Chapter Two: What is Burnout?

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Despite only becoming a household name in the past decade, burnout has been around for nearly 50 years. Well, chances are burnout existed significantly longer than just the 21st century, but the actual term “occupational burnout” was coined in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger.

 A German-born American psychologist, Freudenberger held a variety of occupations in his day: practitioner, theoretician, author, editor, you name it. But of all his occupations, Freudenberger is widely known for one thing: investigating occupational burnout. 

Freudenberger used burnout to describe the consequences of severe stress and high expectations among “helping professionals,” such as doctors or nurses.1 Today, the term “burnout” can apply to any professional, from celebrities to career-driven employees and stay-at-home parents. In most cases, burnout refers to a severe stress condition that leads to intense emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion. 

Beyond general fatigue, occupational burnout makes it difficult to manage daily responsibilities and connect with loved ones. Though not considered a mental condition, such as clinical depression, feelings of overwhelming sadness, anxiety, and depression-like symptoms can arise. To better understand what it is, first examine what causes the onset of burnout.

What are the Causes of Occupational Burnout? 

Repeated exposure to high levels of stress is the most common contributor to burnout. This could be why Freudenberger first associated the condition with first responders or medical personnel. However, it’s not just doctors and nurses that are under stress daily.  

“Right now, a decade after the smartphone, we’re at an inflection point, one in which technology, as well as enabling many wonderful things in our lives, is fueling the stress and burnout epidemic. We’re addicted to our devices and they are harsh taskmasters, mining our attention and our focus and keeping us in a permanent state of heightened stress and expectation,” Arianna Huffington, Founder and CEO, said.2

“According to a recent survey, over 70 percent of Americans sleep with their phones next to them. And during the day, we check them an average of 150 times a day. And, as practically everybody I meet as I travel around the world tells me, this just isn’t sustainable.”

Couple in laying in bed while woman is sleeping and man is awake checking his cellphone contributing to occupational burnout

Consider sales professionals. The constant pressure to perform and incessant communication could be enough to drive anyone up the wall. Or think about your marketing friends, who monitor their KPIs like a hawk. 

Another great example would be your friends who just had a baby and are juggling parenthood, careers, and their own mental health. Mothers and fathers burnout, your career idols burnout, and you can burnout, too.

Aside from the type of profession, another commonality in occupational burnout cases are shared personality traits. Those who feel like they must be in control at all times are more susceptible to burnout, especially in remote work scenarios where direct reports or teammates cannot be micromanaged. Perfectionist and “Type A” personalities also increase the chance of burnout. 

Those with perfectionist personalities will never complete a task with anything less with 110 percent. “Type A” personalities, who are generally more ambitious, competitive, and detail-oriented, will approach each task with all engines revved. Though these character traits aren’t negative in and of themselves, they tend to push individuals into overdrive—without a clear indicator of when enough is enough. 

Overall, situations that repeatedly create stress and anxiety typically pave the way to burnout. However, burnout is highly personal and can develop for a variety of reasons due to the individual. For instance, an employee who works late each night and ignores their own mental health is likely susceptible to burnout. On the other hand, a worker who is unsatisfied in their job environment or feels unstimulated by their daily tasks can also trickle into burnout.

However, it’s important to separate “boredom” from “burnout.” The two are not the same, nor do they have the same negative repercussions on a remote worker’s mental health

For more clarification on how personal occupational burnout can be, consider the different stages in which it develops.

What are the Different Stages of Burnout? 

Though burnout can feel out of the blue sometimes, the truth is, it builds in stages. Herbert Freudenberger worked alongside fellow psychologist Gail North to ideate a 12-stage model that represents how burnout appears. While these stages may not represent how you or someone you know developed burnout to a T, the presented timeline will likely sound familiar. 

Stage One: Excessive Drive or Ambition. It’s a universal truth that the majority of professionals starting a new job or undertaking a new task come out the gate with a ton of ambition. However, fueling your jets immediately can ultimately lead to burnout down the line.

Stage Two: A Need to Work Harder. While an otherwise positive trait, too much ambition can force someone to work too hard. This overwork can result in longer work hours, missing lunch breaks, and taking time away from family or friends to dedicate to work. 

Stage Three: Neglecting Personal Needs. A quarter of the way into burnout, your overwork causes you to neglect basic personal needs like proper sleep, eating well, and exercise. You’ll likely begin experiencing headaches, trouble sleeping, and general fatigue as a result.

“Minor symptoms can become so severe over time that it becomes impossible to cope with the challenges and pleasures of life,” warned Thomas Oppong, Founder.3 “A minor burnout is like a pipe leak in your house that has been dripping for months or even years without repair. At some point, the pressure becomes too much that the pipe ruptures and that water comes bursting through the walls with devastating results.”

