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Workplace Burnout Is Now an 'Occupational Phenomenon'

World Health Organization says burnout may deserve medical attention

A man sitting at a desk with his head down.

​Workplace burnout is something employers have heard much about in recent years, with surveys and research reporting time and again that it has become nearly epidemic.

Now the World Health Organization (WHO) has identified workplace burnout as an "occupational phenomenon" that may warrant medical attention.

While not classified as a disease or a medical condition, workplace burnout is nonetheless a well-defined syndrome, according to WHO.

"Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed," the organization said. Burnout has three characteristics, according to WHO: feelings of depleted energy or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one's job or negativity or cynicism about one's job, and reduced professional efficacy.

About a decade ago, WHO identified burnout as a problem but didn't define it as a syndrome that could be diagnosed and treated, according to Sherry Benton, founder of TAO Connect, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based mental health counseling company. "What's different is that it now defines burnout as a syndrome only related to work, not to school or [concerns] at home."

Are Today's Workers More Burned Out Than Generations Ago?

Today's laws are designed to guarantee many workers minimum wages, safe conditions, breaks, certain types of leave, overtime pay, and protection from harassment and discrimination. 

Why then would today's workers—more so than, say, less-protected workers of decades past—suffer so from burnout that WHO is recognizing burnout as a workplace phenomenon?

There are a few schools of thought.

One is that workers of previous generations also experienced burnout, and, while politicians may have taken note, medical professionals were slower to do so.

"In the early Industrial Revolution, people's lives really were pretty miserable," Benton said. She noted that, before the advent of unions, strikes, child labor laws, minimum-wage laws and mandatory safe working conditions, workers often got sick or died because of the long hours, six-day workweeks, and unsanitary or unsafe conditions at work. Many worked outside during all seasons, exposed to rain, snow, and extreme heat and cold.

"During the era when Teddy Roosevelt was president and we had the movement toward unionization and limiting people's work hours, that was really a sociopolitical response to burnout's being pervasive in our industrialized world."

Another theory for why WHO has issued recent guidance on burnout is that many current employees can't appreciate the results of their work. The farmer of a century ago may have worked longer hours, toiled harder physically and had little time off, but he could see the fruits of his labor in a healthy harvest. A computer programmer, however, may work long hours behind a computer screen but see no connection between her work and her company's mission.

"This is an interesting paradox," said Courtney Bigony, director of people science at 15Five, which helps companies identify and avoid employee burnout. "Today, we have great benefits—unlimited time off, dry cleaning on site, onsite yoga. But job satisfaction is so low. People don't feel valued, and they're not happy."

Feeling Powerless

Steve O'Brian is vice president of marketing for Shiftboard, a Seattle-based company that sells employee scheduling software. His research indicates that burnout could be the product of feeling powerless to balance work with life. Seventy-seven percent of the hourly workers polled in one of his surveys reported work/life balance as being important to job satisfaction.

"A lot of [burnout] derives from workers feeling a lack of control or influence over their time," he said. "This is likely truer with hourly workers than nonhourly workers. The research highlights that for hourly employees, scheduling [that allows for work/life balance] has been underestimated as a leading cause of job satisfaction, retention, productivity and wellness."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

Do Managers Know How to Help?

Bigony, O'Brian and Benton warn that these symptoms might signal burnout:

  • Unusually low energy or fatigue.
  • Reduced performance or productivity.
  • Uncharacteristic impatience or shortness with others.
  • Faltering relationships with colleagues.
  • Sudden micromanaging.
  • Increased absenteeism.  

Yet how many managers, after recognizing signs of burnout, offer to reduce an employee's workload, give the employee more time off, or try to find that burned-out worker a position better suited to him or her?

"That doesn't often happen," Benton acknowledged.

hared Responsibility

Part of the responsibility for addressing burnout falls on managers, Bigony said.

"Ask yourself, 'Are people in the right roles? Do they know what work makes them happy?' If I had to pick the biggest adjustment for [alleviating] burnout, it would be helping people understand what they do best and putting them in roles where they can use their strengths."

And part of the responsibility falls on employees to learn what type of work motivates them so they can avoid burnout.

"The employee should come up with a proposal, too," Bigony said, "[one that] would be good for both the employee and the organization."

Benton describes a psychologist who worked for her for many years and "saw client after client for years, but her love was really meditation and positive psychology approaches to well-being.

"She told me she was getting fried doing the same thing all day, every day, so we changed her schedule" to reduce her client load, Benton said. "She created a course at the university on mindful meditation and alternative approaches to wellness. It was a tremendous success."

One way to keep tabs on employee burnout is to conduct regular employee engagement surveys—not just annually, but perhaps once a quarter or even once a month.

"It's important not to do these surveys once or twice a year, because that can be too late," Bigony said. "Even if these surveys are anonymous, you can see if a manager has a team of disengaged workers … and you can address that."


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