MODULE ONE | Understanding and Coping with Traumatic Stress

PART SIX | Burnout

As stress accumulates and stays at high levels for extended periods of time, humanitarian workers run an increased risk of experiencing burnout. Burnout is a process, not an event. This term refers to a type of cumulative stress reaction that occurs after prolonged exposure to occupational stressors. Prolonged exposure to emotionally demanding situations with inadequate support gradually depletes an individual’s own natural resources for dealing with stress and strain.

The following are occupational situations that typically contribute to burnout:

  • Conflict between individual values and organizational goals and demands
  • Lack of managerial and/or social support
  • Overload of responsibility
  • Role confusion
  • Sense of having no control over quality or outcome of work
  • Little emotional or financial reward
  • Existence of inequity, lack of respect
  • Consistent exposure to traumatic material

In the humanitarian field, the road to burnout is often paved with good intentions. Those who come into a job or an overseas assignment thinking that it’s going to be the solution to all their problems, who have extremely and unrealistically high hopes and expectations about the change they will make, and who would rather work than do anything else, are prime candidates for burnout. There is nothing wrong with being idealistic, a hardworking perfectionist, or a self-motivating achiever. The problem lies in the reality or unreality of the ideals and expectations. Unrealistic, highly idealistic job expectations and aspirations are doomed to lead to failure and frustration.

As with other types of stress reactions, people tend to experience burnout in different ways. However, normal signs of burnout do tend to cluster in physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and behavioral domains. The following are some common signs of burnout:


  • Exhaustion
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Dreams
  • Back pain and other chronic tension-linked pain
  • Stomach complaints


  • Self-doubt
  • Blame
  • Negativity
  • Disillusionment
  • Reduced sense of accomplishment and purpose
  • Feeling unappreciated or betrayed by the organization
  • Foggy thinking
  • Mental apathy
  • Lack of insight into reduced capacity to function well


  • Emotional exhaustion and fragility
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling helpless
  • Hopelessness
  • Mistrust of colleagues & supervisors
  • Depression
  • Anxiety


  • Apathy
  • Inability to engage
  • Wounded ideals
  • Cynicism


  • Decline in performance
  • Apathy
  • Boredom
  • Interpersonal difficulties
  • Irritability
  • Increased addictions or dependencies
  • Reckless behavior
  • Neglecting one’s own safety and physical needs

What is the best defense against burnout?

The first and best line of defense against burnout is prevention! Apart from cultivating a “certain sense of realism,” one of the best things you can do to avoid burnout is to create balance in your life. Invest more in family and other personal relationships, social activities and hobbies. Spread yourself out so that your job doesn’t have such an overpowering influence on your self-concept and self-esteem. As you read through the final sections of this module, thoughtfully examine your self-care practices. They will help prevent ordinary stress from becoming distress, and distress from becoming burnout.

For personal reflection…

  • Have you noticed any of these general signs of burnout lately?
© Headington Institute 2007