In a story published in January on BuzzFeed News, reporter Anne Helen Petersen details her struggle with what she calls “errand paralysis,” or her inability to summon the energy for tasks that aren’t vital to her life or work.
Petersen identifies her brand of selective procrastination as a symptom of burnout, which she describes as a fundamental component of the modern millennial’s existence. “Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time,” she writes in the essay, titled “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.”
Petersen’s story went viral, and her sentiments helped crystalize a trend that has lately attracted greater acknowledgment and analysis from mental health researchers, human resource experts, and most recently, major public health organizations: namely, that burnout is widespread among today’s workers — especially young ones — and it’s a noticeable drain on their health and professional well-being.
“There is now a lot of academic literature on burnout, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s a real phenomenon,” says Gloria Mark, a psychologist and professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine.
A 2018 study in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that the rate of “overall burnout” among the general U.S. workforce was 28%. A 2017 Kronos survey of human resources leaders concluded that employee burnout is both an “epidemic” and a “crisis.” And a recent Gallup study found that 23% of American workers feel burned out “often or always.”
Mark says that a confluence of factors — incessant email communication, for one, but also America’s shift toward more solitary leisure-time pursuits — have created a “perfect storm” of work stress and overload. “A lot of people are being caught up in this maelstrom, and it’s hard to get out of,” she says.
But not everyone is buying the burnout hype.
In a recent New York Times op-ed titled “Is Burnout Real?,” Weill-Cornell psychiatrist Richard Friedman questions the notion that burnout is truly more common now than it used to be.
Friedman argues that “unrealistic and misleading” expectations resulting from “a shift in cultural attitudes” may be causing many workers — as well as the people who study them — to misconstrue run-of-the-mill job stress or dissatisfaction as something more insidious. In other words, what a lot of people today describe as burnout is the result of improper framing or overzealous pathologizing, not of real changes to the nature of job-related stress. “When a disorder is reportedly so widespread, it makes me wonder whether we are at risk of medicalizing everyday distress,” Friedman wrote. “If almost everyone suffers from burnout, then no one does, and the concept loses all credibility.”
Some commenters to Friedman’s piece point out that his logic here is dubious; if most Americans are obese, one wrote, that doesn’t mean obesity ceases to exist. (Friedman did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.)
But Friedman is not alone in questioning the realness of the burnout epidemic or in fretting about the disorder-fication of a common human experience. More and more researchers are raising alarms about “diagnosis creep,” which refers to the progressive loosening of the criteria a person has to meet to be diagnosed with a mental disorder or physical disease. “We are labelling more and more healthy people as sick and building bigger potential markets for those selling medicines,” writes the author of a 2016 paper in Psychological Inquiry.
Meanwhile, some experts who study burnout agree its current definitions and diagnostic criteria are nebulous. “There has been a great deal of variability and inconsistency in the measurement and conceptualization of burnout, which has made it challenging to be able to accurately evaluate and classify burnout,” says Elaine Cheung, a research assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “Currently, there is no established cutoff for diagnosing burnout, and there has been no clinical research that has been done to establish a diagnosis for dysfunctional levels of burnout.”
It’s also hard for researchers to untangle burnout from other work-related funks such as boredom or job dissatisfaction, or from related mental health disorders such as depression. “There is no doubt that mental health issues are on the rise and so is work-related stress — the question is whether burnout is actually on the rise,” says Torsten Voigt, a professor of sociology at Germany’s RWTH Aachen University. “As burnout is not clearly defined, it is challenging to count burnout cases.”
Voigt co-authored a 2017 review study on the mental state. “Even though burnout is one of the most widely discussed mental health problems in today’s society, it is still disputed,” he and his colleague wrote. The burnout studies to date have produced “problematic” results, they said, and the concept of burnout remains hazy. “Instead of clarifying and critically discussing the concept of burnout, most articles study the causes and associated factors, or measure the prevalence rates of a mental state that is not even properly defined,” they wrote. “This raises the question of whether all the studies that identify particular causes of burnout or measure the prevalence rates [of burnout] are actually investigating the same phenomenon.”
“We don’t go at a steady pace — we go at a fury and we run ourselves ragged.”