Stage Four: Displacement of Conflict. At this point, you’ll blame your teammates, computer trouble, your boss, or your responsibilities for your burnout, instead of recognizing you’re maxing out your mental, emotional, and physical capabilities. 

For example, consider a burnout employee who missed an important deadline. Instead of recognizing they are burned out, and seeking support, they’ll make up an excuse about their computer maxing out or email crashing. 

Stage Five: Distancing from Non Work-Related Needs. If it’s not work-related, you pay it no mind—even for hobbies or interests you once loved.

Stage Six: Deny, Deny, Deny. As opposed to owning your behaviors, you begin to get impatient with those around you. You may lash out at others, accusing them of overreacting or being overbearing. 

“Usually, the last one to notice is oneself; it’s hard to see it coming even if for those that care about you it was apparent all along the road. When we are about to experience burnout, we might find ourselves telling anybody concerned about us that we are ok, that all is under control, when deep down we know that it’s not true,” Marc Siles Aligué, Co-Founder, said.4

Woman sitting on couch looking distraught because she is experiencing burnout

Stage Seven: Withdrawal. With stress mounting, you begin to withdraw from your loved ones. Social outings begin to feel like a burden instead of an escape. This can cause you to distance yourself from family, friends, and your significant other. 

Stage Eight: Behavioral Changes. At this point in burnout, it becomes easier to snap at loved ones. Even unprovoked, you may become more aggressive or display similar behavioral changes.

Stage Nine: Depersonalization. Your identity will blur as you detach from family and friends. You’ll likely find yourself questioning decisions you’ve made or are making. 

“Maybe you’re reading this and feel like you’re lagging behind. Or maybe your sense of humor doesn’t seem to be working anymore. You’re snapping at the people closest to you, and you’re starting to resent your choices in life. Now is the time to be selfish and get the help you need. Take it from me when I say you can’t just run away from the problem,” said nurse Erin Devine.5

If you don’t heed to Erin’s advice, you’ll likely find yourself at Stage 10 in no time. 

Stage Ten: Feeling Empty or Anxious. Stress and anxiety begin to feel constant. Some workers turn to thrill seeking behaviors to cope with unpleasant emotion, such as overeating, gambling, or substance use.

Stage Eleven: Depression. While depression and burnout are two separate conditions (more about that soon!), the deep onset of burnout can cause depression or depression-like symptoms, including feeling sad, hopeless, and totally unmotivated.

Stage Twelve: Mental or Physical Exhaustion. At the final stage of burnout, you can experience mental or physical collapse. In the most extreme instances, medical attention and hospitalization may be necessary. 

“Everybody intuitively recognizes what burnout feels like in their bodies and their feelings and their thoughts,” Emily Nagoski, a health educator who was hospitalized for stress-induced inflammation from burnout, said.6 “It’s like art: You know it when you see it.”

Do any of these 12 stages sound familiar? If so, the following symptoms will likely resonate as well. 

What are the Symptoms of Occupational Burnout to Watch Out For?

Emotionally, occupational burnout can cause you to become withdrawn and sullen. Physically, burnout can instigate headaches or stomach aches, or alter sleeping and eating habits. 

The onset of occupational burnout and the characteristics surrounding it are highly unique to the individual. However, for every remote worker facing high stress or exhaustion, there will be telltale signs that burnout is approaching. 

“Negativity, pessimism, and ‘venting’ are big signs of burnout,” Annie Singer, Marketing Management Consultant, said.7 “I never discourage these behaviors and patterns because I want my employees to know that it is okay to feel that way and okay to express that to me.”

In fact, constant negativity or irritability is a massive indicator of burnout. Burnout can force workers to easily lose their cool with teammates, friends, and loved ones at the drop of a hat. 

“In the past, when I’ve had employees who were experiencing burnout, I would find minor errors in their work—especially on tasks that I knew they were proficient at,” explained Kimberly Hardman, Founder.8 

“Research shows that stress hammers the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive function. Executive function impacts your memory, decision-making abilities, emotional control, and focus. When you notice that you’re making silly mistakes, forgetting important things, having outbursts of emotion, or making poor decisions, you’re likely burning out,” adds Dr. Travis Bradberry.9

Likewise, coping with routine responsibilities becomes increasingly more difficult and mismanaging responsibilities can easily segue into exhaustion.

A frequent sign of burnout is feeling emotionally and physically depleted. Emotionally, occupational burnout can cause you to become withdrawn and sullen. Physically, burnout can instigate headaches or stomach aches, or alter sleeping and eating habits. Unfortunately, these side effects make remote workers experiencing burnout more susceptible to frequent illness.

