There are a lot of misconceptions about job burnout: people think burnout is just working too hard, or it’s a lack of willpower or a form of depression, and so on. Many people, myself included, have stuck to such misconceptions because they offer an appealing oversimplification.

Misconceptions, however, neither help you prevent burnout nor help you understand how to find a way out. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to learn the basics about burnout. Knowing these basics will make it less of destiny and more a problem to solve. Let’s jump straight into the history of burnout.

The first scientific articles describing burnout were published in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger and Sigmund Ginsburg. Ginsburg later disappeared from the research on burnout and Freudenberger came to be widely considered as the originator of the concept.

Freudenberger describes burnout as a state of “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength or resources” in the workplace. He conducted his research on medical professionals working in demanding environments, such as a free clinic in New York.

In late 1970s, Christina Maslach drew upon this initial research and advanced it. Her work led to the development of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) in 1980.

Thanks to the MBI, burnout started to be recognized not only among medical professionals, but among other occupations as well—including teachers, managers, military servicemen, and many others. MBI is still the most widely used questionnaire for measuring burnout.

Nowadays, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as follows[4]:

“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.”

So, what makes an employee cynical, negative and exhausted? Maslach came up with six contributing factors. I’ll list them with a brief description of how they might feel.

Workload. You are exhausted, both mentally and physically. You work late hours and weekends.

Control. You are being micromanaged to the point where you need to ask permission to go to the bathroom.

Reward. No matter how hard you work and how much you contribute, no one seems to care.

Fairness. You just completed a massive project, but your manager took all the credit for the work.

Values. You feel like there is no meaning in what you are doing. Or, even worse, your job corrupts you and makes you feel like less of a human.

Community. You can’t trust your colleagues, as they could stab you in the back at any moment.

If you work hard, but you have friendly colleagues and you are in control of what you are doing—work that makes sense—you are going to be okay. But if you chronically score high in several categories, congratulations! You win the prize of endless emotional exhaustion. Much like depression, burnout takes away all the feel-good emotions and leaves you with negativism, cynicism, and self-doubt. It doesn’t only damage you; it also hurts the people around you, even your loved ones.

Burnout feels like shit, but, even worse, it literally produces an anatomical change in your brain. A study conducted by the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden[1] compared two groups. The first group of 40 people had symptoms of burnout that they attribute to their work. The second group of 40 people did not have the symptoms.

Researchers found out that the group with burnout had an enlarged amygdala—the threat detection center of the brain. Moreover, with burnout, the amygdala has a weaker connection to other brain areas that are linked to emotional distress and executive functions. As a result, people with burnout have difficulty downregulating negative emotions, including fear.

If you are not scared enough, there are other studies[1] that show how burnout can cause disruptions to attention, working memory, creativity, problem-solving, and also cause insomnia, depression, and other devastating effects. You can find references at the end of this post.

Despite all of this disturbing evidence, there is a way out.

Seek out professional help. According to the WHO, burnout is not a disease. It is an occupational phenomenon for which you should seek help. Don’t wait too long. You’ve had enough.

Assess your state. While researchers continue to debate whether the MBI is the best way to measure burnout, it can be helpful for thinking about what factors may be contributing to your exhaustion and what you can do about them. Take a few online self-tests.[2]

Sleep and recover. The first piece of advice that any professional would give you is to fix your sleep. However, sleeping could be difficult when you are experiencing burnout. This is another reason why seeking professional help is important.

Next time, we’ll talk about what made me burnout-proof and how to recover from burnout like a pro. That’s it! See you in the next post.

The rabbit hole

  1. Burnout and the Brain

  2. Collection of free burnout self-tests

  3. Understanding Job Burnout - Dr. Christina Maslach

  4. World Health Organization burnout page