Spring 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA1

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Are You Experiencing Burnout

Symptoms and coping strategies for Extension professionals.

O. Chris Igodan
Department of Agriculture
Federal College of Education

L. H. Newcomb
Department of Agricultural Education
The Ohio State University

As helping professionals, Extension agents must interact with clientele in various roles and, at the same time, respond to administrative duties within the organizational setting. In doing so, they cope with enormous amounts of paperwork, answer always-ringing telephones, and meet increased service demands from both clientele and the institutions they serve. The pressure resulting from these demands can create a sense of physical and emotional exhaustion that often leads to burnout.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is defined in many ways. The following examples, by leading researchers in the field, are probably the most widely accepted:

Burnout: to deplete oneself. To exhaust one's physical and mental resources. To wear oneself out by excessively striving to reach some unrealistic expectation imposed by oneself or by the values of society. 1

. . . burnout is a process that begins with excessive and prolonged levels of job stress. The stress produces strain in the worker (feelings of tension, irritability and fatigue). The process is completed when the worker defensively copes with the job and becomes apathetic, cynical or rigid. 2

Burnout is a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do "people work" of some kind. 3

Burnout Symptoms

The array of symptoms associated with burnout is extensive. Table 1 indicates some symptoms that have been identified in people classified as "burned out." These symptoms/characteristics are classified as physical, psychological, or behavioral. Physical symptoms are characterized by actual changes in physiological body functions. Psychological symptoms show themselves in the attitudes and feelings of the individual. Behavioral symptoms reflect those actions or behaviors manifested as a result of burnout.4

Although not every individual exhibits the same symptoms, some symptoms found in the research literature are: (1) low job performance/low job satisfaction, (2) physical exhaustion/fatigue, (3) rigidity to change/loss of flexibility, (4) decreased communication/withdrawal, (5) physical symptoms, (6) apathy/ loss of concern, (7) cynicism, and (8) emotional exhaustion.5

Table 1. Individual burnout symptoms.
Physical Psychological Behavioral
Physical exhaustion/fatigue Rigidity to change/loss of flexibility Low job performance/low job
Depression Loss of concern and feelings/apathy   satisfaction
Insomnia or sleeping more than usual Cynicism/negativism Decreased communication/withdrawal
Headaches Emotional exhaustion/loss of emotional High job turnover/leave position
Gastrointestinal problems/ulcers   control Increased absenteeism
Lingering colds/frequent colds/flu Low morale/sense of futility Loss of enthusiasm for job
Weight loss or gain Loss of patience/irritable Increased drug use
Shortness of breath Inability to cope with unwanted Increased marital and family
Hypertension   stress   conflict
High cholesterol Feelings of anger/bitterness/resent- High alcohol use
Coronary disease ment/disgust Lack of focus on job/lack of
Impaired speech Boredom   purpose and priorities
Sexual dysfunction Reduced self-concept Accident proneness
  Dehumanizing clientele/labeling Increased complaints about job
  Loss of idealism/disillusion Forgetfulness/poor concentration
  Frustration Workaholism
  Inability to make decisions  
  Feeling of powerlessness  
  Guilt feelings/feelings of failure  
  Increased worry  
  Over-confidence/taking unusually  
    high risks  
  Feelings of being everything to  
  Loss of charisma  
Adapted from a compilation of research by Don Unger, "Superintendent Burnout: Myth or Reality" (Ph.D. dissertation, The Ohio State University, Columbus, 1980.)

Burnout Model

The model in Table 2 summarizes the burnout process. Individuals bring their own personalities, self-concepts, goals, ideals, and levels of commitment to the work situation. They also come with some idea of how to respond to stress. The environment applies stress to the individual both inside and outside the work setting. It then becomes necessary to handle this stress through some type of coping mechanism. Individuals will be able to dissipate some or all of the stress at this point by means of personal or organizational strategies. Osipow and Spokane indicate that:

Stress becomes negative, resulting in strain, if the individual is not able to deal (cope) with stress well and restore stability. Prolonged instability, or intense and extreme instability, is likely to produce negative results.6

One of these negative results is burnout.

