Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice

Exploring the human condition.

Why Aren’t We Talking About Burnout?


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?


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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

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

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