By Marnie Dobson Zimmerman, PhD & Peter Schnall, MD MPH*
Burnout is the feeling that everything is wrong with your job and that no matter how much sleep you get, you just can’t get over this feeling of complete exhaustion when you leave work and when you think about going to work. The job you might once have loved is now leaving you feeling overwhelmed and cynical. The patients, students, clients or customers you once enjoyed serving, now might make you feel irritated and hopeless. You may even feel like your job doesn’t have any meaning anymore or that you are professionally inadequate to the task. “Why can’t I keep up and everybody else can?”
You are not alone.
Burnout is a complex, but well-studied phenomenon at least since the 1970s. Researchers in social psychology, including Christina Maslach, the author of the most widely used research measure in the burnout field, have found that the occupational burnout syndrome has three major components:
In May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized burnout, not as a medical condition, but an “occupational phenomenon or syndrome.”
What does that mean to you if you are experiencing burnout?
For a start, it means you are not to blame for your burnout — it is not the result of an errant gene, family history or your behaviors. Burnout has environmental causes. The World Health Organization says that it is caused by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is the result of your work environment and one or more factors like excessive workloads, unreasonable time pressures, a lack of job control (having input into your job), work-life imbalance, a lack of social support or good leadership, unfair treatment like being overlooked for a promotion, and even by bullying, discrimination or sexual harassment. [1, 2]
Why should those who don’t suffer from burnout, care about this issue? Is this just a millennial problem? A first world issue?
Burnout affects young people. There are disturbing trends in millennials embracing the “hustle culture” and wearing their “busy-ness” as a badge of success. But, is it millennials or is work itself changing and intensifying?
Who is responsible for this “hustle culture”? Is it the employers who lay off workers and then ask those who remain to do more with less, or require them to sacrifice their personal time by working nights and weekends to help the company reach greater heights? Maybe it’s the organizations who hire temporary workers alongside permanent workers to create competition to get a permanent position leading to overwork? Or those businesses hiring part-time or seasonal workers forcing employees to have to take other “gigs.”
Burnout crosses all socio-demographic categories — affecting men and women, older working people and younger, and those in professional occupations (like physicians and nurses who have very high rates) and lower wage occupations (like call center workers or warehouse workers). It is also evident in industrializing countries as well as in high-income countries like the U.S.
The High Costs of Burnout
Burnout costs individuals their health, well-being and financial and family strain.
The organizational costs are also enormous:
- Estimates for the health care costs of job-related burnout are somewhere between $125-$190 billion.
- Burnt out employees are:
These health care, sick leave, turnover and lowered productivity costs represent an enormous hit to the bottom line; so it is in the interest of companies to address the ways workers are managed and work is organized — in order to prevent or reduce burnout.
What steps can be taken by managers and corporate leaders to prevent burnout?
1. Remove stigma
Stigma is still a problem when it comes to mental health. People with burnout might think that they are alone, that it is a personal weakness of some sort, that they are the only ones not keeping up. But since burnout is caused by overwork and toxic workplaces, there may be more people around you suffering in silence. Mental health problems like burnout are as real as physical health problems and managers need to be trained to learn how to give them the same legitimacy. Providing forums for workers to meet up and talk about their work concerns and stressors they may all be facing is one way this could be accomplished. This must be done in a manner that allows workers to be honest and not fear retaliation. Ensuring that worker representatives are involved is essential.
2. Re-examine wellness programs
What is the effectiveness of wellness programs and employee assistance programs? Offering employees mindfulness meditation, stress management, exercise and nutrition programs can offer people with burnout some temporary benefit — if schedules permit, or if they have access to them — which many don’t, especially low-wage workers. It may be even more helpful to employees if they can utilize these programs during work time instead of after work when everyone just wants to go home and see family or unwind. Unfortunately, many of these programs aimed at individuals have only a short-term benefit if toxic work environments go unchallenged and continue to overload workers
3. Create healthy workplaces
More important and beneficial than trying to get people to cope with stress caused by unhealthy work, is creating a healthy workplace to prevent burnout from occurring in the first place. Experts agree that businesses that create a “corporate culture of health and well-being” for employees could improve the mental health of working Americans. For steps on doing this, see the NIOSH Total Worker Health® program.
Going a step further and 1) identifying the level of burnout and the presence of key work stressors known to cause burnout in an organization, and 2) working to reduce those work stressors, has been shown in studies to reduce burnout.
How do organizations create healthy work?
The Healthy Work Campaign offers effective tools to employers, individuals and union representatives and worker advocates, on how to assess workplaces for work stressors that cause burnout, using a free online survey tool and automatic report. Knowing what work stressors are common in the workplace is the first step in being able to remedy them.
In the end, it is in the economic interests of companies to make changes that are already costing them in sick leave, turnover and lost productivity, but also in terms of corporate responsibility to their employees.
“Healthy work” strategies employers/managers can take to prevent burnout:
- Ensuring people take adequate rest breaks, vacations and provide paid sick leave and reasonable work hours.
- Train supervisors to take employees’ workload and work-family balance concerns seriously.
- Provide employees input into important decisions that affect their workload or other aspects of the job.
- Working people are not robots, we all have different home lives, responsibilities, capacities and different life experiences — respecting these differences will go a long way.
- Communication is key — healthy corporate values and sustainable business practices need to reach all levels of an organization.
- Ensure that all employees are being treated fairly and with respect. Don’t just wait till there is a problem — prevent bullying, workplace violence and sexual harassment from happening in the first place, and hold perpetrators accountable.
“Healthy work” strategies individuals and worker advocates/unions can take to prevent burnout:
Additional resources on burnout:
- Employee Burnout - 5 Main Causes (Gallup, July 2018)
- Employee Burnout - What Managers Can Do (Gallup, July 2018)
- Employee Burnout - How Organizations Can Stop Burnout (Gallup, July 2018)
- “Marnie Dobson discusses workplace burnout which has been officially recognized by the World Health O” (CGTN America, June 2019)
- Healthy Work Stats to Know - The Burden of Burnout (HWC, August 2019)
*This article was commissioned as part of the Healthy Work Campaign. To learn more & obtain free resources, visit https://healthywork.org.
Dr. Marnie Dobson is Co-Director of the Healthy Work Campaign, as well as the Associate Director of the Center for Social Epidemiology. She is also an Assistant Adjunct Professor at the University of California, Irvine Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) where, for the last 12 years, she has been involved in work stress research, including qualitative, participatory methods, enhancing epidemiological studies and intervention development with several blue-collar working populations including firefighters and urban transit operators. She continues to teach in occupational health classes at UCI and UCLA, as well as publish academic articles and book chapters and present at scientific conferences. (LinkedIn, Twitter)
Dr. Peter Schnall is Co-Director of the Healthy Work Campaign, as well as the Founder and Director of the Center for Social Epidemiology, the nonprofit which established the campaign. An epidemiologist, Peter has studied the impact of working conditions on the development of hypertension among workers for over 30 years, as well promoting increasing awareness among students, colleagues and the public of the important role psychosocial work stressors play in the development of chronic mental and physical illnesses. He is also a Clinical Professor of Medicine at University of California, Irvine’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine (COEH). (LinkedIn, Twitter)
We would like to acknowledge the contributions made to this article by our colleagues: