- Burnout is a distinctive occupational phenomenon caused by chronic work-related stress.
- Chronic exhaustion is a primary symptom of burnout. People also become noticeably more negative and cynical.
- Burnout can make an individual feel unsatisfied with a job that may actually be a good fit.
Does burnout just mean feeling really stressed all the time? Not exactly.
I like this general definition of burnout, coined by a group of German researchers in an article in the journal Burnout Research: “an exhaustion of the organism which is caused by work stress.”
I’ve been teaching about burnout for well over a decade, and I’ll always remember the day in 2019 when the World Health Organization added burnout to the ICD-11, or the International Classification of Diseases—though burnout still isn’t a formally diagnosable medical condition.
In its description, the WHO defined three dimensions that characterize burnout. Most experts agree on these three key clinical criteria (first described by Maslach and Jackson in 1981): feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, with feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.
Here's what that triad looks and feels like:
1. Emotional exhaustion
You wake up every morning, not knowing how you’ll face the day. Tasks that used to feel simple or routine now feel overwhelming. Your tank is empty, and a weekend off (or a week off) won’t fill it back up.
Before I say anything else, I must point out that there are other things that can cause you to feel this way. For example, depression and burnout can present with similar symptoms, so it’s important not to diagnose yourself (this information should never replace getting help and personalized advice from your physician or a qualified counseling professional).
Some studies have reported a shared overlap between depression and burnout, and the two conditions are more likely to coexist in someone who is severely burned out. That’s what happened to me. I was diagnosed with severe depression during my ER residency training, but I appreciate now that burnout played just as much or even more of a role in the symptoms that I was experiencing.
2. Depersonalization and cynicism
In the medical clinic setting where I worked for a couple of decades, the first sign that I may have been teetering toward burnout was my irritation with patients. I’d start to feel impatient if someone was taking too long to explain their situation. I’d resent when someone insisted that they needed to be squeezed in to see me (for urgent, legitimate reasons), at the end of a long day. My compassion for people palpably dwindled.
When you experience the depersonalization of burnout, you stop seeing people as people. It’s as if your brain turns off your compassion, your ability to identify with others and their problems and concerns, as a self-protective mechanism. You become noticeably cynical. You might start using a critical or mocking tone when talking about people who make demands on you at work. You may even start treating people badly. This impacts your relationships with both clients and coworkers, creating a spiral of negativity.
You might also notice yourself complaining more about your work or organization. You feel resentful or unusually negative about your work environment and tasks.
Cultivate more compassion for yourself and others if you observe this phenomenon. If you’ve become markedly more negative, don’t judge yourself harshly. See it as a red flag pointing to something very important. You could be burning out, and all this negativity may simply be your brain crying for help. Don’t ignore it.
3. Reduced personal accomplishment or efficacy
When you’re worn out from work-related stress, you don’t perform at your best. It’s no surprise that burned-out people feel anxious about the quality of their performance, and start to lose their confidence.
Maslach and Jackson describe this third hallmark of burnout: “Workers feel unhappy about themselves and dissatisfied with their accomplishments on the job.” If you used to feel confident about your work but now find yourself doubting your abilities or feeling unfit for your job, that could be burnout talking—especially if you enjoyed your work in the past and felt like it was the right place for you to be.
I also caution people to be careful about quitting when you feel like this. Burnout feels awful, and the desire to quit can be really tempting. Sometimes that’s the right decision. In my experience as a coach, though, I’ve seen that if negative organizational or team dynamics get addressed and you learn better boundaries and take better care of yourself, things typically feel much better and your appreciation for your work returns.
Shifting the burnout "pandemic" requires organizational and personal change
Any working person is at risk for burnout. Our hyperconnected-24/7 society, when combined with the unprecedented stresses of the last few years, has created an environment where people are more vulnerable than ever. One of the most important things we need to do to start to shift out of our current burnout “pandemic” is address the root causes at organizational levels—such as excess workloads and hard-driving workplace cultures.
The good news is that if you learn to understand the causes, recognize the signs, know your unique risks, and learn what to do about it, you’ll personally be better equipped to navigate today’s challenging work environments.
© Copyright 2023 Dr. Susan Biali Haas. Adapted from my new book, The Resilient Life: Manage Stress, Reduce Burnout, and Strengthen Your Mental and Physical Health.
Plieger, T. et al. Life stress as potential risk factor for depression and burnout. Burn Res. 2015 March; 2: 19-24.
World Health Organization. Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases [Internet]. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 2019 May 28. Available from: https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/
Maslach C, Jackson SE. The measurement of experienced burnout. J Occ Behav. 1981; 2, 99–113.
Bianchi R, Schonfeld IS, Laurent E. Burnout-depression overlap: a review. Clin Psychol Rev. 2015 Mar;36:28-41.