What Is… Occupational Burnout

List of potential contributors to occupational burnout

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is burnout.


Burnout was first described in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. It’s now included in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon that can influence health, although it’s not a medical illness in and of itself. The ICD-11 definition is:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Burnout impairs functioning on an individual and social level, and it negatively impacts the quality of work and productivity. Conversely, a push for toxic productivity, the idea that people should always be über-productive, can feed into feeling burned out.

Burnout can negatively affect both physical and psychological health, with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and depression. It can affect sleep, and there can be various aches and pains and loss of appetite. Self-confidence takes a hit, and there can be a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.

Contributing factors

Stress can lead to burnout, but the terms are not synonymous. While short-term stress can make people hyperactive and over-reactive, burnout linked to long-term stress makes people disengage and lose hope.

There are a number of different factors that may contribute to burnout, including:

  • unmanageable stressors
  • excessive workload, with demands outstripping resources
  • unclear job expectations
  • a mismatch between what the job is supposed to be and what it actually is
  • lack of control
  • perceived lack of fairness
  • lack of connection with colleagues
  • lack of appropriate awards/recognition
  • poor work-life balance
  • dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics, including workplace bullies

The most commonly used test to assess for risk is the Maslach Burnout Inventory, although it’s not freely available.  If you want to try a quick and easy self-test that calculates your score, Mindtools.org has a burnout self-test.

Reducing burnout

Connecting with coworkers can help reduce burnout. It’s also important to attend to self-care, including health basics like sleep, healthy eating, and physical activity. Increasing workers’ level of control over their job helps to reduce burnout. Building stress-management skills and setting boundaries around work can be helpful. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness techniques can also be effective.

Probably the closest I came to being burned out was a few years ago when I was experiencing workplace bullying. The stress was building inexorably, and the options were a) have my illness relapse, b) burnout, or c) quit. I decided to quit, and I think that prevented burning out, although I still ended up having a relapse of my depression.

Have you experienced burnout?

You can find the rest of the what is… series in the Psychology Corner.


Mental health coping toolkit

The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

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