What is burnout?

Shot of a young female doctor looking tired while working in a busy hospital
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Most people will experience stressful or challenging periods in their careers, but when that stress becomes long-term, it can be physically and emotionally draining. This phenomenon is known as burnout.

A 2015 survey by Deloitte found that more than three-quarters of U.S. adults (77%) have experienced burnout in their current role, while half of millennials have resigned from a position due to feeling burned out. 

But burnout is not an official diagnosis, said Jeremy Jamieson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in New York. “It's a more normative experience of being overwhelmed for long periods of time rather than a psychiatric disorder,” he told Live Science. 

In 2019, burnout was included in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and was classified as an “occupational phenomenon” as opposed to a medical condition. The ICD-11 definition states that burnout is the result of “chronic workplace stress” and can lead to energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job and reduced professional efficacy.

According to the charity Mental Health UK, common signs of burnout include feeling tired or drained for an extended period of time, a feeling of helplessness, being trapped and/or defeated, excessive and debilitating self-doubt, and procrastination.

What causes burnout?

Burnout can occur when a person experiences long-term stress in their job, according to Mental Health UK.

However, Jamieson said that a scenario liable to cause burnout in one person is not necessarily going to trigger the same response in someone else.

“Psychologically, the primary processes [involved in burnout] seem to be cognitive appraisals,” he said. “When we're presented with demands — a work assignment or job interview, for example — we appraise whether we possess the resources to meet those demands. If we repeatedly appraise that our resources cannot meet demands, burnout can occur.” 

Professor Jeremy Jamieson
Jeremy Jamieson

Jeremy Jamieson is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. He received his doctorate from Northeastern University in 2009. The primary focus of his work is to understand how experiences of stress impact decisions, emotions, and performance, and how stress responses can be optimized to promote resilience in the face of stressors. 

These appraisal processes, and factors such as mental resilience, also help explain why the same demands can lead one person to burnout while another can be perfectly fine, Jamieson said.

Can burnout be diagnosed?

While the WHO recognises burnout as an occupational phenomenon, it isn’t currently included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), used by clinics and psychiatrists in the U.S. to diagnose psychiatric illnesses. 

Jamieson is, however, adamant that the issue of burnout is far from trivial, and is something that needs to be taken incredibly seriously.

“It seems as though burnout is on the uptick recently, as are a myriad of other anxiety disorders,” he said. “There are many reasons why this is happening, from social media to cultural shifts in work expectations, to maladaptive beliefs about stress perpetuated by our culture.”

All of which begs the question: can burnout be avoided or at the very least mitigated? 

“There are many methods for developing resilience and helping to address burnout,” Jamieson said. He said that employers have a vital role to play in ensuring that members of staff feel challenged and motivated in the workplace, with outlets — such as lunch breaks, walks or meetings outside the office — should they start to feel burnt out.

“Without proper supportive tools, [workers] are more likely to feel overwhelmed when they need to perform regardless of how many relaxation techniques they've been taught,” he said.

Outside of work, getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet and having supportive relationships can all help to reduce the risk of burnout, according to Mental Health UK.

Joe Phelan
Live Science Contributor

Joe Phelan is a journalist based in London. His work has appeared in VICE, National Geographic, World Soccer and The Blizzard, and has been a guest on Times Radio. He is drawn to the weird, wonderful and under examined, as well as anything related to life in the Arctic Circle. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Chester.