The truth about burnout: It doesn't look how we expect it to

The truth about burnout: It doesn't look how we expect it to
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What we expect burnout to look like is not how most burned-out people look. This is the lesson from research conducted at Yale University, in partnership with Faas Foundation, and presented recently at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association. While the World Health Organization (WHO) describes burnout as a syndrome characterized by “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job … and reduced professional efficacy,” our research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence finds this does not tell the whole story. 

In fact, most people who are burned out are highly engaged in their work.

If we continue to think and act as if only the disengaged are burned out, we will miss many people who need our attention. How we look at burnout is crucial — not only for identification, but also for any attempts to help these individuals. A growing body of research shows that interventions aimed to alleviate the effects of burnout are not successful. One big reason is that most people who are burned out are engaged in their work and easily overlooked by wellness programs.

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We surveyed a representative sample of nearly 15,000 employees across all industries and demographic groups in the U.S. Instead of asking only about burnout, we included questions assessing worker engagement, their experiences at work and important work outcomes. We found that only 2 percent of employees are burned out and disengaged, as described by the WHO. Instead, we found that one in five employees is burned out but engaged and productive at work. 

The burned out and disengaged are deeply dissatisfied and describe their experience akin to depression (feeling helpless, hopeless, worthless). By contrast, the burned out and engaged are depleted (exhausted, overworked), have a love/hate relationship with work (love it and feel fulfilled, but can also hate it and be upset at work), and experience a lack of support at work (feel annoyed, unappreciated).

Burnout differs not only in how workers experience work, but also in their work outcomes. Burned out and disengaged workers are not acquiring new skills or accomplishments and wish to find new jobs. Burned out and engaged workers are accomplishing much and acquiring skills, but desire and intend to leave their jobs. Because they are performing well, they might have a greater opportunity to get a new job. This should keep leaders awake at night; these productive workers should be valued and organizations should want to keep them.

In a published study, we examined the kinds of jobs associated with the two kinds of burnout and a distinct pattern emerged. We assessed how demanding jobs are (such as whether they have a high workload or require people to be detail-oriented), how many resources people have (including those that are burned out and disengaged) and low resources (including personal resources such as confidence in one’s ability to do the job and supervisor support). 

Most people (84 percent) who are burned out and disengaged had jobs with low demands and low resources, while most people who were burned out and engaged (64 percent) had high demands but low resources. In other words, people who are burned out and disengaged are not overwhelmed by the stress of the job, but are hopeless at the lack of opportunity in their jobs. The burned out and engaged are overwhelmed by what their jobs require of them, without offering the necessary support. 

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Different types of burned-out workers have different needs; we believe the disengaged may need access to mental health treatment, while the exhausted and engaged need greater support in their jobs. When we realize that many burned-out workers remain engaged at work, we can successfully identify them and provide help. For the burned out and disengaged, it will help to learn how to reframe their experiences and, if that is not enough, seek professional help. For burned out engaged employees, it will be helpful to find allies at work and sources of support and respect among coworkers. 

Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She is director of the Creativity and Emotions Lab and heads research on emotions in the workplace.  

Robin Stern, Ph.D., is associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of two books: “The Gaslight Effect” and “Project Rebirth.”

Julia Moeller, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Leipzig in Germany. She studies the nature of passion and mixed emotions in education and work.