What Is Burnout

What is Burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion typically brought on by chronic stress in the workplace (Melamed, 2006) and in non-occupational caring roles, such as caring for a family member who is ill (Gérain & Zech, 2019). According to the American Psychological Association (n.d.) dictionary, burnout “results from performing at a high level until stress and tension take their toll.”

Burnout has three features:

  1. Exhaustion: feeling emotionally drained, fatigued, and overwhelmed
  2. Cynicism: psychological distancing and a negative outlook towards your role, colleagues, and/or the person/people you are caring for.
  3. Inefficacy: reduced feelings of personal accomplishment and reduced performance

If you are experiencing burnout, you may have diminished motivation; have more difficulty managing your emotions; have difficulties thinking, concentrating, and making decisions; have problems with sleep; and have physical complaints such as headaches, muscle tension, and gastrointestinal problems.

What Causes Burnout?

Research on burnout has identified six key factors that contribute to the development of burnout (Maslach 2017; Maslach & Leiter, 2016):

1) Workload: Your capacity to meet the demands of your job or your caring role becomes depleted if your work is too difficult and/or too much in quantity for the resources you have available (e.g., time, skill, support). If this is a condition that is chronic, without opportunity for rest, recovery, and restoration of balance, then your risk of developing burnout increases.

2) Control: Feeling as though you do not have control within the context of your job increases your risk of burnout out. You may feel that you are not able to impact decisions made about your work, that you lack autonomy in your role, and that you cannot access the resources that you need to meet the expectations of your role.

3) Reward: You are at greater risk of developing burnout if your work is not recognized or appropriately rewarded. This may mean that you are not paid enough for your work, that your work is not acknowledged, or that you do not feel personally gratified by the work you have done.

4) Community: The relationships you have with others at work are also important for protecting you from or making you more vulnerable to developing burnout. If your relationships are not supportive, lack trust, and involve unresolved conflict, burnout is more likely to develop.

5) Fairness: If you feel that you or others in the context of your work are not treated fairly and equitably, you may develop feelings of cynicism and anger that contribute to the development of burnout.

6) Values: You are more likely to develop burnout if your ideals and motivations for doing the work conflict with the ideals and motivations of the organization. Doing something that is important and meaningful to you, and that you care about, can act as a buffer for burnout, allowing you to cope with stress for longer before burning out.

Is it Burnout or Depression?

Many studies have found that burnout and depression are highly related and the two share symptoms, such as fatigue or loss of energy, sleep problems, and difficulty with thinking, concentrating, or making decisions (Koutsimani et al., 2019). You may find it difficult to determine whether you are burnt out or if you are experiencing clinical depression, also called a major depressive episode.

A major depressive episode is a period of at least two weeks during which someone experiences low mood or loss of interest or pleasure in activities for most of the day, nearly every day. During that same time, they experience at least four of the following symptoms:

  • changes in appetite or weight
  • insomnia or oversleeping nearly every night
  • physical restlessness or slowing (such as speaking or moving more slowly than usual) nearly every day
  • fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day
  • feelings of worthlessness or guilt, difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
  • recurrent thoughts of death or suicide or the making of a suicide plan or attempt.

Burnout has been distinguished from depression by the fact that symptoms of burnout are specific to one setting or situation (e.g., work or caring for a loved one; Koutsimani et al., 2019). Depression, on the other hand, is pervasive and context-free. With burnout, symptoms improve or subside when the triggering stress is improved or removed (e.g., changes in work demands, taking a vacation, leaving your job). In contrast, although a specific stressor may lead to the initial development of a major depressive episode, depression can persist even after that stressor has gone away.

What can I do about burnout?

It is very important to address burnout. If left alone, burnout can lead to more serious mental and physical health problems (Melamed, 2006). An important first step to treating burnout is to identify which of the six key factors, described above, are contributing to your burnout.

If you are struggling with burnout, you may find that doing the following is helpful:

Advocate for change

If it is safe for you to do so, try talking to your employer about your concerns. You and your employer may be able to find a solution together. Alternatively, if your burnout stems from an informal caring role, reflect on how you can insert more opportunities to rest and recover and how you may be able to lighten your load by asking others for help.

Set boundaries

Protect your personal time so that you have time to relax and recharge. This may include, stepping away from your computer and not engaging in work discussions during lunch; logging out of your work e-mail during off hours; setting consistent work hours; limiting or not engaging in overtime work; communicating reasonable timelines for assigned work; and, when possible, saying no to extra work or optional request.

Take Breaks

However possible, take breaks from your work or care role. This may include protected lunch times, short breaks throughout the day, going on vacation (if you can), or, if necessary, requesting a leave of absence.

Nurture relationships

If you can, try to connect with people that you work with. This may involve checking in to see how a colleague is doing or going for coffee or tea during a break. This can help you feel less isolated and alone in your experience and to foster a sense of community and support.

Move your body

Research shows that regular physical activity can improve the body’s physiological response to stress and may therefore act to protect mental health (Hegberg & Tone, 2015). Find ways to move your body and get your heart rate up. Maybe you would like to sign up for fitness classes or a casual sport league, lift weights at the gym, go for brisk walks, or play with your kids at the park.

Engage in relaxing activities

Do activities that you find calming such as deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, taking a hot bath, reading a book, taking a leisurely walk, spending time in nature. Engaging in activities that are calming can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that helps us recover from stress.

Seek Support

If you’re concerned about your symptoms and want help coping with stress and recovery from burnout, consider seeking professional help. A psychologist can help you to identify the cause of your burnout and help you to develop mental and physical coping skills.


American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Just-world hypothesis. In APA dictionary of psychology. Retrieved September 24, 2022, from https://dictionary.apa.org/burnout.

Gérain, P., & Zech, E. (2019). Informal caregiver burnout? Development of a theoretical framework to understand the impact of caregiving. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1748.

Hegberg, N. J., & Tone, E. B. (2015). Physical activity and stress resilience: Considering those at-risk for developing mental health problems. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 8, 1-7.

Koutsimani, P., Montgomery, A., & Georganta, K. (2019). The relationship between burnout, depression, and anxiety: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in psychology, 284.

Maslach, C. (2017). Finding solutions to the problem of burnout. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 69(2), 143.

Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World psychiatry, 15(2), 103-111.

Melamed, S., Shirom, A., Toker, S., Berliner, S., & Shapira, I. (2006). Burnout and risk of cardiovascular disease: evidence, possible causal paths, and promising research directions. Psychological bulletin, 132(3), 327.

Dr. Lindsay Rubinfeld

Dr. Lindsay Rubinfeld provides psychological and neuropsychological assessment and treatment services. She works with individuals dealing with anxiety, depression, grief, insomnia, adjustment to chronic health conditions, stress and burnout. She provides cognitive remediation to individuals with acquired brain injury and treatment for concussion with persistent symptoms. Her approach is evidence-based, empathic, collaborative, and tailored to her clients’ unique goals and needs.
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