The Burnout Epidemic


The term ‘burnout’ was originally coined by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s [1]. Although initially its use was exclusively reserved for those in “helping” professions such as doctors and nurses, today burnout’s grip does not discriminate by profession; it extends far and wide. Today’s workforce is twice as likely to report that they are “always exhausted” than they were twenty years ago [2]. Meanwhile, a 2023 survey of US workers reported that 59% were experiencing burnout, of which 71% were Gen Z and 65% millennials [3]. This is a problem in the ascendency.

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially classified burnout as a medical diagnosis, including the condition in the International Classification of Diseases, defining it as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” [4]

Burnout is generally easy to notice. Employees suffering from it are likely to show a lack of energy, sometimes to the point of exhaustion, a newfound sense of negativity and cynicism for their work, and a loss of productivity and/or drop in performance levels. In terms of the immediate impact on the workplace, employees experiencing burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day, 23% more likely to visit the emergency room, and more than twice as likely to be actively seeking a different job. [5]

Why are we burned out?

Burnout is not new, but its pervasiveness is. That’s likely because its causes are accentuated by the work structures of modern life. According to 2022 survey data from the recruiting firm Zippia, 86% of fully remote workers experience some degree of burnout in their job, as opposed to 81% among hybrid workers, and 70% of those working fully in person [6]. Given remote forms of working were only recently normalised, that could be a contributory factor in burnout’s rise. A more obvious reason would be technological advancements. The majority of us now have email on our phone and a decent-quality laptop or computer at home. That has allowed work to spill out well past traditional working hours into evenings and weekends. There is no off switch or escape hatch.

It’s common to try to fight burnout with a quick holiday, rest day, or temporary lessening of hours, but any changes need to be more fundamental and long-term. Short-term approaches amount to little more than sticking plasters on a shattered bone. Burnout is a problem that develops over time; it can only be fixed with time too. If the tank is empty, simply driving slower isn’t going to fill it up again.

Not only do holidays not necessarily fix the problem of burnout, they can actually compound it. A recent MyBioSource survey of over one thousand US workers found that 50% of employees said taking time off left them feeling drained for at least a week upon return. Meanwhile, 44% reported experiencing exhaustion and 32% increased anxiety when returning to work after a break [7]. Such problems are going to be especially resonant if staff have to overburden themselves catching up either after or before their rest –– not only will the catch-up period be stressful, but the knowledge that the work is piling up while they’re away will impair their time off.

Witnessing the proliferation of burnout in workers, a number of businesses have taken to addressing the problem through ‘wellness days’ or ‘mental health days’, in which staff can take a day off every now and again to focus on their well-being. Well-meaning as this may be, it is an insufficient solution to a problem that’s roots run far deeper and are unlikely to be mended by a single day of rest. As Jonathan Malesic, author of The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives, writes in The Atlantic: “We might think of a mental-health day as a form of workplace avoidance dressed in the language of self-care.” [8]

All that is not to say that there is no use taking breaks. A 2014 study found that doctors in Japan who had two to four days off a month were more than three times more likely to suffer from burnout than those who had eight or more days off. But to truly address burnout one needs to make fundamental changes to work structures, not simply take a brief break before returning to the exact same approach that caused the problems in the first place.

The need for meaning

It can be easy to think burnout boils down to a simple misalignment between work and rest –– work too many hours without sufficient rest and you will be burned out; rest more and you will be fixed. But it’s more complicated than that. In fact, research shows that the number of hours one works is not the principal cause of burnout. There is something more innately human at play.

“Misalignment burnout happens when we constantly engage with environments and in activities that go against our innermost values and beliefs, leading to a disconnect between our true selves and professional identity,” writes Mark Travers, Ph.D. in Forbes. [9]

Working a job that we feel offers value to the world or that we feel we offer value to is key to avoiding burnout and having a healthy relationship with our work more generally. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology found that when employees feel like they fit well with their organisation and their specific role, they’re less likely to experience burnout [10]. When it comes to overall well-being, the quality of one’s work experience has been found to be up to three times more important than the number of hours worked [11].

Also vital to having a thriving sense of professional value is a level of autonomy and support –– are we trusted to do the work? Is there someone there to help us on the difficult days? In his book Dying for a Paycheck, Jeffrey Pfeffer writes of workplace autonomy: “If through their actions people cannot predictably and significantly affect what happens to them, they are going to stop trying. Why expend effort when the results of that effort are uncontrollable, rendering the effort fruitless?” [12]

In terms of support, Harvard Business Review reports that there is a significant correlation between feeling lonely and work exhaustion [13]. Bill Hudenko, Ph.D., global head of mental health at the digital care company K Health, points out that “burnout is not an individual failing, rather it is a systemic issue that stems from a disconnect between expectations of workers and the leadership or conditions of the workplace.” [14]

The role of managers

Steve Salee, Founder and CEO of Wildfire Strategies, writes in Forbes that too often the burnout diagnosis puts the onus on employees to fix themselves. They are told to meditate, exercise or take some time off. In other words, to sort themselves out. Salee prefers a different term for this dismissive attitude employers can show towards their workers: moral toxicity.

Moral toxicity “describes the cumulative experience of being disregarded, unprotected, undervalued or dehumanised by an employer. It’s a potent cocktail of disrespect, injustice and emotional erosion that, over time, can poison the entire workplace culture,” he writes. He says that we saw a prime example of moral toxicity at play during the pandemic in the way exhausted healthcare workers were treated. To describe what those workers were going through as burnout, he says, “ignores the deeper ethical breach at play.” [15]

Whether staff are suffering from burnout or moral toxicity, employers have a duty of care to their workers. A Gallup study found that employees who felt cared for by their manager were 70% less likely to experience burnout. [16]

Dr Steven E. Pratt, M.D., senior medical director at Magellan Healthcare, suggests a number of policies and strategies that employers can put in place to prioritise employee care [17]. These include encouraging frequent breaks, offering healthy food options in workplace dining areas, providing education on positive health habits, and encouraging open dialogue about stressors and ways to manage stress.

Every individual’s relationship with work is different. Some will burn out easier than others. Good management involves a tailoring of approach according to how staff are likely to respond. Too often managers create an achievement-at-all-costs atmosphere and act as if any negative fallout employees feel is a result of their individual weakness rather than any systemic problem.

As Christina Maslach, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley and one of the foremost burnout researchers in the United States, puts it: “The phrase ‘If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen’—it’s sort of saying: The kitchen is what it is, and you’re going to have to figure out how to deal with it, without ever saying, really, ‘Does the kitchen have to be that hot?’” [18]

There are of course steps individuals can take to improve their own sense of well-being and to counteract burnout –– ideally before it manifests, rather than relying strictly on reactionary measures. Yoga, meditation, exercise, a regular sleep schedule and having a social life outside of work are all suggested, as well as being disciplined in cutting off work hours at a reasonable time, especially difficult in the age of remote working.

And if a job proves too demanding or so unfulfilling that you feel yourself draining, it could be a sign that it’s time to move on to ventures new. As the Dalai Lama advises, “If you feel ‘burnout’ setting in, if you feel demoralised and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself.” [19]

More on Burnout

The Million-Dollar Impact of Burnout & Busyness Culture

Mindfulness in the workplace

Personal Leadership Through a Performance Mindset with Laura Piccardi – Podcast

Rethinking the Workplace with Prof. Deirdre O’Shea – Podcast