As you read this article, I’m sure some of you are feeling stressed due to your daily work life. Some of you might be thinking ‘Stressed? I’m burned-out!’. Burnout has gained a lot of traction in recent years. Due to this increased focus, burnout has become the latest buzzword in the workplace. I recently came across a report by Deloitte on the supposed prevalence of burnout. According to the survey, 77% of respondents reported having experienced burnout on their current job with 51% reporting they have experienced burnout more than once. That’s a lot of burned-out individuals! In understanding that there is a significant overlap between burnout and depression, these statistics made me wonder if all respondents had actually experienced burnout.
Several research studies, published in peer-reviewed journals (Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, European Psychiatry, Journal of Clinical Psychology, Clinical Psychology Review, and the International Journal of Stress Management), have highlighted the depressive nature of burnout. More specifically, the researchers make the argument that burnout is really another form of depression; work induced depression to be exact. Based on Deloitte’s findings that would mean that 77% of employees are suffering or have suffered from depression.
Interestingly, this doesn’t parallel the statistics on depression in the United States (8.1% of adults experience depression). One explanation is that self-report measures, such as the one most likely utilised in Deloitte’s Burnout Survey, can produce misleading results. This is especially the case when employees have varying opinions about burnout, which may or may not be reflective of what burnout actually is. Another explanation is that since the burnout-depression overlap isn’t a mainstream idea, let alone universally accepted by the medical community, current statistics on depression don’t accurately capture it’s true prevalence.
There is merit to this explanation especially when many people tend not to disclose their mental health issues, let alone in the workplace. Personally, I think there’s another reason; the overuse – and often misuse – of the term burnout. Due to the term’s prevalence, many claim they are or have been burned-out when in reality they might just be stressed or dissatisfied with their jobs. I’m not alone in this assessment. In the June edition of Educational Leadership, Dr Doris Santoro wrote an article questioning whether teachers are actually experiencing burnout or just experiencing demoralisation in the workplace. Santoro argues that demoralisation is much more prevalent than burnout and that burnout is ‘commonly invoked to explain teacher’s dissatisfaction with their work’.
Signs and symptoms
Due to the significant burnout-depression overlap, it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of depression in order to better determine whether you or a colleague has actually experienced burnout. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, depressive symptoms vary from person to person but will be present for at least two weeks. If you haven’t experienced any of the symptoms below you probably haven’t experienced burnout.
- Sadness, anxiety, or feeling ’empty’ of any mood
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness and/or pessimism
- Loss of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyed hobbies and activities
- Neglecting care of oneself, such as not bathing, grooming, or eating
- Fatigue or decreased energy level, moving or speaking slowly
- Mood swings, such as irritability
- Restlessness or having trouble sitting still
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Difficulty following through with tasks, being unable to perform well at work
- Increase in pain sensitivity
- Difficulty sleeping, waking very early in the morning, or sleeping more than usual
- Increased or decreased appetite, large changes in the body weight
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause or that do not ease even with targeted treatment
- Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
Assessing possible burnout
Since burnout is actually work-induced depression, it is crucial that employers and employees learn how to properly assess it. Although, there are no diagnostic criteria available for assessing burnout (like there is for depression), a tool I find particularly useful is the Stress-APGAR Barometer. The Stress-APGAR Barometer focuses on five areas of stress overload. If a colleague demonstrates negative changes in one or more of the following areas, one must then consider whether the changes could become problematic if ignored.
- Appearance: How does the person look (overly tired, unkempt, loss and/or weight gain, indication of substance use, etc.)?
- Performance: Is there a decrease in performance, especially over time? Have they become a workaholic?
- Growth Tension: Does the person seem bored or overwhelmed? Do they seem de-motivated by their work?
- Affect Control: Are emotional outbursts or mood swings (high/low) visible?
- Relationships: Is there a deterioration in the quality of work relationships? Have they socially withdrawn?
Importance of understanding the true nature of burnout
Understanding what actually constitutes burnout is of the utmost importance because in over using the term we dilute the seriousness of the issue. This by no means lessens the significance of the workplace stress you might have experienced, but serves to differentiate between appropriate solutions and strategies for general workplace stress and burnout. Since burnout differs significantly from general workplace stress it may require individuals to seek professional help (i.e., physicians, therapists, etc.). Therefore, employers should understand these differences in order to properly assist employees experiencing burnout.
Clemente Diaz is currently Associate Director of Baruch College Now, a dual enrolment programme within the City University of New York. He is an adjunct faculty member at the CUNY School of Professional Studies where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses related to Industrial/Organisational Psychology. Clemente is a member of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology and the Society for Occupational Health Psychology.