11 Ways of Recognising Burnout in Middle Managers

Introduction to Middle Manager Burnout

Burnout is a serious problem that affects people who experience persistent stress.  The stress usually comes from work but in truth, problems with burnout can come from almost any situation.  Middle managers are particularly vulnerable to experiencing burnout and this usually occurs because they are often not trained to manage, they are trained to do a job. 

When people develop a burnout syndrome, particularly middle managers, productivity declines. 

From a company’s perspective, employing people who have developed burnout syndrome reduces the individual’s productivity.  In turn, this leads to poorer staff retention, increased compensation costs, increased litigation costs, and customer satisfaction.  Ultimately, profit is reduced, especially if the people with burnout are building in the organisation.

From an individual’s perspective, the consequences of burnout syndrome can be even more serious.  The symptoms can be carried to other parts of their life.  People affected by burnout syndrome experience relationship, emotional problems, reduced life satisfaction, anxiety and depression.  It is not uncommon for these people to need psychological care to help them manage the situation.

Burnout can affect anyone but it is particularly relevant to middle managers who may not have received adequate management training, particularly involving issues around psychological awareness and conflict.  This article discusses how to recognise burnout.  If you are an individual experiencing burnout, it will help you identify the problems you might be experiencing.  If you have a colleague you are concerned about, it will help you identify features of burnout in that person.  If you are an employer, it will help you identify burnout in those working with you.  Recognising burnout, it one of the most important steps – if you don’t know it exists you won’t be able to do anything to resolve the situation. 

Definitions of Burnout

Burnout was first considered by Freudenberger who provided the first scientific description of burnout syndrome in 1974[1] after examining the staff a detoxification clinic.  The scientific exploration of this syndrome became more prominent after the development of a standardised test to measure burnout[2].

In essence, burnout is a psychosocial syndrome marked by:

A state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion, often accompanied by feelings of cynicism, detachment, and a reduced sense of accomplishment. It is typically associated with prolonged exposure to stress and high demands, especially in the workplace. Burnout can impact various aspects of a person’s life, including their performance at work, personal relationships, and overall well-being.

Some have observed that burnout is generated by more than overwork and have broken it into several subtypes[3].  These subtypes include:

  1. The frenetic. In this group, those affected tend to feel and be overloaded by things happening in their environment.  They are typically very involved in their work and sometimes experience a sense of grandiosity that accommodates their excessive activity.
  2. The underchallenged. These people tend to experience stress because they experience boredom in their environment.  They describe a lack of professional development and demonstrate indifference to their environment.
  3. The worn out. This group experiences heavy workloads for prolonged periods.  They typically feel neglected by those around them and crave acknowledgement for the work they do and feel frustrated that they have no control over their lives. 

The Three Main Components of Burnout

Some, particularly employers dealing with burnout, theorise that burnout is just a temporary state.  However, burnout is not a temporary state of stress or fatigue.  It is a more persistent condition that can have significant consequences on the person’s mental and physical health.

Maslach[4] said that there are three key components of burnout including:

  1. Emotional Exhaustion. Individuals experiencing burnout feel emotionally drained and depleted of energy. This exhaustion is not only physical but also affects their emotional resources and leads to a sense of being overwhelmed and unable to cope with the demands of their job or their life more broadly.
  2. Depersonalization and Cynicism. Depersonalization in this context involves developing negative cynical attitudes towards one’s job, colleagues, or the people one interacts with. This can manifest as a detached and impersonal response to others, often accompanied by a sense of frustration or resentment.
  3. Reduced Personal Accomplishment. Burnout can result in reduced feelings of competence and achievement in one’s work or personal life. Individuals experience a decline in self-efficacy and a diminished sense of accomplishment, even in the face of success.

11 Ways of Recognising Burnout

It’s important to recognize the signs of burnout early and take proactive steps to address it.  Prolonged burnout can have lasting effects on an individual’s health, job performance, and overall quality of life. It is sometimes necessary to seek support from mental health professionals, make lifestyle adjustments, and implement coping strategies.

Burnout can affect individuals at various levels of an organisation, including middle managers and executives.  Signs of burnout can manifest in both behaviour and performance.  The following list describes some of the common signs that anyone, particularly middle managers and executives, may experience in burnout[5].

