Burnout in some form has probably existed as long as humans have walked the earth — guarding the village from predators couldn’t have been easy. But its contemporary form was defined in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, PhD, who listed three primary characteristics: physical and emotional exhaustion, a feeling of alienation from work that leads to cynicism and depersonalization, and a listlessness and inefficiency that begins to affect responsibilities in other areas of life.
“There seems to be a trajectory between just fatigue and when it really becomes burnout,” says meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness at Work. “Burnout begins with exhaustion and then deepens into a sense of meaninglessness, of not deriving a sense of purpose anymore.”
The consequences can be serious for both individuals and society. Last year the World Health Organization began classifying burnout as a syndrome that increases the need for healthcare services.
That’s no surprise, since burnout can affect everyday aspects of health, such as sleep and diet. It can also lead to serious illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety, and drug and alcohol dependence.
Burnout is also surprisingly common, affecting people in all types of jobs and positions, from minimum-wage service-industry workers to CEOs. A 2018 Gallup poll of 7,500 full-time employees revealed that 23 percent felt burnout symptoms often or always, with 44 percent feeling the effects at least sometimes. Burned-out employees are also 63 percent more likely to take a sick day and 23 percent more likely to visit the ER.
People who feel burned out often don’t realize how serious their situation is until it’s too late. George Mason University School of Business professor Mandy O’Neill, PhD, describes her own experience as a vague sense of not feeling like herself that gradually led to dwindling engagement. Eventually, it meant the shutdown of her “compassion valve.”
“I didn’t feel anything,” she recalls, describing the moment she realized she had burned out on teaching. “And my heart felt like coal.”
For most, the situation soon becomes self-reinforcing: Emotional withdrawal leads to greater disconnection from the things that make life and work worthwhile.
Burnout can afflict those laboring outside the conventional workplace, too, such as those caring for a chronically ill family member, or those raising children while holding down demanding jobs.
Paradoxically, burnout can’t occur without caring; what often begins with a deep desire to do a job well turns into a form of numbness. It resembles depression, but unlike depression, there’s traditionally been no diagnosis to spur people to take action.
Some healthcare providers and mental-health experts, however, are now taking a proactive approach to treating burnout.
“It really is about tools,” says Salzberg. “I was involved with a four-year program that brought loving-kindness meditation to front-line domestic-violence workers, and that morphed into work with humanitarian-aid workers. For me, recovery is about mindfulness of what we’re feeling, and greater understanding and self-care. It’s difficult, but we have to realize that self-care isn’t selfish. It’s essential.”
Causes and Effects
People who suffer from burnout tend to list more than one cause, but almost all describe a sense of being continually overwhelmed by responsibilities.
“There are two general categories for when people feel burnout,” explains psychiatrist James Gordon, MD, director of the Center for Mind–Body Medicine and author of The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma. “There are those doing work that they actually really want to be doing, but who are overwhelmed by the stress and the workload. Then there’s another group simply doing work that is deeply unsatisfying to them.”
Burnout doesn’t happen overnight, and similar triggers occur across a variety of occupations. It affects high-level professionals, service workers, paid and unpaid caregivers, and freelancers with multiple jobs in the gig economy. And not just them.
“I experienced burnout when I was in my doctoral program,” says choral conductor and music professor Amelia Nagoski, DMA, who felt sexism in her male-dominated field exacerbated the demands of her studies. “Halfway through, I ended up in the hospital for four days. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong, but it was just stress — having to stuff it all down until I learned to address it.”
Nagoski, along with her sister, sexual-health educator Emily Nagoski, PhD, channeled these experiences into Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. The book draws a sharp distinction between stressors and stress. They explain that certain negative stimuli — feeling disrespected at work, driven to produce without agency, absorbing others’ negative emotions or behavior — often trigger a physiological response that can become “stuck,” or unresolved.
“Chronically activated stress response means chronically increased blood pressure, which is like constantly turning a firehose on in your blood vessels,” they write. “We are not built to live in this state.” The stress response affects every organ system in the body, as well as digestion, immune function, and hormones.
Things get even tougher when financial worries compound the stress of burnout, as in many low-wage occupations. Journalist Emily Guendelsberger, who wrote about working several low-wage jobs in On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane, sounds the alarm about the pervasive effects of burnout for service workers.
“All you have to do is remove control and predictability — the exact things low-wage workers have been forced to sacrifice in the name of corporate efficiency and flexibility,” she writes. “Is it any surprise that it feels like the country’s losing its collective mind?”