distancing, feeling negative towards or cynical towards one's tasks / job)
  • decreased sense of accomplishment (reduced efficacy)

Whilst the bulk of research into burnout has focused on professional burnout, (specifically those in helping professions, like health and education professionals and emergency services personnel), parental and carer burnout is now more widely recognised.

Like all health conditions, diagnosing burnout requires a skillful, holistic approach: consideration of environmental factors, physical symptoms, pre-existing conditions, as well as psychological indicators.

Assessment scales are one part of this process.

The 'Maslach Burnout Inventory', first published in 1981, has been the leading scale for assessing burnout. There has, however, been a call for a more nuanced understanding of burnout, from Maslach herself and others.

People are overwhelmed and exhausted and still feeling like they ought to be doing more.

Amelia Nagosky

A new measure of burnout: 'The Sydney Burnout Measure'

A group of researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia undertook some research: 'The Sydney Studies'.

These researchers recruited over a thousand adults (including workers in helping roles and people in caring roles) who identified that they were experiencing burnout, to further explore the symptomatology involved.

Two studies explored:

  1. the symptoms experienced by participants, their psychological states and their sense of duty or responsibility
  2. whether or not there is a link between burnout and depression.

Results of this research condensed symptoms into several broad categories:

  • cognitive dysfunction
  • exhaustion
  • empathy loss
  • decreased work performance
  • social withdrawal

Importantly, they did not find symptoms of depression to be a separate, featured category of burnout. But rather highlighted the need for careful examination of the similarities and differences experiences of these two conditions, particularly with regard to cause and impacts on subjects.

A new burnout assessment scale emerged from this research: 'The Sydney Burnout Measure' (SBM). The SBM is a checklist of 34 burnout symptoms, with a higher score indicating a greater likelihood that one is experiencing burnout.

This research has expanded understandings of the key symptoms of burnout from the original three, emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and a decreased sense of accomplishment, to a suggested twelve symptoms for consideration.

So, what are the 12 core symptoms of burnout according to participants in 'The Sydney Studies' research group?

12 core symptoms of burnout according to participants in 'The Sydney Studies' research group: exhaustion, anxiety, indifference, depression, irritability and anger, sleep disturbance, lack of motivation or passion, cognitive problems, impaired performance, becoming asocial, physical symptoms and emotional lability.

If you recognise these symptoms in yourself, it is worthwhile making an appointment with your GP to discuss and assess whether or not you are experiencing burnout.

Altrernatively, there are a number of services here at Tempo may assist to support you make a sustainable recovery through a nourishing, connected and embodied approach, grounded in trauma-informed practice. Contact Minky to find out more.

Related Resources

Header image: Claudia Wolff