  1. Decreased Performance. When people experience decreased performance, you will be able to observe a number of features including a decline in work quality and productivity.  This will be noticed by problems like missed deadlines or providing incomplete projects, a decline in work quality and productivity, missed deadlines or incomplete projects, and an increased number of errors and mistakes.
  2. Physical and Emotional Exhaustion. Signs of physical and physical and emotional fatigue are common in people experiencing burnout.  They also experience other problems like difficulty sleeping, frequent headaches, stomach aches, or other physical complaints.  People also experience emotional exhaustion and feel drained; they commonly describe feeling that they are unable to cope.
  3. Lack of Motivation. When people experience burnout, they experience a lack of enthusiasm for most things in life and this includes reduced enthusiasm and passion for their work. They find it difficult to engage with others, for example during meetings and discussions where they are more likely to be quieter than usual, or they are more likely to be oppositional.  Their work is also affected by a reduced interest in professional development, potentially as they see it as a pointless activity.
  4. Isolation and Withdrawal. Middle managers and others with burnout experience social withdrawal.  This can affect every part of their lives and includes their personal and professional lives.  In the workplace, expect the person to experience social withdrawal from colleagues and other team members.  There is a reduction in the participation of team activities.  People experiencing burnout tend to communicate less with their team members which affects their own performance, but also the performance of the broader team.
  5. Increased Irritability and Negativity. People experiencing burnout tend to exhibit increased emotional lability.  This means they tend to become frustrated or angry more quickly and they hold negative attitudes toward work and colleagues.  Typically, they also become impatient and intolerant of situations that don’t go ‘exactly to plan’.  Sometimes when this happens, they may be quick to blame someone else, or to admonish themselves for a perceived sense of incompetence.
  6. Cynicism and Detachment. Burnout can change the tone of a person’s general thought processes and goals.  For example, in the beginning of a period of employment, a person may have positive thoughts about their goals and aspirations.  However, once burnout takes hold, their view becomes more cynical, not only of the goals, but of the company itself.  People become ‘detached’ from the experience and find that they are working ‘as an outsider’ instead of being ‘part of the team’.
  7. Poor Decision-Making. Decision-making skills decline when someone is experiencing burnout.  They have difficulty making decisions or making decisive decisions.  There is also an increased risk of making poor judgements.  This suggests that there are significant changes in the way the person’s brain is functioning in both its ability to process information and weigh up the various aspects of the components involved in making those judgements.
  8. Work-Life Imbalance. In an ideal world, there is some balance between our work and private life.  People should be able to be at work, but also have a private life that is not overtaken by their work life.  When people experience burnout, they find it difficult to disconnect from work.  There may be a variety of reasons for this.  For example, they may have trouble separating themselves from frustrating situations, or focus on self-disappointment, or ruminate about needing to change something about their life to make it better.  During these periods, you will notice that people neglect their selfcare and health.  For example, they may start to avoid healthy past times like exercise and relaxation while they overeat or skip specific health appointments and activities that should be important to them.
  9. Unrealistic Perfectionism. When someone experience burnout, and while they become cynical and develop negative attitudes toward people and situations, they can often develop perfectionistic attitudes toward themselves.  There is a raised expectation that they should be able to perform everything exceedingly well – they become perfectionistic.  Then, when they don’t achieve these ideals, they become critical of their own performance which can have a strong impact on their own self-confidence and self-esteem.
  10. Increased Absenteeism. People with burnout will want to avoid the situation, and create an escape from the circumstances they find themselves in.  The person might take more sick leave than usual, or to take holiday leave, often in groups of one or two days at a time to create ‘long weekends’ and break the experience of being in the workplace.  Arriving late and leaving early is another sign of burnout.  So, particularly when someone’s attendance record has been regular and there is a change in their attendance rate, either through sick days, unusual holiday use, or arriving late, then burnout should be considered.
  11. Decreased Job Satisfaction. By this stage it probably seems obvious, but people experience a reduction in their job satisfaction.  They feel that they are consistently unable to accomplish their tasks, and often, this is in spite of reaching the achievements expected of them. 

Conclusions: Recognising Burnout in Middle-Managers

As we have learnt, burnout is a condition that has been scientifically described for over 50 years.  It’s main problems are described in a simple definition that says:

Burnout is a state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion, often accompanied by feelings of cynicism, detachment, and a reduced sense of accomplishment. It is typically associated with prolonged exposure to stress and high demands, especially in the workplace.

It is important to be able to identify or recognise when someone is experiencing problems with burnout.  This article identified 11 signs to look for, and if someone is experiencing these problems, then you should be alert to the possibility that they might be developing a burnout syndrome. 

Once you are alerted to this possibility, you may need to consider organisational changes, altering the way your workforce is being used, and offering individual attention to the person or people being affected.  A future article will explore some of the causes of burnout.


[1] HJ Freudenberger, ‘Staff Burn-Out’ [1974] (30) Journal of Social Issues 159.

[2] C Maslach and SE Jacson, Maslach Burnout Inventory (Consulting Psychologists Press, 1986).

[3] Jesús Montero-Marín et al, ‘A New Definition of Burnout Syndrome Based on Farber’s Proposal’ (2009) 4(1) Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology 31.

[4] Maslach and Jacson (n 2).

[5] G Parker, G Tavella and K Eyers, Burnout: A Guide to Identifying Burnout and Pathways to Recovery (Routledge, New York, 2023).

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Dr Schultz spent 22 years working in psychiatry and then went on to qualify as a lawyer. He has spent 34 years helping people solve problems and the unique combination of medicine, psychiatry, law and mediation provides a unique academic and practical approach to life's challenges.

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