As a nation, we are stressed at work. And it is affecting our physical and mental health. When that stress becomes chronic and overwhelming, it is known as burnout.
Indeed, rates of burnout are only rising. The most recent Future Forum Pulse, a snapshot of the experience of over 10,000 desk workers across the globe, found that 42% reported feeling burned out in Winter 2022-2023. This represents a 2% rise on the previous quarter and an all-time high since the survey started measuring burnout in May 2021.
The term burnout gets thrown about fairly freely, but it is important to understand that this condition is different from the everyday stress that we all experience from time to time.
In this blog post, we’ll look more closely at burnout and its symptoms. We’ll briefly discuss the history of burnout as a phenomenon and explain the difference between occasionally feeling stressed at work and actual burnout.
We’ll explore the effects of burnout and its impact on our physical and mental health, as well as our lives beyond work.
Finally, we’ll describe some of the factors that can put people at more risk of experiencing burnout.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout is a psychological syndrome characterized by mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. It is caused by chronic stress at work.
Although the condition itself has almost certainly been around for much longer, burnout was originally described in the 1970s by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. His 1974 paper defines burnout as “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources”.
Freudenberger’s observations were drawn from his experience of working in a stressful, highly pressured environment – a free clinic in New York. He noticed that the passionate, empathetic, and caring people who worked in the clinic were becoming exhausted and unmotivated by the combination of long hours, emotional toil, and low pay.
Working under such conditions, Freudenberger found many of his colleagues began to show both physical and behavioral symptoms, including exhaustion, sleep disruption, headaches, digestive issues, frustration, and anger. His work formed the basis for ongoing research into burnout, which has continued ever since.
Many other people have contributed to our understanding of burnout since Freudenberger’s original description of the term in 1974, but one that deserves particular mention is social psychologist Christina Maslach.
Maslach’s work has been extremely influential to our understanding of burnout, and one of her major contributions is the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) – a scientific measure of the symptoms of burnout.
There are various versions of the MBI, each aimed at particular sectors. It uses a set of 22 statements to assess whether someone is experiencing burnout.
As well as providing a useful tool for measuring burnout, Maslach’s work on the MBI defined the symptoms associated with the condition. She identified three themes that characterize burnout:
- Emotional exhaustion
- Mental distancing from one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy
For someone to be categorized as “burnt out”, they need to experience all three of these.
It is worth noting here that burnout is specifically defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.
The emphasis is ours, but it is important. While we might hear people talking about experiencing burnout in other areas of their lives, it is officially caused by stress at work.
This isn’t to say that we can’t experience chronic stress in our lives outside of work – we can, and many people do. As a result, some have argued for expanding the definition of burnout, and you may see references to other forms, such as parental burnout or athlete burnout.
But the burnout we’re discussing in this blog post is specifically related to stress in the workplace.
This precise definition is necessary so that we can properly understand the causes of burnout and put preventative measures in place at an organizational level – not just a personal one.
Is Burnout a Medical Condition?
Burnout is officially recognized by the WHO as “an occupational phenomenon”. In 2019, it was described as a syndrome in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), which led many to believe that it is now considered a medical condition.
However, this isn’t quite correct. The WHO is explicit in saying that burnout is not a medical condition.
The main thing that changed in 2019 is how burnout is defined. Previously, it was listed as a symptom – an individual indicator of other issues. But the ICD-11 updated this to describe burnout as a syndrome – a collection of symptoms that frequently occur together.
So, while burnout might not yet be considered a medical condition, it is now recognized as an issue in its own right. One that needs addressing. This increased status reflects the effort that researchers like Freudenberger and Maslach have put in to make sure burnout is taken seriously.
The official characterization of burnout as a syndrome is also reassuring for those experiencing it. The WHO’s inclusion of burnout in ICD-11 tells us that this isn’t something we should expect to fix by taking a couple of days’ leave. It is a serious issue that deserves attention and treatment.
What Are the Symptoms of Burnout?
Maslach’s work provides an influential framework for our understanding of burnout. As we looked at above, the condition is characterized by three themes: feeling emotionally exhausted and depleted; becoming increasingly cynical, detached, and unmotivated at work; and seeing noticeable reduction in career performance and engagement.
These broad themes are used to measure burnout – if you take the MBI test and score negatively in all three categories, then you are experiencing burnout.
However, there’s more to understand about how burnout can express itself. The symptoms will often vary from person to person. Like any form of long-term stress, burnout can also come with both physical and mental symptoms, as Freudenberger recorded in his original 1974 paper.