Table 2. Model for burnout.
The individual The environment
and its
potential stressors
Processing of stressors Strain Burnout


of commitment

How he/she views
and responds to

Physical environment
Emotional environment
People contact
Collegial social support

Outside work
Physical environment
Emotional environment


Stressors are processed
through the person
and his/her coping skills
Strain results from stress
that is not handled
Accumulated strain
to the point of
reducing a person's
Some stressors are
handled and dissipated
without strain

Burnout Among Ohio Extension Agents

In spring, 1985, a random, stratified sample of 241 Ohio Extension agents was surveyed to determine the extent to which the agents experienced burnout. The majority experienced a low level of burnout.7 However, a significant minority (12%) experienced high levels. As a group, 4-H agents experienced the most burnout, followed by young agents and single agents. Agents who were satisfied with their jobs didn't have much of a problem with burnout, but as job satisfaction decreased, burnout increased.

Profile of a Typical Burned-Out Agent

Typically, burned-out agents are more likely to be young (between 20-30 years of age). They are more likely to be single than married, but could be male or female. They tend to be more involved in job responsibilities that relate to 4-H/youth work as opposed to agriculture or home economics, although agriculture agents and 4-H agents have a similar self-reported workload. As workload for an individual increases, the typical agent on the job will experience higher levels of burnout.

Coping Strategies

Coping successfully with stress is the key to avoiding burnout. An extensive review of the literature by Nusbaum8 indicated the following individual/social strategies as the most common functional methods:

  1. Develop a realistic picture of yourself - know what you're feeling and why.
  2. Set realistic goals for yourself.
  3. Recognize the symptoms of stress and burnout.
  4. Ask for help when it's needed.
  5. Develop a structural and personal support system.
  6. Retain hope.
  7. Develop a detached concern for recipients of your efforts.
  8. Maintain an active personal social life outside of work.
  9. Take time-outs when you need them.
  10. Maintain a regimen of proper nutrition and physical exercise.
  11. Develop a sense of organizational involvement.
  12. Be willing to accept counseling when needed.
  13. Develop self-therapies such as meditation, biofeedback, or relaxation response.
  14. Accentuate the positive.

Of these, the most important is the first. Individuals must be aware of their own feelings and physical condition to realize problems that exist and thus seek the proper coping strategy.

Maslach provides an excellent overview of burn-out when she states:

If all of the knowledge and advice about how to beat burnout could be summed up in one word, that word would be balance. Balance between giving and getting, balance between stress and calm, balance between work and home-these stand in clear contrast to the overload, understaffing overcommitment and other imbalances of burnout.9


Thus, it's important for Extension agents, particularly young, single, 4-H agents who are experiencing job dissatisfaction, to be alert to symptoms of burnout. They also need to take time to develop a suitable array of coping strategies that can be used to dissipate the stress that can lead to strain and hence burnout.


  1. H. J. Freudenberger and G. Richelson, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1980), p. 16.
  2. C. Cherniss, Staff Burnout: Job Stress in the Human Services (Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications, 1980), p. 21.
  3. C. Maslach, Burnout-The Cost of Caring (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1982), p. 3.
  4. Don E. Unger, "Superintendent Burnout: Myth or Reality"(Ph.D dissertation, The Ohio State University, Columbus, 1980).
  5. Ibid., p. 75.
  6. S. H. Osipow and A. R. Spokane, A Manual for Measures of Occupational Stress, Strain and Coping (Columbus, Ohio: Marathon Consulting and Press, 1983).
  7. O. C. Igodan, "Factors Associated with Burnout Among Extension Agents in the Ohio Cooperative Extension Service" (Ph.D. dissertation, The Ohio State University, Columbus, 1984).
  8. L. C. Nusbaum, "Perceived Stress and Self-Concept as Related to Burnout in School Counselors" (Ph.D. dissertation, The Ohio State University, Columbus, 1983).
  9. Maslach, Burnout-The Cost of Caring, p. 147.