But while the formal definitions of burnout are still a bit wishy-washy, Voigt and others who study burnout, or work with people who experience it, say the current panic is not groundless. “Work-related stress is on the rise and there are several statistics that show that,” Voigt says. “Thus, one may say burnout is on the rise too.”
Experts say there are several factors that can help explain why this sometimes tough-to-define mental state is more commonplace today than in decades past. But addressing its causes is the greater challenge.
What is burnout?
The World Health Organization (WHO) formally recognized occupational burnout as a “syndrome” in May 2019, and the group included several predictable characteristics for the issue. These characteristics include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from work or a cynical or negative attitude towards work, and a drop in professional performance.
Some news outlets initially misreported WHO’s announcement as an acknowledgment that burnout is a medical condition — an understandable mistake, considering WHO has included burnout in its “International Disease Classification” (ICD) compendium. But WHO clarified its position, which is that burnout is a “phenomenon” driven by chronic unmanaged stress, and that it’s not an illness in and of itself.
WHO’s burnout characteristics closely map onto the diagnostic inventory developed by Christina Maslach, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who is one of the foremost burnout researchers in the world.
“Exhaustion is the central quality of burnout and the most obvious manifestation of this complex syndrome,” Maslach and her co-authors wrote in a 2001 paper in the Annual Review of Psychology.
But by itself, exhaustion does not amount to burnout. “Although exhaustion reflects the stress dimension of burnout, it fails to capture the critical aspects of the relationship people have with their work,” Maslach and her colleagues wrote. “Exhaustion is not something that is simply experienced — rather, it prompts actions to distance oneself emotionally and cognitively from one’s work, presumably as a way to cope with the work overload.”
Both WHO and Maslach stipulate that burnout’s symptoms are “work-related,” and that the term shouldn’t be applied to non-work contexts. If a person is questioning the impact or import of their professional tasks — and this cynicism is a new thing — then this, coupled with exhaustion, is indicative of burnout. On the other hand, if a person is feeling insipid toward just about everything, that could be a sign of depression or some other issue unrelated (or at least, not directly related) to work.
Northwestern University’s Cheung offers a little more clarity on burnout’s symptoms. She describes burnout-related exhaustion as “a state of lost energy, [or] feeling as if one’s emotional resources are depleted.” She also says feelings of “depersonalization” are central to burnout. By this, she means “a state of cynicism, callousness, or an unfeeling response toward oneself and others.”
Much of Cheung’s burnout research has concentrated on medical school students and physicians — groups who experience notoriously high rates of job-related stress. She says that, in some of these groups, burnout has at times been defined as experiencing symptoms of exhaustion or depersonalization “a few times a week or more.” These sorts of time- or frequency-based criteria are often used in differentiating clinical disorders — such as major depression — from “normal” or fleeting periods of disturbance. She also cites impaired functioning — something like the “errand paralysis” Petersen describes in her BuzzFeed piece — as another potential sign of burnout.
The way people live and work today is so decoupled from a happy, meaningful existence that it’s no wonder so many are expressing feelings of exhaustion or depersonalization.
However, experts say focusing too closely on an individual’s symptoms or experiences can make it seem like burnout is something that goes wrong with a person. This is “blaming the victim,” Cheung says, and it downplays or overlooks “the problems at the workplace or organizational level that contribute to burnout.”
“Burnout is caused by an individual’s exposure to chronic, job-related stress, and it’s important to draw attention to how aspects of an individual’s work and their relationship with their work may lead to burnout,” she says.
Other experts say the way people live and work today is so decoupled from a happy, meaningful existence that it’s no wonder so many are expressing feelings of exhaustion or depersonalization. “The other day I was looking into the windows of an office building here in New York, and office after office, floor after floor, all I could see were people sitting behind a desk, in front of a computer, and they’re there for eight or 10 hours a day every day,” says Miles Neale, a clinical instructor of psychology in integrative medicine and psychiatry at Weill-Cornell Medical College.
While the tedium of office work is nothing new, all-day, everyday computer work for huge numbers of Americans is a fairly recent and growing phenomenon. Neale points out that many of these same people will go home after work and spend what’s left of their day staring at more screens like TVs or laptops. “And we wonder why people are burned out and depressed?” he says. “This is a horrible existence masquerading as the apex of a civilized world.”
