What Is Burnout?

Burnout isn’t just being tired or “fed up” with work. “Burnout is far more than feeling blue or having a bad day. It is a chronic state of being out of synch with your job, and that can be a significant crisis in your life” (Leiter & Maslach, 2005, p. 2). With burnout, a person is no longer able to work (exhaustion) and no longer wants to spend effort at work (distancing). Burnout is characterized by exhaustion, mental distancing, and impaired cognitive functioning, such as poor attention and concentration, and a poor working memory (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020).

In their book, Banishing Burnout, Leiter and Maslach (2005) wrote that: 

Burnout is lost energy. You are constantly overwhelmed, stressed, and exhausted” (Leiter & Maslach, 2005, p. 2).

Burnout is lost enthusiasm. Your original passion has faded and been replaced by a negative cynicism” (Leiter & Maslach, 2005, p. 2).

Burnout is lost confidence. Without energy and active involvement in your work, it’s hard to find a reason to keep going” (Leiter & Maslach, 2005, p. 3).

Burnout has become serious enough that the World Health Organization (WHO, 2019) included it in the 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon, though not a medical condition. According to ICD-11: “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

According to psychology professors, Michael Leiter, Christina Maslach, and Wilmar Schaufeli (2009): “burnout is a psychological syndrome in response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion; feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job; and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment” (p. 90). 

Another definition of burnout is that it is: a work-related state of exhaustion occurring among employees. Burnout is characterized by extreme tiredness, reduced ability to regulate cognitive and emotional processes, and mental distancing. These four core dimensions of burnout are also accompanied by depressed mood and by non-specific psychological and psychosomatic distress symptoms (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020).

Although there are varying perspectives on the definition of what constitutes burnout, what is common to all definitions is that, “burnout occurs at an individual level; that it is an internal psychological experience involving feelings, attitudes, motives, and expectations; and that it is a negative experience for the individual, in that it concerns problems, distress, discomfort, dysfunction, and/or negative consequences” (Maslach, Leiter, & Schaufeli, 2009, p. 89). 

And while burnout is an individual phenomenon, the impact of burnout can reverberate throughout an entire team or even department. In their book, Anxiety at Work, Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton talk about how work overload can have an effect on not just one individual, but also the entire team: “Allowing overload to escalate into anxiety and burnout can have negative ricocheting effects on an entire work group” (Gostick & Elton, 2021, p. 75).

Symptoms of Burnout

4 Core Symptoms of Burnout:

1. Exhaustion: severe loss of energy that results in feelings of both physical (tiredness, feeling weak) and mental (feeling drained and worn-out) exhaustion. Specific symptoms include; lack of energy to start the new working, feeling completely used-up after a whole day of working, feeling tired quickly even after spending minimal effort at work, and inability to relax after work (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 27).

2. Emotional impairment: manifests itself in intense emotional reactions and feeling overwhelmed by one’s emotions. Specific symptoms include; feeling frustrated and angry at work, irritability, overreacting, feeling upset or sad without knowing why, and feeling unable to control one’s emotions at work (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 27).

3. Cognitive impairment: indicated by memory problems, attention and concentration deficits and poor cognitive performance. Specific symptoms include; difficulties to think clearly and learn new things at work, being forgetful and absent-minded, indecision, poor memory, attention and concentration deficits, and trouble staying focused at work (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 27).

4. Mental distance: Psychologically distancing oneself from the work is indicated by a strong reluctance or aversion to work. One withdraws mentally – and sometimes even physically – from work and avoids contact with others, for example with customers, clients, and colleagues. Indifference and a cynical attitude are characteristic of mental distance. Little or no enthusiasm and interest for the work exists and one feels that one functions on autopilot (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 27).

3 Secondary Symptoms of Burnout:

1. Psychological distress. This refers to non-physical symptoms that are the result of a psychological problem, such as sleep problems, worrying, feeling tense and anxious, feeling disturbed by noise and crowds, and weight fluctuations without being on a diet (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 27-28).

2. Psychosomatic complaints. This refers to physical complaints that cannot be explained by a physical disorder, but are exacerbated by or result from some psychological problem. Examples are, palpitations and chest pain, stomach and intestinal problems, headaches, muscle pains and getting sick often (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 28).

3. Depressed mood. This refers to a gloomy and sad mood and to the inability to experience pleasure. Depressed people feel powerless, suffer from guilt and are disappointed in themselves. Please note that depressed mood is a normal, temporary reaction to disappointment or loss and should be distinguished from mood disorder, which is a psychiatric syndrome (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020, p. 28).

Burnout is caused by an imbalance between high job demands and not enough resources. Issues outside of work as well as personal vulnerability may facilitate the onset of burnout. Burnout also leads to feelings of being incompetent and poor performance at work (Schaufeli, De Witte, & Desart, 2020).

Six Areas of Person-Job Mismatch

Leiter and Maslach (2004) proposed that six areas of job-person mismatch are the critical sources of burnout. From surveys and interviews of more than 10,000 people across a variety of organizations in different countries, Maslach and Leiter (2005) found most person-job mismatches fall into six categories: work overload (too much work, not enough resources); lack of control (micromanagement, lack of influence, accountability without power); insufficient rewards (not enough pay, acknowledgment, or satisfaction); breakdown in community (isolation, conflict, disrespect); absence of fairness (discrimination, favoritism); and value conflicts (ethical conflicts, meaningless tasks).