Much like any other form of long-term stress, burnout can lower your immune system. So, if you’re feeling burnout, you’re statistically more likely to come down with colds, the flu, and even insomnia. But, that’s not all.

“Procrastination, disassociating from the impact of their work, not taking their vacation, and frequent illness seem to be the most common problems,” Melissa McClung, Licensed Professional Counselor, said.10  

Indeed, remote workers who burnout are more likely to feel overwhelmed, often leading them to put all responsibilities on the back burner. This can lead to escape fantasies, where an employee shows up physically, but is mentally on a totally different wavelength. 

While burnout makes individuals less likely to take time for themselves, they’ll fantasize about quitting or running away instead.

Other common signs of occupational burnout include:

  • Defensiveness: Displaying a protectiveness over work or snapping at feedback.
  • Lack of Communication: From going ghost on Slack to failing to answer Trello notifications, a decrease in communication can indicate withdrawal.
  • Too Much Communication: Emails at 10:30 at night and responding to notifications in a milli-second? You might be pushing a little too hard.
  • Change in Work: Everyone has their days, but when work becomes consistently sloppy, consider that a warning sign.

Even with these known symptoms of burnout, there’s still a plethora of misconceptions about what the condition is—and isn’t.

Tackling the Misconceptions Behind Burnout 

What a lot of people today describe as burnout is the result of improper framing or overzealous pathologizing, not of real changes to the nature of job-related stress.

Markham Heid

While mainstream media and hustle culture have brought occupational burnout to the forefront for most professionals, the official meaning of burnout is riddled with misconceptions. Unfortunately, burnout can be a bit of a buzzword for individuals who are unsure what they’re going through.

Feeling stuck at work? Burnt out.

No motivation for tasks? Burnt out.

Distancing from friends? Burnt out.

Bored during the work day? Burnt out. 

However, that’s not how burnout works. 

“In other words, what a lot of people today describe as burnout is the result of improper framing or overzealous pathologizing, not of real changes to the nature of job-related stress,” Markham Heid, Writer, said.11 “It’s also hard for researchers to untangle burnout from other work-related funks such as boredom or job dissatisfaction, or from related mental health disorders such as depression.”

Burnout is not an umbrella term for mental stress nor can it be mismatched with whatever symptoms you’re feeling at the time. And occupational burnout is not equivalent to clinical depression or anxiety. 

Let’s tackle these misconceptions once and for all. 

Differences Between Burnout and Depression 

The difference between burnout and depression is a long-standing debate. Chronic stress or emotional exhaustion, the essence of occupational burnout, correlates strongly with other depressive symptoms. Symptoms such as memory or concentration issues and problems sleeping are shared by both depression and burnout. 

However, burnout is generally work-related.12 From career-related functions to tasks around the home, burnout derives from stress in your daily responsibilities and trickles into your personal life. Furthermore, the influence occupational burnout has over your personal life as opposed to just your professional output is likely to occur in a later stage.

Depression is much more general. It can develop from several aspects of your life, including friends and family, hobbies, and personal trauma. The onset of depression can have a rapid and massive influence on several parts of life immediately. 

“Many researchers view burnout symptoms as strictly a work-related syndrome, separate from any medical condition, because the majority of burnout research is related to occupational burnout. 

Depression, on the other hand, is seen as more omnipresent and universal — a medical condition that can impact all aspects of a patient’s life,” Ashley Abramson, Health & Psychology Writer, said.13 “Someone’s work environment can contribute to their existing general depression, or even cause new depressive symptoms.”

Overall, burnout reflects an unfolding of depressive symptoms in response to unsolvable stress, while depression creates depressive symptoms in response to a variety of triggers.

Differences Between Burnout and Anxiety 

Researchers suggest occupational stress can be a risk factor14 for anxiety symptoms. Demanding jobs and over-commitment are both associated with increased anxiety levels. Moreover, studies have shown a strong link between anxiety and emotional exhaustion, the leading side effect of burnout. However, there are distinct differences between burnout and anxiety. 

Man sitting at his desk late at night holding his head in his hands

First and foremost, it’s foolish to assume there’s only one type of anxiety (and that it only responds to the workplace). In reality, there’s several types of anxiety. 

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by a near-continuous sense of dread with no specific focus. 

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is characterized by an unreasonable fear of interacting in social settings.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops following a terrifying event, such as a violent crime, traumatic accident, military combat, or sexual assault.

Panic disorder is characterized by episodes that can be triggered by a specific memory or social setting.

Specific phobias trigger irrational fears of precise objects, animals, or situations.

Burnout, on the other hand, is triggered by chronic stress. While it might cause symptoms of anxiety, “burnout” is generally too broad of a term to describe anxieties, which typically have specific triggers.

