Research-Backed Burnout Definition and Causes

In today’s fast-paced, achievement-oriented world, work-related stress and pressure are all too common. The relentless pursuit of success and the drive to meet ever-increasing demands can take a toll on even the most resilient individuals. Left unattended, this stress can accumulate, leading to burnout – a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion where the work we once loved becomes an unbearable burden. Burnout knows no boundaries and can affect anyone, regardless of their profession – healthcare workers, IT specialists, teachers – all are vulnerable to its grasp, making it an increasingly prevalent issue in the modern workplace.

What is burnout?

Burnout was first mentioned in 1974 in a scientific paper by Prof. Herbert Fraudenberger. Around the same time, Christina Maslach from the University of California started investigating the burnout phenomenon; in 1981 she created the first test for measuring burnout and a definition, which was finally included by WHO in the International Classification of Diseases in 2019 (

3 Dimensions Of Burnout

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

  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; and
  3. 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.

Contrary to popular belief, burnout is not simply the result of an individual’s inability to manage stress and work-life balance. It is a well-defined phenomenon, researched and identified as a mismatch between an employee and their organization or workplace.

It arises from the interplay of external factors and internal vulnerabilities, making it a complex issue that requires a comprehensive understanding.

The causes of burnout can be multifaceted. Prolonged work overload, unrealistic expectations, and a lack of control over one’s tasks can contribute significantly to burnout. Insufficient rewards, such as inadequate compensation or limited opportunities for career advancement, can leave individuals feeling unappreciated and demotivated. The breakdown of community and unhealthy relationships with coworkers or management can lead to feelings of isolation and distress. Additionally, a lack of fairness, where contributions go unrecognized or employees are burdened with others’ responsibilities, can erode trust and loyalty. Lastly, conflicting values between an organization and its employees can generate a sense of moral and ethical unease.

What Causes Burnout?

Researchers Michael P. Leiter and Christina Maslach have identified six key areas of work-life that contribute to burnout. These areas encompass the core aspects of a person’s professional experience, reflecting how the workplace environment and conditions can impact their well-being:

  • Work Overload

This area addresses the excessive demands placed on employees, often resulting in extended working hours, working during vacations, and being expected to attend work-related activities during their free time. The relentless pressure to meet deadlines and accomplish tasks without sufficient support can leave individuals drained and depleted.

In some cases, the job stress is cause by the reverse circumstances – the employee does not have enough tasks to keep them engaged, challenged, feeling needed in the organization.

  • Lack of Control

Having a sense of autonomy and control over one’s work is essential for job satisfaction. However, micromanagement, an inability to implement personal ideas, and a lack of influence over assigned tasks can make employees feel powerless and disengaged.

  • Insufficient Rewards

A fair and equitable reward system is vital for fostering motivation and a sense of value. When employees feel they are not adequately compensated for their efforts, lack opportunities for career advancement, or face job insecurity, their dedication and enthusiasm for their work can wane.

  • Breakdown of Community:

The quality of relationships within the workplace profoundly impacts overall job satisfaction. Toxic relationships with coworkers or management, a lack of teamwork, excessive competition, and inadequate support can create a hostile and unsupportive work environment.

  • Absence of Fairness:

Feeling valued and appreciated for one’s contributions is crucial for maintaining morale. However, when recognition is lacking, tasks are unfairly distributed, or efficient employees are expected to take on others’ responsibilities, a sense of injustice can prevail.

  • Conflicting Values:

Organizational values shape the culture and identity of a company. When these values are not aligned with an employee’s personal beliefs or when organizations prioritize profit over the well-being of their employees, a moral dilemma may arise, leading to feelings of disillusionment and ethical discomfort.

Overcoming Burnout

Recognizing dissatisfaction with any of these work-life areas is a crucial step. It is essential to analyze their impact on well-being, integrity, and resilience, along with exploring options to minimize their effects. Addressing burnout is not a sign of weakness or mental illness, as it is not an individual’s fault. Burnout results from the workplace environment and the individual’s relation to it, making it a shared responsibility.

While stress-reduction techniques like mindfulness and work-life balance can offer relief, they only address the symptoms. To truly heal burnout, evaluating all work-life areas and their impact on one’s life is necessary. Taking action to change, accept, or seek a different environment is the key to overcoming burnout and reclaiming a fulfilling professional life. Empowering individuals and organizations with the knowledge to identify and address burnout is crucial for fostering a more resilient and compassionate work culture. Together, we can build a future where burnout is minimized, and individuals can thrive in their careers without sacrificing their health and well-being. Remember, addressing burnout is not a sign of weakness; it is an act of courage and self-care.