Both individuals and organizations can use the six-category framework to diagnose which categories are especially troublesome for them, and then to design interventions that target these problem area (Maslach & Leiter, 2005).

According to Maslach (2017), the six positive “fits” to tackle the person-job mismatches and promote engagement and well-being are (1) a sustainable workload; (2) choice and control; (3) recognition and reward; (4) a supportive work community; (5) fairness, respect, and social justice; and (6) clear values and meaningful work.

Burnout Is Not Confined To The Occupational Sphere

Some researchers (e.g., Bianchi, Truchot, Laurent, Brisson, & Schonfeld, 2014; Hallsten, 1993; Kristensen, Borritz, Villadsen & Christensen, 2005; Pines, Neal, Hammer & Icekson, 2011; Pines & Nunes, 2003) have argued that burnout is not just job-related and should not be confined only to the workplace, and that we need to move away from a work-specific to a generic, cross-domain or context-free approach to better understand burnout (e.g., Hallsten, 1993; Kristensen, Borritz, Villadsen & Christensen, 2005; Pines, Neal, Hammer & Icekson, 2011; Pines & Nunes, 2003). They contend that the fundamental cause of burnout is unresolvable, chronic stress and, as such, burnout can be developed outside of the workplace (Bianchi, Truchot, Laurent, Brisson, & Schonfeld, 2014). “Burnout can only be considered a multi-domain syndrome, given that chronic stress is not a job-restricted phenomenon” (Bianchi, Truchot, Laurent, Brisson, & Schonfeld, 2014, p. 359).

Indeed, even Maslach (2006) has acknowledged that, “Although burnout has been identified primarily as a phenomenon in the world of work, the significance of the social context and interpersonal relationships for burnout suggests that burnout might be relevant to other domains of life” (p. 39). 

Researchers who support burnout as an occupational phenomenon (e.g., Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001; Schaufeli & Taris, 2005; Schaufeli, Desart, & De Witte, 2020) have extended the definition of work to also include athletes, volunteers, and even students. They maintain that because work refers to all structured, goal-directed activities that are mandatory in nature, athletes, volunteers, and students also “work” and, as a result, may also suffer from burnout (Schaufeli, Desart, & De Witte, 2020). 

Other researchers openly support the view that burnout extends beyond and outside the workplace. For example, Mikolajczak, Gross, Stinglhamber, Lindahl Norberg, and Roskam (2020) have presented a case for why parental burnout is distinct from job burnout. These researchers (e.g., Mikolajczak, Gross, & Roskam, 2019) have described parental burnout as an overwhelming exhaustion related to one’s parental role, an emotional distancing from one’s children, and a sense of parental ineffectiveness). There’s also a parental burnout assessment (PBA) in which the parental burnout phenomenon is reconstructed based solely on the testimonies of burned-out parents (Roskam, Brianda, & Mikolajczak, 2018). Although both parental burnout and job burnout share common consequences, such as problematic alcohol use, problem sleeping, somatic complaints, there are specific consequences for job burnout versus parental burnout. Specific consequences for parental burnout include parental neglect and parental violence, while a specific consequence for job burnout includes intent to leave the company.

Another type of burnout is caregiver burnout. “A caregiver can be any relative, partner, friend or neighbor who has a significant personal relationship with, and provides a broad range of assistance for a child or an adult with a chronic or disabling condition. These individuals may be primary or secondary caregivers and live with, or separately from, the person receiving care” (American Medical Association, 2018).

“Caregiver burnout is defined as a state of physical, emotional and/or mental exhaustion that can create negative and unconcerned caregiver attitudes. Caregiver burnout can occur when caregivers don’t get the help or support they need, and when the demands on a caregiver’s mind, body and emotions are overwhelming, leading to fatigue and sometimes hopelesness. Serving as a caregiver for a loved one is often mentally and physically demanding, making it difficult for the one providing care to tend to their own needs. Once the individual begins to feel the effects of burnout, it becomes difficult to care for themselves, as well as the patient in their charge” (American Medical Association, 2018).

Research studies have suggested that family caregivers (also referred to as informal caregiving) of adults with Alzheimer’s and dementia may also suffer from burnout (Almberg, Grafström, & Winblad, 1997; Alves, Monteiro, Bento, Hayashi, Pelegrini, & Vale, 2019; Chan, Cheung, Martinez-Ruiz, Chau, Wang, Yeoh, & Wong, 2021; Yilmaz, Turan, & Gundogar, 2009). James and Paulson (2020) recently developed the Informal Caregiver Burnout Inventory (ICBI), a measure of burnout for informal caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

If we accept that a fundamental cause of burnout is chronic stress (Bianchi, Truchot, Laurent, Brisson, & Schonfeld, 2014; Maslach et al., 2001), and if we agree that chronic stress can exist outside of one’s job or workplace, then “burnout cannot be confined to the occupational sphere because chronic stress is not confined to the occupational sphere” (Bianchi et al., 2014, p. 359). 

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant


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