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Workplace Burnout (Part 1): Defining the Problem

Updated: Feb 5, 2023


Burnout has become a general way for people to describe their negative experiences at work. Part of the reason for this shorthand in terminology may be the power of the metaphor it creates. Burnout evokes images of an extinguished match - a match where only the charred wood remains. Burned-out matches have depleted their usefulness; they have nothing left to give. This mental imagery helps describe people's loss of meaning and utility when explaining their feelings of burnout.

We have frequently observed high levels of expressed burnout from employees in our work with organizations, and we are not alone in this finding. AFLAC recently completed its 2022-2023 AFLAC Workforces Report. The report identified that respondents in 2022 endorsed burnout levels higher than those from 2021. In fact, the current burnout levels in the report are equivalent to levels in 2020 (when the pandemic was most impactful). Researchers have also found concerning data related to the impacts of burnout.

The impact of burnout on individuals continues to be an area of scientific research. Renaud and Lacroix found burnout impacts "memory, attention, and executive functions...". In addition, research has found an association between burnout and mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety (AFLAC study, and Schonfeld & Bianchi). The negative implications of burnout are not limited to the individual, however. 

Burnout also has multiple negative impacts on organizations. These impacts include increased accidents, decreased attention, retention issues, and lower engagement and productivity. The research is clear on burnout's adverse effects on the individual and their community. Organizations and leaders, therefore, should be trained to recognize, understand, and intervene when signs of burnout manifest. This training would benefit both the individual and the organization. Organizations must realize that expecting burned-out individuals to innovate and stay engaged in their work is like expecting an extinguished match to ignite a bonfire.

We want to help organizations and leaders recognize burnout in their systems and provide tools to help mitigate the impacts. We believe that healthy workplaces create healthier people and that healthy people are better equipped to be more productive and engaged in their work. For this series, then, we are dedicating some time to exploring the concept of burnout. Specifically, we will look at the three factors that make up the experience of what people describe as burnout. The first aspect we will discuss is emotional exhaustion, which is the feeling that you do not have anything left to give. The second, depersonalization, describes a loss of empathy for others. Finally, the lack of personal accomplishment describes a person's experience where they do not feel their work has meaning for them anymore. 

After reading this series, we hope you will better understand the three factors involved in burnout, how to identify burnout in yourself and others, and what you can do to prevent or treat burnout. We hope this knowledge will be as informative and helpful for you as it has been for us in our work to create improved workplaces for everyone.


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