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Why Aren’t We Talking About Burnout?

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Creative Commons by Pedro Moura Pinheiro. Click on image for license and information.

In offices throughout the United States, workers are anxiously looking to the coming of Friday. For many of you—myself included—Monday meant a return to the office and a reinvestment in wage/paid labor. By this point in the week, you’ve hopefully hit your stride and are comfortably settled in your work week rhythms, and you’re probably looking forward to the weekend. But between the two of us, how engaged are you actually with your tasks? How attuned are you to the overall culture of the company? If you had to make the assessment for yourself, what would your response be?

According to a 2013 Gallup report just 13% of employees worldwide are actively invested in the success of their work-related tasks and are committed to the growth and development of the organizations that employ them. They’re outnumbered by disengaged employees by 2:1. The latter are emotionally disconnected and are less likely to be productive.

If we bring these numbers into perspective locally, Gallup’s data suggests only 30% of the American workforce identifies itself as engaged. The remaining 70% can cost companies up to $550 billion each year; they’re more likely to steal from their companies, have higher rates of absenteeism, and drive customers away. It’s more than a case of the Monday-morning blues. These numbers suggest that burnout is on the rise—and spreading beyond the typical high-stress professions it has long been associated with.

Burnout is a work-related disorder that results from prolonged experiences of stress, which can stem from work overload, role ambiguity, a lack of autonomy, and low social support. It’s characterized by a lengthy list of symptoms including exhaustion, disinterest, boredom, heightened irritability, feeling unappreciated, loss of concentration and feelings of detachment. And if allowed to fester, burnout can result in depression, substance abuse, and make you more susceptible to illnesses overall.

Research published in PLoS ONE identifies three types of burnout:

  • The frenetic type, for example, will throw themselves further into their work in the pursuit of success, often working past the point of exhaustion. Their sense of being overloaded might grow but they’ll continue to work, often at the expense of health and personal relationships.
  • The under-challenged type emerges in monotonous conditions where there is little room for growth and personal development. With time, they’ll grow bored and indifferent.
  • The worn-out type simply gives up when faced with stressful conditions. They may neglect tasks by failing to acknowledge the work that needs to be completed.

These types give us a way to see the nuances of burnout beyond their general symptoms. It’s more than just apathy. These types may also reveal a deeper connection between burnout and coping strategies which, the authors argue, could give us clues on how to shape corporate and wellness policies down the line.

Burnout seems to be a clear indicator that something is wrong. Even if we don’t want to acknowledge that we’re facing a tough situation, the symptoms we’re experiencing are signals that we’re unhappy and our employment situation is unbalanced. In this light, burnout itself is may be a coping mechanism. However, when it’s framed against more general coping trends (like cognitive or behavioral coping, cognitive or behavioral avoidance, emotion-focused coping or substance use), burnout looks as though it may be a progressive culmination of ineffective coping strategies.

For example, the frenetic type is inclined toward more active coping strategies, including being problem-focused. They will look to solve issues, which will likely continue to grow in circumstances of chronic stress and lead to feelings of being overloaded and degrees of disengagement. The under-challenged type can be caught in a loop of avoidance as they erect a barrier of emotional detachment, which further contributes to a sense of being devalued and under-stimulated. And the worn-out type may find that disengagement strategies encourage neglect by creating and maintaining distance between the individual and work. When these strategies fail to work in chronic stress conditions, they can quickly escalate to enable burnout symptoms.

While the authors of the PLoS study note that the common factor for developing burnout is the degree of passivity exhibited by the individual, none of this is to say that employment context is not important. If you’re dealing with high degrees of stress, it’s highly likely you’ll experience some degree of burnout at some point. But the bigger question is why don’t we seem to be talking about it?

Search for “burnout” and the majority of the news results you’ll found are Canadian or based in the EU. The scarce recognition of burnout in the United States is noticeable and what exists reads like the same general piece over and over again. We’re dancing around the topic despite the potentially serious impact of burnout because there is also be a degree of stigma in the assignment, particularly in a market where jobs are still somewhat difficult to come by and employees may feel pressure to perform (or appear as if they are). Burnout suggests you don’t fit with the company—that you can’t cut it at work, in life, at anything. It implies that you’re not a prime candidate.

Denial, which is a huge factor in the progression of burnout, is also at work on a larger social level: we acknowledge the problem with general self-help articles, but place the burden of diagnosis and treatment largely on the individual with suggested tips for identifying and managing symptoms. This overlooks the ways in which organizational and social structures can create a setting for burnout. Organizations are asking employees to “do more with less” which means larger workloads and managers who are stretched too thin themselves to provide support, guidance, and mentorship where needed. Between workload and connectivity, it’s virtually impossible to turn off—and if you do, there may be a slight nagging sensation of “someone may need me.” This creates the right conditions for frenetic, under-challenged, and worn-out types to take root and spread.

The nature of the available literature, as well as the large number of reportedly disengaged employees, hint that we may be well on our way to normalizing burnout. And maybe that’s unavoidable. But perhaps if it is normalized, we’ll begin to think about it beyond the individual and the impact on profit.

So remember that question at the beginning? If you had to assess your engagement, what would your answer be?

