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The Truth About Burnout

By Genevieve Deacon: Principal Consultant at Peopleful

Annie Dillard, a famous writer, once said:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Well, now…we spend 50% of our total waking hours in any given day and, on average, over 90 000 hours over the course of our working lives, working. So, it’s pretty safe to say that work has a considerable impact on how we spend, and experience, our lives. Of course, we are responsible for ourselves, but it’s undeniable that the organisations we work for also have a responsibility and role to play in shaping our lives, potentially making those days and hours memorable, inspiring, satisfying, and productive ones.

As we emerge from the pandemic there will be ongoing ramifications on the health and wellbeing of people. And a topic that is getting much press recently is that of burnout. But what does burnout really mean? How do you know you have it? And what can employers do about it?

It does feel as if burnout is wielded as a catch all for many work-related problems, so in this article I want to give it its rightful place and definition. Otherwise, how on earth can we solve and design for it?

Stress is not inherently negative

It’s quite a strange concept to wrap your head around, but yes, stress, in and of itself, is not the root-cause of the problem. At a biological level, our bodies are built to handle stressful situations. If we face a life-threatening situation, we need a secretion of adrenaline to activate our ability to fight the threat or run away from the threat. Or you may recall the stressful feeling you get before an important presentation that keeps you alert and motivated. This is our body’s response to an external situation deemed to be stressful.

However, what happens after this experience is the make or break…

We should allow time for our bodies to rest and recover, reducing the adrenaline that is coursing through our veins. But we don’t. In fact, we encounter further stressful situations. This time it is not a life-threatening situation or a presentation. This time it is a deadline looming, a boss shouting, or a colleague being rude. Our body cannot tell the difference between these daily irritations and the life-threatening or motivating situation. When the demands placed on your body surpass your body’s ability to respond, cortisol – the stress hormone – is secreted.

After the work deadline has been reached, and the boss has stopped shouting, your cortisol level should calm down. However, if you are under constant stress and the alarm button is constantly sounding, this can derail your body’s most important functions, decrease dopamine and serotonin secretion (neurotransmitters responsible for happy moods and positive feelings) starting the journey towards emotional and physical exhaustion – burnout!

Burnout: a misunderstood phenomenon

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has medically legitimised burnout. They classify it in the International Classification of Diseases (the ICD-11) chart as a result of "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed" (WHO ICD, 2019; to come into effect January 2022).

From this definition it is important to recognise that burnout exists because of people’s experience of the workplace, not their homelife. As such, those who are responsible for the health, safety and overall wellbeing of their employees (i.e. leadership) should listen up!

According to the ICD-11 the main signs of burnout are:

  1. feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion

  2. increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job

  3. a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

But, how is this different from stress?

It is important to highlight that there is a path to burnout; it is not something that simply happens overnight. Once an individual is a long way down the burnout path, recovering is not a dash to the imaginary finish line. It is a slow and arduous process that can take up to 10-months of sick leave supported by active interventions (Sonnenschein, et al, 2007). And so, with burnout defined as a workplace condition, it’s clear that employers have a key role to play in supporting employees who are starting out on this path, lessening the detrimental effects of burning out and preventing other employees from ever experiencing them.

Addressing burnout as an organisation

Each employee has a unique experience of an organisation. This is characterised by their immediate environment, the relationships they have with colleagues and managers, the work they do each day, the information they receive to do their work effectively, role autonomy and so on. There are also organisational factors at play and these include the design of the organisation, policies and procedures, remuneration, employee benefits to name a few.

It is important to understand how this experience of the environment is impacting employees as there is a constant balancing act going on between the energy employees give an

organisation, and the energy they receive from the organisation.

If an employee is working in a very demanding environment where, for example, role overload and sub-optimum job control are evident, combined with low job resources such as poor supervisory support, inadequate job information, etc., and with insufficient time to recover from stressful situations, they will likely begin walking down the path to burnout. This is costly for an organisation and will impact the bottom line.

Too often, the onus is on the individual to build their own levels of resilience, combat the stress they face in the workplace and so decrease their own risk of burnout. Employees certainly have a responsibility in this regard – but we cannot lose sight of the fact that burnout is an “occupational phenomenon”, and workplace stress is the ultimate cause of burnout. There is also an important role for employers to play in understanding and resolving the causal factors of burnout unique to their organisations.

So, what can organisations do?

For each organisation there are unique dynamics in the environment that influence the balance or imbalance of demands versus support.

Understanding these unique contributing factors provides leaders with the evidence to make effective decisions supporting the wellbeing of their people. NB: remember that a work

environment characterised by high levels of demand and insufficient support has repeatedly been shown to contribute to burnout states (Afriforte (Pty) Ltd; 2005; 2020; Bakker, et al, 2007; de Beer, et al, 2012; Demerouti, et al, 2001; Sharon & Cooper, 2000). Therefore, organisations should move towards being more predictive around burnout to prevent those that are on or at the beginning of the burnout pathway from reaching critical levels. There are a number of ways in which employers can respond:

  • Investigate the working climate and the impact it is having on employees, using a risk predictive tool

  • Understand who is at risk of burnout and why so that proactive protective measures can be implemented

  • Identify who in your employee base is at serious or critical risk of burnout, and take immediate remedial action to support recovery

  • Further understand the impact the global pandemic has had on employees’ work-life integration

  • Identify where the risks are for employees who are not functioning optimally

  • Identify what workplace support is needed for employees to flourish

The onus is on the organisation, and the cost of inaction can mount quickly. However, if leaders have the evidence and understand the dynamics contributing to burnout (workplace factors driving risks) they have the power and opportunity to protect employees and the organisation. It is crucial to understand whether employees are stressed-out or suffer from burnout, as the support for employees in these categories will differ. A proactive evidence-based approach is the solution, and this can only be confirmed by means of measurement.

The Burnt Chef Diagnostic, Powered by Peopleful, helps organisations unlock data regarding emerging risks to workforce wellbeing and quantifies the business cost of ignoring those risks. Powered by organisational science and psychology, and over a decade of research, We can shine a light on precisely where action is required so that managers and leaders can develop a wellbeing strategy and employee experience that addresses the warning signs before they become costly life issues.

To find out more about how this brilliant tool can help your business, get it touch with us


  • Sonnenschein, M. (2007). Sick with burnout: clarified through electronic diaries. PHD Study, Utrecht University. Promotors: Prof. dr. M.J. Sorbi, Prof. dr. L.J.P. van Doornen, Prof. dr. W.B. Schaufeli

  • Bakker, A. B., & Demerouti, E. (2007). The Job Demands-Resources model: State of the art. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 22(3), 309–328.

  • de Beer, L., Rothmann, S (jr)., & Pienaar, J. (2012). A Confirmatory Investigation of a Job Demands-Resources Model Using a Categorical Estimator. Psychological Reports, 111(2), 528–544.

  • Demerouti, E., Bakker, A. B., Nachreiner, F., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2001). The job demands-resources model of burnout. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(3), 499–512.

  • Sharon G. Clarke & Cary L. Cooper (2000) The risk management of occupational stress, Health, Risk & Society, 2:2, 173-187, DOI: 10.1080/713670158

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