The three types of burnout

Are you feeling exhausted and overwhelmed? Have you become cynical or negative at work? Do you snap at co-workers, find it hard to concentrate, or struggle to find the energy you need at work? Does work feel like a drag rather than something that engages your mind? You might be burnt out.

Burnout is a word often used but rarely explored in detail. We talk about feeling “worn out”, “fed up”, “stuck” and many other evocative phrases, and the idea of feeling burnt out covers most of them. It is a catch-all for a wide range of negative feelings, about our work, about ourselves, about the future.

No wonder it is so common. A 2020 Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees in the US found that 23% of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, and an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes. Factors driving burnout have generally included stressful and tiring work, unreasonable workload or time pressures, conflict and discrimination at work, lack of autonomy and support, lack of reward, and issues with management. Even before the added pressures of COVID-19, a lot of things were leading people to feel burnt out at work.

Yet if we are to tackle burnout, and avoid it happening in the first place, we need to understand it a little better. Is it one single condition, or several different ones grouped under one umbrella? And more importantly, will coping mechanisms that work for one kind of burnout work for others?

The World Health Organisation included burnout in its 11th International Classification of Diseases, though as a factor affecting health rather than a medical condition. Burnout is not itself an illness, but like stress, it can lead to physical and mental health problems. Here’s how the WHO defined it:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

This three-fold definition comes from the supporting literature. Classic psychological definitions of burnout divide it into three distinct but related types: exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy. Put another way, burnout can be “frenetic” (overloaded), “underchallenged” (lack of development) and “worn-out” (neglectful). They are typically measured using tools like the Maslach Burnout Inventory. These three types relate to various common experiences of burnout at work, from feeling overloaded on the one hand, to neglected and powerless on the other.

So you could be so busy that you’re struggling to cope, suffering a nervous inability to focus or to make an impact on everything you have to do. Or you could be under-challenged, demoralized and demotivated, not feeling like you’ve got anything to get your teeth into or opportunities to develop. Or you could simply be worn out, with lots of things that you could be doing (and that you might even enjoy), but you can’t face doing them because you feel so completely exhausted. There’s a lot of variation in burnout at work.

This means people can arrive at a state of burnout from very different directions. We have seen this most clearly during the COVID-19 pandemic: some people have been overloaded with stress and worry at work, whilst others have lost their jobs or been furloughed for long stretches, but both sides have converged on a similar state of feeling burnt out and exhausted. To paraphrase a line from the New York Times in 2020, we may all be in the same storm, but it’s clear we’re not all in the same boat.

So if you are feeling burnt out at the moment, it’s worth stopping to consider why. Are you feeling overwhelmed with all the things you have to do, and disengaging to protect yourself from potential stress? If so then building your resources, sharing the load and trying to find things you enjoy might help, and of course pushing back on the demands of work and trying to maintain work-life balance. Are you feeling bored and under-challenged, struggling for motivation? Then goal-setting and planning can help, identifying things to look forward to and working to make them happen. Or are you just exhausted, running on empty and in need of a break? If so then maybe you don’t need to leave your job, you just need a holiday.

Burnout can be managed, and avoided in the first place, but to do so we need to take action early, to manage stress and maintain our energy levels. The better you can get at recognising the types of burnout early and taking action to look after your mind, the better you can cope with tough times and work pressures.

We can look out for each other too: if you know someone who feels burnt out, you can help them by asking them how they’re feeling, particularly whether they feel stressed, bored or exhausted. Burnout comes in many shapes and sizes, and by talking to each other in and out of work, we can address it more quickly and look after each other better.