“I just feel burned out.” I heard those words recently from my college junior. For him, the spring semester is barreling to a close and he is feeling tired, unmotivated and unproductive. He isn’t alone; most of us have said (or thought) those words at some point in our lives. We use the words when we are feeling tired, stressed or overwhelmed at work (or school), but burnout is more than just an emotional response to workload or other job-related challenges. Burnout can quickly cascade into more physical symptoms and take a toll on both our personal and professional lives.
Burnout and the Pandemic
For a lot of people, feelings of burnout were amplified by the changes to their work life that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. For those of us not used to working from home, the barriers between home and work disappeared overnight. Suddenly “work” was in your dining room, bedroom, living room or wherever you could find to take a video meeting. Added to that for parents, virtual school meant everyday was bring-your-child-to-work day. Conversely, for some professions such as healthcare workers, service workers and emergency service personnel, working from home wasn’t an option, but “work” now came with increased workloads, limited access to the tools and equipment needed, and an added risk to personal health. All these factors might have contributed to an increase in those feeling burned out, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a problem before COVID-19.
Burnout Existed Long Before COVID-19
Psychologists have been talking about burnout since the 1974 when Herbert Freudenberger coined the term to describe the loss of motivation and increasing sense of emotional exhaustion and cynicism he found among volunteers at a free clinic in New York City (1). In 1976, Dr. Christina Maslach’s article “Burned-Out” (2) popularized the concept and cemented the term burnout in our common lexicon. These articles were just the beginnings of what is now a huge body of research focused on the psychological and physical implications of burnout (1).
The World Health Organization (WHO) includes burnout in both the 10th (1999) and 11th (2019) revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10 and ICD-11, respectively) (3). It is important to note that in neither ICD version is burnout classified as a medical condition. Instead, the WHO describes it as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
Defining and Measuring Burnout
Recognizing that burnout is a real psychological syndrome is much easier than defining how to assess burnout in an individual. The Maslach Burnout Inventory is a scale that is widely used to evaluate burnout in an individual. This scale measures burnout based on three important stress responses: a sense of exhaustion, feelings of detachment and cynicism, and feelings of professional ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishments (4). Maslach’s scale asks respondents to rate statements related to exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy on a scale of zero (never) and 6 (daily). Individuals with high scores for exhaustion and cynicism, and low scores for inefficacy, are considered likely to be struggling with burnout.
The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) offers a tool to measure burnout, but the lack of definitions for high or low score makes results variable and the data impossible to interpret between studies. MBI is not universally accepted or used. There is still debate about if the tool adequately captures the correct things to measure as well as questions about classifying burnout as a syndrome versus a medical condition like depression (5). There is, for example, growing evidence that the stress reactions associated with burnout can alter neural functions and cause a decrease in cognitive function that can affect every aspect of a person’s life (1).
Can We Solve the Problem of Burnout?
Individually, there are things that we can do when we are feeling burned out. These include prioritizing our mental and emotional health, defining and enforcing work-life boundaries, exercising regularly, or finding a hobby. None of these things will eliminate a stressful work environment, but they can help you rebalance your life so that you can better cope with the stress.
Because happy, healthy employees are far more productive to tired, stressed-out ones, there are also things that workplaces can do to help eliminate burnout within their organization. Recognizing the people have complex needs and making the effort to develop programs that support employees health and wellbeing both at work and outside work can go a long way towards combating burnout. While these types of efforts will defiantly help combat burnout (and could even earn your organization recognition as a great workplace), even simple changes can help. Solutions can be as simple as limiting the number of meetings per week or shortening the standard meeting length to 45 minutes to allow people breaks between “virtual” meetings.
Is my son suffering from burnout? Maybe. Thankfully we both know that the conditions that are causing his burnout will end with the semester and he will be transitioning to a summer job that he loves. For those of us who don’t have the luxury (or stress) of an impending semester’s end, there are tools that can help us mitigate the stress of juggling our jobs and real life. It is also somewhat comforting to know that burnout is real, and no one should feel bad for saying so.
- Michel, A. (2016) Burnout and the Brain. Association for Psychological Science. Accessed April 18, 2023.
- Maslach, C. (1976) Burned-Out. Hum. Behav. 5, 6–22.
- World Health Organization. Burn-out and “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Disease. Accessed April 18, 2023
- Maslach, C. and Jackson, S. (1981) The measurement of experienced burnout. J. Occup. Behav. 2, 99–113
- Gupta, S. (2023) Lots of people feel burned out. But what is burnout exactly? Science News. Published online February 21, 2023. Accessed April 18, 2023.