What is Burnout, Actually?

We’re seeing the term “burnout” just about everywhere: Covid burnout, caregiver burnout, parental burnout, empathy burnout, even Peloton burnout! Most of us use it as shorthand for feeling exhausted, empty, and unable to cope with all the demands of life. That said, the traditional definition is more limited.

Burnout was first described in 1974 by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger as “…a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life…the extinction of motivation and incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or a relationship fails to produce the desired results.”

The World Health Organization specifically defines burnout as an “occupational phenomenon… resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It generates exhaustion, negativism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.

In this FAQ we are focusing on occupational burnout.

Who’s Responsible for Fixing Burnout – the Employee or the Employer?

Many people assume that burnout is the employee’s problem to fix through self-care: perhaps with the right amount of sleep, meditation and exercise or maybe with positive thinking. That assumption is, in fact, counter to what most burnout experts believe: burnout is a result of problems of the workplace, and therefore can only be addressed by changes to the workplace itself.

Of course, increasing individual well-being and resilience is important and helpful. But, employees can’t well-being and resilience their way out of burnout that stems from the workplace.

What’s the Business Case for Employers to Reduce Occupational Burnout?

Burnout is expensive. It drags down individual and organizational performance.

  • The cost of stress and burnout to North American companies is estimated to range between $120 and $300 billion.
  • In an April 2020 article, Psychology Today reported that physician and health care provider burnout in the US had reached epidemic proportions with close to 50% reporting symptoms (and this was at the very beginning of Covid).
  • Burnout is believed to be responsible for up to half of all employee attrition.

Burnout affects a majority of full-time workers. A 2020 Gallup study found that 76% of full-time workers experience feeling burned out on the job at least sometimes.

Burnout reduces productivity and increases turnover. Employees who report they experience burnout either “very often” or “always” report that they are*:

  • 63% more likely to take a sick day
  • 50% less likely to discuss how to achieve goals with their manager
  • 23% more likely to visit the emergency room
  • 2.6x more likely to be actively seeking a new job
  • 13% less confident in their performance

Addressing burnout is not only the right thing to do for employees. It is also the right thing to do for the organization. Addressing burnout is a fiscally responsible decision.

*Data from Gallup Panel studies conducted 2016-2019 and Eileen McDargh, Burnout to Breakthrough, 2020

What’s the Difference Between Stress and Burnout?

Under stress, we may be over engaged – pushed beyond our reserves to a place of discomfort – yet we can still cope with the pressures. Burnout, on the other hand, leads to disengagement, being less effective and hopeless, and having a sense of being completely physically and emotionally drained.

What Is the Difference Between Depression and Burnout?

According to studies from 2014 and 2015 symptoms of burnout and depression tend to develop together and can be considered a cluster of “work-related depressive symptoms”. Burnout can lead to depression.

But burnout is not depression. Christina Maslach, a leading burnout researcher and psychology professor at UC Berkeley, notes that burnout and depression shouldn’t be included in one bucket because that would imply that the problem lies with the individual. Depression might be the effect, but the cause is job-related burnout.

What are the Common Drivers of Burnout?

Different organizations tend to have their own unique systemic drivers of burnout. That said, there are six drivers of occupational burnout that are common across organizations and industries:

How can organizations reduce employee burnout?

  1. Understand the structural and operational issues in your organization that contribute to employee burnout, and commit to changing them.
  2. Train your leaders and managers to identify and reduce the causes of burnout for those who report to them.
  3. Support individual resilience and well-being initiatives.

How do I know if I’m suffering from burnout?

Depression can be the effect of burnout. If you have symptoms of depression related to work, you may be suffering from burnout. The following are common symptoms:

  • Exhausted nearly all the time
  • No interest or joy in your work
  • Every day is a bad day
  • Overwhelmed
  • Hopeless about life and work in general
  • Physical symptoms including insomnia, heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath

Are there assessments for burnout?

Christina Maslach, the Berkeley burnout researcher, has authored one of the most widely used assessments: The Maslach Burnout Inventory. The National Academy of Medicine recommends several burnout assessments:

  • Maslach Burnout Inventory
  • Oldenburg Burnout Inventory
  • Copenhagen Burnout Inventory

About the author

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Bruce heads BolsterUp, a coaching and consulting firm. Along with his colleagues, he guides clients in improving employee experience, creating high-performing teams, and increasing well-being and joy at work. BolsterUp helps forward-thinking leaders make their organization the place everyone wants to work.

Bruce specializes in helping teams work better together and managers to lead more effectively through better partnering, communication, and understanding. He coaches internationally, focusing on strengths-based development, professional capability-building, peak performance, resilience, and well-being.