What is burnout?


Burnout is defined as mental, emotional or physical exhaustion resulting from prolonged stress within the workplace.

Burnout is defined as mental, emotional or physical exhaustion that results from prolonged stress or anxiety. Burnout is often closely associated with the workplace and can be identified by physical or mental fatigue, feeling a sense of dread about work or experiencing a heightened sense of irritability and cynicism. While employee burnout is often linked to working long hours or juggling too many tasks, it can also be caused by feeling a lack of control within a role or carrying out a task that conflicts with an individual’s sense of self. 

History of burnout  

In the early 1970s, New York psychologist Herbert Freudenberger was regularly spending 10+ hours with his patients at his private practice, which he would then follow up with a shift at the free clinic down the street. This eventually led to a breakdown – with symptoms ranging from exhaustion to sleeplessness, shortness of breath, quickness to anger, being unable to shake a lingering cold, suffering from frequent headaches and gastrointestinal disturbances, sleeplessness, paranoia, overconfidence, cynicism and isolation.

Determined to figure out what had happened, Freudenberger published a paper in 1974 titled ‘Staff Burn-Out’ – in which he concluded free clinic staff, or “the dedicated and the committed”, were especially prone to this condition. “It is precisely because we are dedicated that we walk into a burn-out trap. We work too long and too intensely,” he explained.

While Freudenberger’s study was confined to medical professionals, burnout is a phenomenon that is experienced by many. In fact, burnout was classified as a ‘syndrome’ in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases in 2019. In some European countries, such as Sweden and Finland, burnout is an official diagnosis and can entitle employees to paid time off or paid rehabilitation workshops – which include individual and group activities such as counselling, exercise and nutrition classes.

Recent trends in burnout 


The Covid-19 pandemic brought about many changes in the workplace that had a profound impact on burnout. First and foremost, for many, work moved from the office into the home. While working from home ended up being the preferred method for some, many employees struggled with the loss of their daily routines and relationships with colleagues – increasing their likelihood of experiencing burnout. Many people also experienced an extreme intensification of their workloads during the pandemic as co-workers fell ill or quit their jobs, causing them to feel overworked and underappreciated.

Healthcare workers were hit especially hard during the pandemic. In ‘How the Pandemic Exacerbated Burnout’, Michael Leiter and Christina Maslach explain that this is due to several factors – including an intense increase in workload, which led to exhaustion, PPE shortfalls and an overall lack of preparation by governments, which contributed to cynicism, and witnessing high rates of mortality and suffering, which caused many to feel ineffective, hopeless and emotionally withdrawn. In Canada, a study of licensed physicians showed that from 2019 to 2020 the percentage of people experiencing burnout had risen from 14% to 23% while the engaged percentage fell from 36% to 27%.

Burnout on the rise 

According to a recent survey conducted by Slack, burnout is on the rise. The data indicates that employees are struggling, as they report 20% worse work-life balance and 40% more work-related stress and anxiety. It was also revealed that women are 32% more likely to experience burnout than their male counterparts – and that younger generations are more susceptible to burnout as well. This is unsurprising given the recent trend towards the Great Resignation which has led millions of people to quit their jobs. In 2022, over 50 million people left their jobs in the United States alone.

Advantages of burnout 

While burnout negatively effects employee wellbeing, the phenomenon may result in a silver lining or two. For example, feeling burnt our may help employees realise what makes them happy and may lead them to pursue a more fulfilling career. It can also prompt employees to make necessary changes to their work-life balance or blend, and if necessary, to seek out professional help.

Disadvantages of burnout 

Burnout has a wide range of psychological and physical health implications. Psychologically, burnout can result in insomnia and depressive symptoms as well as an increased risk of hospitalisation for psychiatric disorders. Physical effects include chronic fatigue, headaches, respiratory problems, coronary heart disease and more.

Burnout not only negatively affects individuals, however, but businesses as well. As a result of employee burnout, corporations may experience reduced productivity and increased turnover rates – as employees experiencing burnout are 2.6 times more likely to search for a new job. This can be detrimental to these companies, as replacing employees can be costly and losing talent may lead to operational inefficiencies.

Use case 

While there is not yet a clear solution to burnout, many companies are looking to make changes that can improve and sustain employee wellbeing. For example, Facebook recently announced that it would allow all eligible employees to work from home full time. This comes after Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg expressed that “good work can get done anywhere.” This decision gives employees more flexibility and control over their working lives, which may be the way forward in addressing burnout in the workplace.