What is workplace burnout? A guide for employers

How to define and understand employee burnout

Dozens and dozens of people slumped over their keyboards are writing to a Spill therapist about burnout at work each month. Not breezily (as they might joke about it on their eighth Zoom call of the day) but in earnest, sounding — heartbreakingly — like they can't go on anymore.

But they do go on. They keep showing up. They drag themselves to their showers, log onto their Zoom calls, and they do what they do slower and with less care, snapping at colleagues and testing their bosses' nerves with relentless negativity. And it’s not something that only affects a few people: a mental health survey by Spill and CharlieHR found that 79% of U.K. employees felt close to burning out in the last year. What’s going on here?

How to define workplace burnout

Let’s start by defining what employee burnout is (and isn’t). Our definition of workplace burnout is taken from the latest version of the International Classification of Diseases, which is the World Health Organisation’s glossary of every physical and psychological ailment out there:

“Burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

There are three parts of this definition that are worth exploring further: ‘syndrome’, ‘chronic workplace stress’ and ‘not successfully managed’. Firstly, it’s worth noting the fact that burnout is defined as a syndrome — a new definition in the latest version of the ICD — but is still specifically “not classified as a medical condition”, to use the WHO’s own words. A syndrome refers to a group of traits or experiences that seem to occur together pretty often, and so come to merit their own label. A syndrome differs from a disease, a disorder or a medical condition in the following ways:

Why is workplace burnout not an official medical condition? This could change in the future, but at the moment it’s hard to classify it as one when it doesn’t seem to have specific health-related causes and instead seems to depend purely on what a person is going through. (For example, clinical depressive disorder is characterised as a medical condition, as its causes span everything from personality traits to family history to post-pregnancy to stressful life events to an underactive thyroid.) To dive into more detail on what’s driving it, read about the 6 leading causes of burnout.

This brings us to the second point in the definition to zoom in on: ‘chronic workplace stress’. There’s a reason we keep describing it here as workplace burnout: because it has to stem from work. As the WHO says, “burnout refers specifically to the phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life”. This means that an employee can’t burn out from having a newborn, or running a marathon, or being in a stressful relationship. Those things can exacerbate burnout, or make it more likely to turn into something else, but they can’t be its specific cause. Burnout is fundamentally about work. 

The third takeout from the definition is that burnout is about workplace stress that “has not been successfully managed”. This is a really interesting distinction: burnout seems to be more about how we interpret, subjectively experience and manage work stress rather than the objective amount we go through. It’s about our psychological relationship with work — how much control we feel like we have, whether we feel like we’re progressing, whether we feel recognised and cared for — as much as it’s about our actual workload. In fact, one reasonable hypothesis — that employee burnout is more common in the modern world because people work longer hours — is not only untrue, but seems to be inverted: burnout is more common in the modern world despite the fact that we work, on average, far fewer hours per week than people did a hundred years ago.

The average number of hours a person works each week has dropped in the last 100 years (Source: Our World in Data)

If we have a strong and healthy relationship with our work, on the other hand, we’re actually capable of withstanding pretty severe stressors — ambitious deadlines, angry stakeholders, projects with a low chance of success — without risking the deterioration of our mental health. Burnout is about our psychological relationship with work, and how we psychologically manage the obstacles that come our way.

The 12 stages of workplace burnout

Now that we’ve defined what employee burnout is, we need to understand what it feels like. Herbert Freudenberger, the psychologist who coined the term in the 1970s, outlined twelve stages of burnout that people often go through if it’s not addressed.

  1. You feel there is a strong need to prove yourself. This is all about excessive drive or ambition, having expectations that are unrealistically high, or feeling like an impostor.
  2. You push yourself to work harder and harder. In order to try and meet these high expectations and prove yourself, you keep working more.
  3. You begin to neglect your own needs more. Basic needs like sleep, exercise, nutrition and social relationships all get cast aside as work takes over.
  4. You are conflicted and blame others or the situation. You feel panicky and jittery; stress levels are blamed on colleagues, bosses, the expectations of the industry…
  5. You change your values to focus on work more. Like a gambler upping their stake, you double down by making work even more core to your identity.
  6. You deny the problems that come up due to work stress. You avoid taking responsibility, which would be emotionally painful, and so choose to say that nothing’s wrong.
  7. You withdraw from your family and friends. You start to avoid or dread social interaction; you stop responding to messages; you become less present and less involved.
  8. Your behaviour changes, which upsets your family and friends. Maybe you snap more, maybe you withdraw and sulk, or maybe you are prone to deep bouts of sadness.
  9. You stop feeling like yourself. This is called ‘depersonalisation’ and is a commonly experienced part of severe burnout, where you find it hard to relate to people.
  10. You feel empty and numb. Your self-worth drops and you feel like you aren’t being useful, leading to more withdrawal and perhaps unhealthy coping mechanisms.
  11. You feel depressed. You feel incredibly tired even when doing simple tasks, the future starts to feel bleak and dark.
  12. You reach mental and physical breaking point. Perhaps you are unable to keep working or feel like you’re going to collapse. 

What should employers realistically aim to do, therefore? In short, there need to be systems in place to catch employee burnout earlier — at stage 4 rather than stage 11, for example — and a plan for how to help employees break out of the cycle altogether.

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