The drivers of burnout
Neale’s formal training is in Tibetan Buddhism and meditation-based psychotherapy. In his book Gradual Awakening, he explores the components of life that give it meaning and purpose. Burnout, he says, is a byproduct of cultural and paradigmatic problems with the way many people live.
“People get in earlier and work later, and many don’t take advantage of leave even when they’re entitled to it,” he says. “We do this because, in our secular society, money and power and prestige are the commodities to which we assign value, and we think if we work hard enough and climb the corporate ladder quickly enough, we’ll get these and they’ll validate all the work.” Invoking an old metaphor, but one that may be even more relevant now than when it was coined, he compares the way people today pursue these goals to a mouse on a treadmill. “We don’t go at a steady pace — we go at a fury and we run ourselves ragged,” he says.
While others who study burnout take a less philosophical view, many echo Neale’s sentiments about the fundamental problems with the structure of today’s workplaces and work cultures. Voigt says jobs or bosses that “optimize output” and ask employees to complete monotonous tasks in emotionally challenging and unrewarding situations are associated with higher levels of burnout.
Sanam Hafeez, a New York-based psychologist and an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, says “work-life imbalance” is another driver of burnout. “Most people used to [have] 9-to-5 [jobs], and people took one hour for lunch outside of the office,” she says. Now employees tend to eat lunch at their desks, and they may be working — or at least, in touch with work — at all hours of the day. “Before the internet and cellphones and email, people could actually go on vacation or take a sick day and be officially disconnected,” she says. “Now there is an expectation that people must be connected to work 24/7 no matter where they are in the world.”
Email is an easy target for blame, but UC Irvine’s Mark says it deserves whatever ire it draws. She’s published multiple studies on email and its relationship to job stress — much of it employing heart rate monitors and other tools that collect hard, biometric data. Her research has found that the more time a person spends on email, the higher their stress levels. “Even if you control for all the variables you can think of that might cause stress — job strain, chronic baseline stress level, work role, gender — if you monitor people when they go on email, you see their stress goes up. They go off [email], and their stress goes down.”
There’s little doubt that email — for all its benefits — meaningfully contributes to the average worker’s stress levels.
In addition to email, many workplaces have implemented instant chatting services like Slack, which allow workers to talk to their managers and colleagues constantly and immediately with little face time. While there’s less research on the impact of instant messaging services on mental health, it’s possible they cause similar stress.
Mark says that burnout is a response to “cumulative stress over time.” And based on her work, there’s little doubt that email — for all its benefits — meaningfully contributes to the average worker’s stress levels.
Research is still parsing the many other factors that likely promote burnout. Hafeez says long commutes in heavy traffic or toiling under a micromanaging boss are predictive of burnout. Exploding levels of student loan debt, reduced job security, the rise of the gig economy, the never-finished quality of many white-collar jobs, the isolation and solitary nature of modern life, and the decline of employer-sponsored pensions have also been cited as possible contributors.
What can be done?
With so many interlocking factors causing burnout, is there a way to fix it? Mark suggests some tried-and-true advice: cutting back on email or availing oneself of vacation time could help some people avoid or overcome burnout. There’s also evidence, albeit inconsistent, that exercise can help people reduce their levels of work-related fatigue.
That said, much of the research on treating or preventing burnout has focused on workplaces — how they can change in order to relieve the stress their employees experience. Mark says bosses who eschew evening or weekend emailing or Slacking, and who truly disconnect during vacations, can help set the right tone for their team members. Providing workers with more freedom and decision-making power — along with clearly defined and achievable goals — are also helpful bulwarks against burnout, research has found.
WHO, for its part, has announced plans to develop evidence-based guidelines on mental health in the workplace. And more and more employers and governments are acknowledging that changes are needed to help workers manage stress. Some countries, including France, have passed “right to disconnect” laws that make it illegal for employers to punish employees who fail to respond to emails or other communications outside of work hours. And New York City has considered similar measures.
However, fixing the broader issues contributing to burnout would involve deep and systemic shifts in U.S. politics, business, and culture. Americans, after all, have long prided themselves on their ability to outwork the rest of the world. “We have to come up with a holistic and multidimensional strategy for these things,” Neale says.