You might also like:
What does it mean to be an introvert online?”
Creeping Connectivity: Work and Life in a Hyper-Connected World
Labor Day: It’s About Time
Why are we signing our emails with “Thank You”?
Standards of healthcare in your medicine cabinet


Montero-Marin, J., Prado-Abril, J., Piva Demarzo, M., Gascon, S., & García-Campayo, J. (2014). Coping with Stress and Types of Burnout: Explanatory Power of Different Coping Strategies PLoS ONE, 9 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0089090

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. lynnoc 4:58 pm 05/8/2014

    In psychology, medicine, being a cop on a city police force, or other service-type industries there are frequent discussions about “burnout,” and the erroneous conclusion that burn-out is the result of “secondary trauma” or stress in the line of duty, direct patient care, direct experiences being a cop on duty. In an informal study of policemen and when they’re headed for burn out, it turned out that rather than being related to “direct service” in each and every case, it was station politics. Something political was going on with the higher ups and other workers that had negative implications for the individual cop experiencing burn out. The same holds true for clinicians (mental health or medicine related). The people headed for burn out–it turns out they are in the midst of some political trouble in the agency, where someone(s) are trying to push them out, making their lives horrible, dysregulating them emotionally. In the worst-case scenarios, it’s related to “workplace bullying,” where co-workers –usually under the direction of a “leader” (often a jealous co-worker/leader of the gang) with administrative approval –either direct or indirect by way of ignoring the situation. It’s never (or almost never) direct patient/client care.

    This has to be true in larger organizations as well. This article points to that, without saying it –speaking to troubles in the larger organization. What it leaves out is the very personally disturbing treatment a worker is receiving from a boss or direct supervisor, or even co-workers in a situation of workplace bullying. Burnout isn’t the result of the work per se, it’s the result of political power struggles where someone, or groups of people, are putting a worker down, treating him/her with disrespect, or otherwise engaged in systematic efforts at dysregulating him/her emotionally.

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  2. 2. SJCrum 7:15 pm 05/8/2014

    As for this article, I actually lived in Lincoln, Nebraska where the founder of the Gallup Pole actually started his company. In fact, I actually designed and built the building they first occupied there, and very likely do still now.
    But, the fantastic thing was that while I was building that building I found out that their company philosophy, as far as how to lead a company and to help it succeed the best, was very close to the exact same that I had learned and always believed myself.
    Their main thing was to help all workers like their jobs greatly, and for each of them to always be extremely considerate toward all other workers, and to even compliment them for successes that others were seen to make. In other words, they were encouraged to be not only successful, but to congratulate others.
    The basis for this was that the founder of the company was a previous professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska, and he was using psych’d thinking in totally developing and leading companies in the best psychological way possible.
    In my career, one day I was walking through a cubical area, and this young male who didn’t get much respect from anyone else. told me that he had a really good idea. I, who TRULY do like tremendously great ideas, asked him what it was, and after he told me, I said without any hesitation at all, and because I really liked it, “Now, THAT, is cool.”
    The point of this is that on that day, after seeing the brilliant smile on his face, I learned the enormous affect a simple positive thing like that could cause. And, in my career where I was later building multi-million dollar buildings and where they often needed to be built in nearly record-breaking time, I actually broke a company record in one location and accomplished something in another that had the response of, “this is the best thing has been done in this company for twenty-five years.”
    So, the simple thing of knowing what to psychologically say, and when to say it, can be totally-out-of-this-world successful.
    As for boredom at work, work can be made to be terrifically fantastic, and rewarding, if you can look for things that can make it fun, and also have the ability to think outside the box, and maybe even be the best worker the company could ever have in a zillion years.
    As for that, I was just twenty-three and just a common laborer working out on a building site so I could see how the work is done right on the job. At one point, I got sent to a location that was where a crew was patching a concrete floor. I won’t tell you the whole story, but because I was drilling holes in that concrete floor so rapidly and nearly causing the drill to totally fall apart, the company owner where we were working came over and told me, “You have drilled more holes here in two days than everyone else did in two weeks.” I told him that I was just getting experience on the job and was actually going to be working in the main office. He said, ” I mighta’ known.” The point of this is the very next day, all of the other workers on the crew were removed, and he wanted just me to do it all.
    In the end, I learned on that job that I could beat anyone in the world as far as working with some real determination and digging in.
    Anyway, boredom at work can be helped by both of these truly good ways of thinking.

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  3. 3. SJCrum 5:37 pm 05/9/2014

    By the way, the founder of the Gallup Poll had a special psychological thing that he used to inspire his employees, and that was named “The Dipper and the Bucket”. The point of this was that each employee, or other person, was like a bucket that is partially filled with water, and the higher the water level got in the bucket represented the person’s level of positive feelings about his, or her, jobs.
    Also, a person can add, or reduce, the water in anyone else’s bucket. By giving a person a compliment, or any positive thing, then the other person’s water is increased. So, the dipper part is simply using a dipper to add, or dip out water from anyone’s bucket. An example that he used, if I can do justice to it, is that if you tell a female that she has a run in her nylons, and she then tells you she isn’t wearing any, that then, takes a bit of water out of her bucket.
    The point though is that the dipper and bucket thing is tremendously good at showing the easy point involved. And, in business and truly motivating people for extremely great success in their work, it is a truly great method to use.
    So, I wanted to share his truly good psychological tool.

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