Diagnosing and Treating Burnout: A Primer for Leaders and Managers

By Tammy McGuire, Ph.D.

Here’s something Captain Obvious might say, “Every member of an organization experiences stress.”  Stress is an inescapable aspect of the human condition – including one’s organizational life, no matter what one’s position in that organization. One of the most destructive outcomes of persistent stress is burnout – the ‘wearing out’ from pressures and stresses inherent in organizational life.  This condition leads to a number of poor outcomes for organizations and their members. 

Burnout symptoms can include:

  • Job dissatisfaction
  • Feelings of cynicism
  • Lack of commitment to the organization’s goals
  • Turnover
  • Absenteeism
  • Decreased productivity
  • Poor job performance

Three Major Signs of Burnout

1. When people lack a sense of personal accomplishment from their organizational roles and responsibilities.

  • Reduced ability to cope with stress at work
  • Discouragement at and/or cynicism with the organization as a whole
  • Lowered productivity

2. When people experience emotional exhaustion from their organizational roles and responsibilities.

  • Loss of energy
  • Overwhelming physical and/or emotional fatigue
  • Feeling unable to face another day on the job

3. When people experience a sense of depersonalization

NOTE: This type of burnout is a particular danger for those who work in customer service types of jobs that require a great deal of interaction with people.

  • Negative attitudes toward customers/clients
  • Higher level of irritability at customer requests/needs
  • Reluctance to deal with customers/clients
  • General cynicism about people in general

Three Approaches to Dealing with Burnout

With stress in general, and burnout in particular, psychologists and organizational behavior scholars lay out three major approaches we can take to cope with stress.  Leaders of organizations can also focus appropriate resources to help members utilize these methods to mitigate stresses leading to burnout.  These approaches can be mixed and matched.

Approach #1: Problem-Centered Coping

Deal directly with the cause of the burnout. Is the cause too much work?  Not enough meaningful work?  Confusion about job expectations?  Conflict between work and family life? Etc.

Approach #2: Appraisal-Centered Coping

Sometimes the situation can’t change, so Approach #1 won’t work.  Another option is to change one’s perceptions about the situation.  This can be done through perspective-taking, re-evaluating reference points about what makes a situation good or bad. (Check out the following podcast to understand this method more clearly: https://www.happinesslab.fm/season-1-episodes/a-silver-lining )

In essence, to implement this method of coping, ask oneself, “How can I look at this situation differently?”

Approach #3: Emotion-Centered Coping

Deal with the negative effects of the situation.

Use coping strategies such as implementing a consistent exercise routine, journaling, meditating, etc.

Sometimes people use counterproductive means of emotion-centered coping by overeating, consuming alcohol/drugs, etc.  These methods of coping can be destructive in the long run.


Let’s say that one is stressed by feeling overwhelmingly busy because of constant meetings interfering with actual productivity.

Problem-Centered coping would involve solutions such as carving out blocks of time in a day where no meetings are allowed (either personally or organizationally).

Appraisal-Centered coping would involve reframing the situation by re-evaluating the role that meetings might play in equally important facets of organizations (such as keeping communication lines open, understanding others’ perspectives, etc.).

Emotion-Centered coping would involve dealing with the stress of being overbooked by heading to the gym after work, engaging in deep-breathing exercises, etc.

Leaders and managers ignore burnout in themselves and their employees at their peril because burnout can be “contagious”; the cynicism and negative attitudes of burnout can spread through organizations.  Intervene early – for yourself and/or for your organizational members – before burnout becomes overwhelming! 

Here are just a few sources that talk more about burnout – it’s causes and potential “cures.”

About Tammy McGuire, Ph.D., Professor of Communication, Pacific Union College

Tammy McGuire, Ph.D., professor, specializes in organizational communication. She taught English for many years at Sunnydale Academy (Missouri) and Upper Columbia Academy (Washington) and has written and presented extensively on communication topics, with several presentations at the National Communication Association Conventions. However, she is particularly proud of her communication research students winning numerous top paper awards themselves at these conventions. She loves mountain climbing, rock climbing, backpacking, mountain biking, bikepacking, and tennis.