Mental health, What is... psychology series

What is… Burnout

graphic of a head with cogs turning inside

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.  There can be negative effects on both physical and psychological health, with increased risk for cardiovascular disease and depression.  Sleep may be affected, 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, 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 burnt 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 my What Is series here.


COVID-19/coping toolkit from Mental Health @ Home

The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a wide range of different resources that can help make coping a little easier.

32 thoughts on “What is… Burnout”

  1. Really good distinction between stress and burnout, and the online test is an interesting one as I hadn’t known that existed – will check it now (though I’m not sure I want to know the results 😂)
    Caz x

  2. Hmm, I’m wondering if I’m experiencing burnout even though I’m not employed, meaning, I have a lot of those negative feelings about the jobs I’m applying for and should be excited about. I think I really want to be a writer rather than a librarian, but I’m finding it hard to get into writing.

    1. Writing is definitely a lot more uncertain than having a set job. Burnout seems applicable given how the librarianing (or whatever the appropriate word would be) was going.

  3. Oh, I definitely think you made the right choice about quitting that job! 😮

    No, I’ve never experienced burnout as they’re describing it, within the confines of employment. However, a few years ago, I experienced it with my woodworking because I pushed myself way too hard to cut some boards for my bedroom floor. Too much time at the saw caused woodworker’s burnout, and unfortunately, I haven’t really wanted to do much woodworking since then. I keep hoping that time or circumstance will get me back into it, and I haven’t given up hope at all yet! 🙂 In the meantime, it’s easy to justify not doing any woodworking because it’s quite expensive to buy supplies.

    I loved the psychology of this blog post!

      1. That’s brilliant! It does, actually, give me a raw feeling of power when I use the saw! It’s amazing. I guess some people feel that way when they shoot a gun, or set off a firecracker, or that sort of thing? I like the way you think!! Woodworking is a great way to focus and channel energy into building something more tangible than the books I write. (Not to disparage my writing, but woodworking is more… you know… physical in form rather than intellectual.)

  4. I pushed wheelchairs at a big airport for 9 years.. I had a heart attack, and the boss gave me fulltime work. when I came back. I was grateful. After 2 or 3 years at this level of work, I began to get tired. I requested 4 days a week hours and got it. After 2 or 3 years at this level, I got tired again. I requested 3 days a week and got stonewalled by our manager. She said I could get 3 days, if I found a replacement. Four months later, he showed up the day I quit. I got fed up with waiting and got another job offer in the meantime. I went to work for the YMCA. Somewhere along the way, I came to hate the airport job. I loved it for 7 years and hated it for the last 2 years. My boss and coworkers were dismayed I quit. I still hate the airport and do not like being on its property. My work experience was being supervised by the VA. They encouraged me to quit, too. For 7 years, the airport was my dream job. Then i hated it. Was this burnout? My heart sunk when i came on the concourse. I never rekindled my love for the job. Now I work at Walgreens with a boss who understands my work level needs. Good post, Ashley.

  5. This is a great description of burnout. ‘m glad that you were able to leave your job that caused you so much stress! I definitely experienced burnout in grad school, and seriously considered quitting multiple times.

  6. I definitely want to see how well I’m recovering from burnout. 7 months on and I still have nightmares of work haha.

    I hope people don’t wait and push through depression, anxiety and chronic passive suicidality like I did for over a year.

  7. I got burned out on teaching. I talked to 10 years and the stress and anxiety and politics of this profession are agonizing. I’m taking some time off for myself and my own Wellness. Weatherman I go back to teaching after I recovered will be my choice but I will do it for the much different attitude and more positive choices

  8. When I used to work, my hours per week were anywhere between 55-60. My job was very demanding, chaotic, yet diversified and enjoyable. However, with that being said… I experienced burnout because I think my alcoholism back then and not being diagnosed with mental health issues added to that burnout.

  9. I suffered a burnout a few years back. Cried, had a pity party and took my frustrations out on my family. Going from a background in finance to being a caregiver took me a little while to get use to, and I wasn’t taking care of myself mentally, emotionally or physically. It was definitely a learning experience for me, and now I recognize the signs.

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