Differences Between Burnout and Loneliness 

Occupational burnout and loneliness go hand-in-hand, so it’s no wonder some people confuse the two. Without the support or interaction with colleagues, an individual can burn out. Burnout itself can then lead to increased feelings of loneliness. It’s a catch-22, really.

“Feeling isolated at work or at home can contribute to burnout. This is simply because we’re social creatures. We’ve evolved to live, work and play with other people. When we aren’t around others, we feel depressed,” Laurence Jankelow, Co-Founder, explained.15 

However, that’s not to say burnout and loneliness are inherently the same. 

Burnout causes workers to withdraw and purposely isolate themselves. 

Chronic loneliness results in an inability to connect with others on a deeper, intimate level. 

Where burnout causes you to push people away, loneliness makes it feel like people don’t understand you in the first place. 

Loneliness can also cause negative feelings of self-doubt and self-worth. It can make you feel like when you reach out or attempt to connect with friends, you’re not seen or heard. 

Burnout, on the other hand, can cause you to think negatively of other people instead. Your friends become too clingy or too concerned, as opposed to feeling like they don’t care at all. 

Though loneliness and burnout can resemble one another at times, burnout creates temporary feelings of isolation in response to occupational stress, while loneliness is constant no matter the stress level. 

In addition to loneliness, let’s take a look at other factors that cause remote workers to burn out repeatedly. 

Don’t miss Chapter Three: “Why is Burnout the Biggest Problem for Remote Employees?” 🔥

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  1. IQWiG (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care). “Depression: What Is Burnout?” InformedHealth.org [Internet], U.S. National Library of Medicine, 18 June 2020, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279286/.
  2. Huffington, Arianna. “10 Years Ago I Collapsed From Burnout and Exhaustion, And It’s The Best Thing That Could Have Happened to Me” Medium, Thrive Global, 6 Apr. 2017, medium.com/thrive-global/10-years-ago-i-collapsed-from-burnout-and-exhaustion-and-its-the-best-thing-that-could-have-b1409f16585d.
  3. Oppong, Thomas. “The Age of Burnout (How to Get Real Work Done Without Burning Out).” Medium, The Startup, 5 June 2019, medium.com/swlh/the-age-of-burnout-how-to-survive-an-emotionally-demanding-job-b76173513f2c.
  4. Aligué, Marc Siles. “What I Learned from a Near-Burnout Experience​.” LinkedIn, 12 Oct. 2019, www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-i-learned-from-near-burnout-experience-marc-siles-aligu%C3%A9/.
  5. Devine, Erin. “How to Recognize and Stop Mom Burnout in Its Tracks.” Medium, Medium, 12 July 2018, medium.com/s/parenting-stories/how-to-recognize-and-stop-mom-burnout-in-its-tracks-6439a6badcb3.
  6. Rough, Jenny. “From Moms to Medical Doctors, Burnout Is Everywhere These Days.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 30 Mar. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/from-moms-to-medical-doctors-burnout-is-everywhere-these-days/2019/03/29/1cea7d92-401d-11e9-922c-64d6b7840b82_story.html.
  7. Singer, Annie. “Home.” Annie Singer, 3 Aug. 2020, annie-singer.com/.
  8. Hardman, Kimberly. “Building Better Leaders.” Aedify, 5 Mar. 2020, www.aedifyllc.com/.
  9. Bradberry, Travis. “10 Signs You’re Burning Out (And How To Stop It).” LinkedIn, 9 July 2019, www.linkedin.com/pulse/10-signs-youre-burning-out-how-stop-dr-travis-bradberry/.
  10. McClung, Melissa. “Professional Career Consultation.” Life By Design Careers, 2019, lbdcareers.com/.
  11. Heid, Markham. “The Great Burnout Debate.” Medium, Elemental, 13 Oct. 2020, elemental.medium.com/the-great-burnout-debate-431c677c9e50.
  12. Schonfeld, Irvin Sam, et al. “What Is the Difference Between Depression and Burnout? An Ongoing Debate.” Rivista Di Psichiatria, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2018, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30087493/.
  13. Abramson, Ashley. “What If Burnout Is Actually Depression?” Medium, Elemental, 17 Feb. 2020, elemental.medium.com/what-if-burnout-is-actually-depression-7c69125300e9.
  14. Koutsimani, Panagiota, et al. “The Relationship Between Burnout, Depression, and Anxiety: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Frontiers in Psychology, Frontiers Media S.A., 13 Mar. 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6424886/.
  15. Jankelow, Laurence. “Is Burnout a Myth? It’s Not About Long Hours, It’s About Bad Work.” LinkedIn, 12 Apr. 2019, www.linkedin.com/pulse/burnout-myth-its-long-hours-bad-work-laurence-jankelow/.

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