What is burnout?

The term ‘burnout’ is used commonly, but what are we actually talking about? Are we all even talking about the same thing? Understanding what burnout means is crucial to making an accurate assessment of what the issues are you’re facing, and how they are best addressed. If the diagnosis is incorrect, you’ll end up wasting resources trying to solve the wrong problem. So let’s talk about what burnout is.

Burnout describes a state of being exhausted, overwhelmed, and struggling to cope. It’s often seen when people are exposed to severe stress over a prolonged period. There is a mismatch between the resources that person has, and what they are trying to do.

Burnout frequently has a serious impact upon professional capacity: reduced job satisfaction, job resignation, reduced productivity, increased conflict and aggression with colleagues.

The exhaustion and fatigue component of burnout is often associated with stress-related symptoms, including headaches, muscle tension, high blood pressure, and sleep disturbance.

Symptoms of burnout can also have a huge impact upon personal lives. Irritability, aggression, and social withdrawal affect relationships with friends and family, which further increases isolation. Fatigue reduces capacity to participate in commitments and activities outside of work, which contributes to withdrawal and loss of a sense of effectiveness and achievement.

When burnout was first described in the 1970’s, it was applied to those working in caring professions, such as nurses and doctors. But it was soon recognised that the same syndrome could occur in a multitude of workplace contexts. More recently, it has been acknowledged that burnout can occur within any role, whether it be parenting, caring for people with disabilities or the elderly, students, or volunteers.

If you’re confused about exactly how to know whether you or someone else is burnt-out, it’s hardly surprising. There is still no universally agreed-upon definition or mechanism for diagnosis. This can make the research a little confusing and challenging to interpret. But regardless of the inconsistencies, burnout is a helpful description of a common experience. When someone is burnt out, you can usually identify symptoms that relate to three key areas: exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. 

Because burnout doesn’t have a strict set of criteria, it’s vital to exclude other mental or physical illnesses in individuals who appear burnt-out. Symptoms of burnout overlap with many other conditions, including sleep disorders, depression, endocrine abnormalities, nutritional deficiencies, cancer, and many more. It is essential that a doctor is involved in a comprehensive assessment prior to diagnosis and treatment for burnout.

A really important aspect of burnout to discuss  is: who’s fault is it? There has been a concerning trend for workplaces to attribute blame to individuals who experience burnout. Employees are sometimes labelled as weak, or lacking in resilience. The solution is proposed to be self-care and resilience-boosting strategies for the individual. There is often no acknowledgement that it is organisations and workplaces who have imposed an unsafe work environment, or expectations beyond what can reasonably be expected.

Burnout does not usually reflect upon the strength and resilience of an individual, and it is not their fault. Anyone will burn out if they are placed in a prolonged situation in which the demands put upon them exceed the resources they have available to them. The specific situations which will cause this vary for everyone.

This does not mean that individual self-care and specific techniques and strategies are not helpful for managing burnout. In fact, I would argue that they are essential in overcoming burnout. But the important point is that although we need to support individuals to recover, we must not attribute blame to them for the fact that they burnt out in the first place.

If you suspect that you, or someone you know, is burnt out, it must be taken seriously and addressed as soon as possible.

There are ways to effectively overcome burnout. Even better, it is possible to prevent burnout by addressing societal, institutional and organisational factors that contribute to it.

Begin by finding out how burnt-out you are:

Take the Burnout Quiz now