Burnout didn’t exist 50 years ago. Stress, exhaustion, and cynicism did — often all at once — but people didn’t know what word to use to describe that overwhelming swirl of emotions. At the time, as psychologist Christina Maslach, Ph.D. studied how people coped with emotional arousal, she watched her subjects cry, yell, and rage about one specific, very taboo feeling: intense unhappiness at work. She knew it was a subject she had to explore.
“My research started from the ground up from people’s experience,” Maslach, now a pioneer in burnout research and a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Inverse. “I wasn’t starting top down from theory or model. It was a really particular kind of phenomenon that was causing people to ask for help.”
Today, for better or for worse, burnouts are nearly synonymous with working. According to the American Institute of Stress, unexpected absenteeism caused by burned-out employees cost American companies $602 per worker, per year — which adds up to a total of $300 billion to U.S. businesses annually.
As the concept of burnouts made its way into the cultural lexicon, Maslach published numerous books on the subject, including The Truth About Burnout, which she co-authored with Deakin University psychologist Michael Leiter, Ph.D. He describes burnout as a “reflection of fundamental challenges in life,” which largely occur at the workplace, where people try to fulfill themselves and pursue core values. When those efforts fall short, he says, the resulting frustration can be devastating.
However, Maslach and Leiter argue, that doesn’t mean it’s insurmountable.
What is burnout?
Burnout is typically defined by psychologists as a syndrome of chronic exhaustion, low efficacy, and either depersonalization or cynicism, Leiter tells Inverse. What makes burnout unique is that it’s a combination of other recognized syndromes, like chronic exhaustion and acute stress disorder. The sense of detachment that emerges is what Maslach describes as the “take this job and shove it” kind of feeling.
“It happens when you’re backing off from what you probably once loved and committed to doing in working,” says Maslach. “You’ve lost that feeling, you’ve lost that motivation, and you’re simultaneously feeling cynical about the work and bad about the work you are actually doing.”
The defining way to tell if a person is in the throes of a burnout is if they are feeling that way often — multiple times a week on an ongoing basis.
How do you get over burnout?
Burned-out people can improve their situation, Leiter says, but he admits that what they can do is limited. One important thing to do is to “maintain energy throughout.” This means pacing your activity at work to avoid exhaustion, continuing to do healthy things, like exercise and sleeping well, and carving out “recovery time” with something as simple as a mid-day walk.
He also recommends that people “maintain fulfillment” by reflecting on core values and personal commitments, exercising autonomy at work, and, importantly, maintaining good workplace relationships, which are especially key to keeping burnout at bay.
“One of the things we know from tons and tons of studies is that good, powerful social relationships are critical for long-term well-being and mental health,” says Maslach. “People who make life fun and who can give you advice. You’re there for them, and they have your back, too.”
What can companies do to help their employees avoid burnout?
Whether or not a company is the right fit for an employee, says Maslach, comes down to how it addresses the “six areas of the work environment.” If you’re feeling burned out, ask yourselves about these six things:
- The workload: Is there a balance between the demands and the resources to meet those demands? If not, that’s something that the company needs to adjust.
- Control: Does the employee have a sense of autonomy and control? To keep burnout away, it’s important for employees to feel like they have a certain amount of discretion and choice about how to do things.
- Rewards: Does the employee feel a sense of recognition? “It turns out it’s not so much about money but about people actually caring about what you do,” says Maslach. “This is positive feedback — knowing that people are glad you were there and that you can handle your job.”
- Unity: Are there social relationships at work? This goes back to the idea that a socially toxic workplace is one that will breed burnout. When employers curtail company culture, says Maslach, they are doing themselves a disservice.
- Fairness: Is there a sense of ethics in the workplace? People who answer no to this are typically unhappy with who gets promoted and who gets new opportunities.
- Meaning: Am I doing things that I consider meaningful and important? When it comes down to it, if the answer is no, people will likely feel a sense of discontent.
If burnout continues, should you quit?
Unfortunately, there’s no real answer to this question, says Maslach. In general, the research suggests it has more to do with the job than a person’s individual characteristics, but the better answer, she says, is that burnout happens when the job becomes a mismatch for the person. Doing some soul searching with the six areas of the work environment typically reveals to a person whether or not their job is still a good fit.
“Sometimes quitting your job can be a good solution, because you’re getting out of an environment which is not a good fit for you,” says Maslach. “Maybe that next job will be a better match — but it could also be that you’re just jumping from one frying pan into another. It’s not a 100 percent guarantee that it’ll be better; it could actually get worse. It’s difficult to know whether the person can’t take care of their burnout, or if it’s the job that’s robbing them of what makes them happy.”
These are important questions to consider, especially now, when Maslach says she is seeing more intense cases of burnout than ever before. A big contributing factor, she explains, is that people don’t feel comfortable discussing the changes they need to happen because they’re too afraid that their work will deal with their problems by firing them. This leads people to not say “no” as much as they should, or talk about their problems, because they fear that’s exposing weakness.
“We Americans are a highly individualistic society and very good at point the finger at the individual and saying, ‘Why won’t you shape up?’” says Maslach. “And often times people will say, ‘Why should I let anybody know that I have doubts when I know I won’t get any kind of emotional relief?’”
The burnout isn’t worth it, studies show. It’s better to get the help you need now rather than trying to get help after you’ve already gone over the edge.