While each individual reacts to stress differently, some common symptoms associated with burnout include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Lack of concentration
- Digestive issues
- Muscle pains
- Memory issues
- Irritation or anger
- Making uncharacteristic errors
- Inability to relax
- Feeling unappreciated
- Feeling overworked
- Lack of care or empathy towards clients / patients / students
One of the difficulties in defining burnout as a distinct phenomenon is that it shares many symptoms and characteristics of depression. Some researchers consider the two to be synonymous, but most studies now agree that burnout is a separate condition and requires a tailored approach that might be different from treatment for other common mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety.
Burnout Beyond Work
Burnout is so related to our working lives that much of the research around it focuses on its impact on our job performance and wellbeing at work.
There’s no question that burnout has a significant impact on our ability to do our jobs well. It leaves us feeling disengaged, unmotivated, and disconnected from our colleagues.
Burnout also prevents us from concentrating on our work and leaves us prone to making mistakes we ordinarily wouldn’t.
However, the effects of burnout extend far beyond the workplace.
Lack of sleep, low mood, stress, and irritation can all spill out into our personal lives, putting strain on our relationships outside of work.
According to Psychology Today, people with burnout are less able to to connect with their partners and other important people in their lives. They lose interest in their hobbies, have a lower libido, and are more likely to let small everyday frustrations get to them.
Unfortunately, this can create something of a feedback loop. When we experience burnout at work, we need the support of our friends and loved ones. We also need releases from stress, such as hobbies or exercise.
But the impact of burnout on our personal lives can mean we alienate the very people and activities that might help us, right at the moment when we need them most.
This is why burnout should be considered from both an individual and an organizational perspective. It is both about what happens in the workplace and what goes on in the rest of our lives.
What Causes Burnout?
One of the factors that differentiate burnout from other mental health conditions is that it is always related to workplace stress. In this way, it is also different from athlete burnout, which has more of a physical element, despite the two conditions having similar names.
Of course, some level of stress at work is to be expected from time to time. Most of us will have periods where we are busier than usual, or have tight deadlines, or are working on a project that needs more investment in time and energy.
Usually, these short periods of heightened stress are manageable, as long as we have the right support and can take the time to rest and recover in between.
Sometimes, stress becomes a defining characteristic of our working lives. And this can put us on the road to burnout – but it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll get there. Not everyone who is stressed at work develops burnout, suggesting there are more factors to consider than our stress levels alone.
Unsurprisingly, our risk of developing burnout is strongly influenced by what else is going on in our lives.
For example, research into rates of burnout in physicians found that people were more likely to experience it if they had regular conflicts between their work schedules and their personal schedules, especially if they had a partner who also worked in a demanding job.
Relatedly, women are more at risk of burnout than men because they tend to bear the brunt of caring tasks and household management – often termed the second shift, after Arlie Hochschild’s 1989 book of the same name.
As well as our personal responsibilities, our risk of burnout is strongly correlated to how demanding our jobs are.
Working long hours, in particular, can increase the likelihood of chronic stress, exhaustion, and burnout. This is especially the case in jobs where resources are also stretched – even more so when pay is low too (a combination that regularly places hospitality as the profession with the highest rate of burnout).
Long hours and frustrating working conditions might be part of the reason that burnout is so common among healthcare professionals such as physicians, nurses, and paramedics. Another factor that comes into play here is the emotional demand of such roles.
Professions that demand high levels of empathy, such as teaching, social care, and healthcare, may eventually lead to “compassion fatigue” – a feeling of being exhausted and depleted through regularly caring for others.
In turn, those with compassion fatigue can experience higher levels of stress at work, because they no longer feel able to cope with the constant emotional toll of their jobs. This may ultimately lead to burnout, which is itself partly characterized by a feeling of detachment at work.
Our personalities can also have an impact on whether we develop burnout. Sadly, this condition is most often seen in people who care deeply about their work.
If you are significantly invested in your work, you are likely to sacrifice work-life balance in favor of long hours and untaken vacation days. You are also likely to hold yourself to impossibly high standards and be more damaged when the realities of work don’t match up to your ideals.
With burnout rates continuing to rise, understanding the factors that can contribute is vital to protect both ourselves and our employees.
Burnout is a psychological syndrome characterized by emotional exhaustion, detachment from work, and reduced professional performance.
The causes of burnout are varied, but it is most common in demanding jobs with long working hours, high emotional input, and reduced life-work balance. It causes both physical and mental symptoms and affects our wellbeing both at work and at home.