What Is Burnout?
Since January 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) has referred to burnout as an occupational syndrome that originates from chronic and persistent workplace stress, not simply a medical condition.1 This announcement underscores the importance of raising public awareness of the WHO’s evolving view of burnout. Just as important, this evolved definition disconnects burnout from other illnesses and health conditions and any misguided perceptions of personal weakness and refocuses the attention on the syndrome’s dimensions. The WHO characterizes burnout by three dimensions: energy depletion or exhaustion, negative or cynical feelings about one’s job, and a reduced professional efficacy.
The first dimension, exhaustion, represents an emotional stress response: An individual develops an overwhelming feeling of being worn out, energy deficient, depleted, debilitated, and chronically fatigued. Early researchers with backgrounds in social and clinical psychology associated aspects of burnout with psychological depression. The exhaustion dimension’s nature links it with the variable nature of workplace stress and subsequently stress-related health outcomes, such as headaches, muscle tension, hypertension, and many immune-compromised conditions and diseases.
The second dimension is cynicism (initially referred to as depolarization), which manifests through negative or inappropriate attitudes towards clients, coworkers, and job-related activities. It also results in irritability, loss of idealism, and withdrawal. The cynicism dimension may cause a person to develop a negative attitude regarding their job responsibilities and depersonalization.
Dimension Three/Loss of Efficacy
The loss of efficacy dimension (initially referred to as personal accomplishment) refers to an individual’s loss of productivity or capability, low morale, and difficulty coping. When chronic stress is not managed successfully and supported with adequate encouragement and reassurance, the individual drifts into a negative self-attitude and sense of worthlessness.
Financial Impact of Burnout
- Burnout costs the national economy $125 billion to $190 billion in healthcare costs each year.
- Burnout leads to disengaged employees who cost their employers 34% of their salary.
- Burnout is responsible for 20% to 50% of turnover—depending on industry.
Source: “Burnout Is Now an Officially Diagnosable Condition: Here’s What You Need to Know About It,” forbes.com, May 29, 2019.
This multidimensional framework is a giant step forward for leaders fighting burnout. Historically, research and assessment tools focused on the first dimension of exhaustion. Specifically, much of the historical focus of burnout concentrated on the lack of energy to sustain efforts in the work environment. With the addition of cynicism and its impact on dealing with others and efficacy’s profound influence on self-confidence and self-respect, we now have a complete picture of burnout’s individual nature.
What Burnout Is Not
Employee engagement has many popular definitions, but a common thread among many of them is an employee’s emotional commitment to an organization, the benefits of which are well known and documented—productivity, quality, safety, and retention.2 Organizations worldwide invest millions of dollars each year in annual surveys to assess their people groups’ engagement levels. With these surveys in mind, it may be logical to equate burnout with low engagement. While logical, it is inaccurate.
The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence surveyed 15,000 individuals across industries and demographics and found that only 2% of those surveyed were disengaged and burned out as defined by the WHO’s new definition. As surprising as that was, they also found that one in five of those surveyed was burned out while still highly engaged and productive at work.2 This means that if an organization uses lack of engagement as a proxy for burnout, they will miss supporting a large percentage of their engaged team members when they need their assistance the most—when they are burned out. And reversing burnout for these engaged but burned-out employees should be a priority because these individuals also display a willingness and intent to leave the job—made easier by their high performance.
These findings have two meaningful implications for organizational leaders. First, burnout and engagement are two different concepts with distinct characteristics, consequences, and remedies. Second, leaders need visibility into both engagement and burnout so they can manage both to ensure those engaged but burned-out employees receive the support they need—before these high performers depart.3
The Interplay of the Organization & Individual
The WHO’s upgrading of its definition of burnout from an individual condition to a syndrome4,5 that requires treatment is a significant advancement, but establishing a multidimensional framework for assessment might be even more profound in the fight against burnout. With this framework, the WHO now provides a structure for systematically decomposing burnout data to prescribe more precise responses. What’s missing is the organization’s role in driving burnout.
The WHO’s definition reinforces the perspective that burnout is about people alone—not about the organization. While the individual is an integral part of the burnout equation, we believe organizations and their leaders play an equally critical role in the fight against burnout. Just as we cannot consider the dimensions of burnout in isolation, we cannot separate the individual from the organizational environment. The interplay of the individual dimensions and organizational environment reveals the character of burnout within an organization—and the clues to bending what we refer to as the Burnout Curve.
The organizational environment influences this interplay with a social context that results from social, political, and economic factors with variable implications for each person’s experience of stress. The latest research on burnout provides a picture of its true root causes. According to research from the University of California, Berkeley; Rutgers University; and Deakin University,6 there are six dominant causes of burnout:
- Perceived lack of control
- Lack of reward or recognition
- Poor relationships
- Lack of fairness
- Values mismatch
These causes are predominantly organizational issues. By implementing a programmatic organizational response to burnout, including interventions customized to the needs that map to the dimensions of burnout, organizations and their leaders can cultivate a burnout-resistant environment. For leaders and managers to effectively push back burnout, they must understand and address the interplay of the organization and the individual. We believe the research suggests that instead of focusing on the individual dimensions of burnout or the organizational environment in which burnout occurs, we need to understand and influence both.
A practical, extensive programmatic response to reducing burnout must start at the organizational level and cascade down to the individual level. If properly informed with organizational data and encouraged by an affirming culture, the interplay of the two can push back burnout—for good.
If you have questions or need assistance, please reach out to a professional at FORVIS.
- 1“Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People,” hbr.org, December 19, 2019.
- 2ab“1 in 5 Employees Is Highly Engaged and at Risk of Burnout,” hbr.org, February 2, 2018.
- 3“The Truth About Burnout: It Doesn’t Look How We Expect It To,” thehill.com, August 8, 2019.
- 4“QDE5 Burnout,” icd.who.int, January 2023.
- 5“WHO Redefines Burnout as a ‘Syndrome’ Linked to Chronic Stress at Work,” npr.org, May 28, 2019.
- 6“Beyond Burned Out,” hbr.org, February 10, 2021.