Dênis Araújo da Silva

Jul 7, 2021

4 min read
Man sit in front of the laptop starting at the screen with one hand supporting the head
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

An introduction to burnout

As part of my master’s on Digital Management at Hyper Island, I’m working on my thesis and then I decided to take a deep look on an issue that many individuals may face in the careers, an organizational issue that oftenly is underestimated.

So the idea is not to look burnout in a personal level, but actually in a organization level. How organization can actively avoid burnout, what are is the role of the direct managers on this? And the most intriguing question that I have, is it possible to use machine learning to predict burnout?

So in this series of thoughts that I’m writing first I will share with you my process on understanding what is burnout.

What is Burnout?

Two scientific articles published in 1974, one by Herbert Freudenberger (1974) and another by Sigmund Ginsburg (1974), described the burnout syndrome as a state of becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources in the workplace (L. V. Heinemann and T. Heinemann 2017).

This job-related unresolvable stress (Nunn and Isaacs 2019) is recognized as a disease under the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) by the World Health Organization as an occupational phenomenon instead of a medical condition. With this classification, we can conclude that it is an individual situation and an organizational problem (Moss 2021) that requires an organizational solution, and organizations often overlook this aspect.

Burnout is seen in three dimensions (WHO 2019):

Exhaustion: Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

Cynicism: Increased mental distance from one’s job or feeling of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and

Efficacy: Reduced professional efficacy.

Exhaustion is often considered the strongest, a primary element of burnout.

Thus, a suitable proxy for the entire phenomenon but a focus on just exhaustion may ignore other aspects of the burnout experience, which go beyond chronic fatigue. People experiencing burnout are not simply exhausted or overwhelmed by their workload. It is much more complex. They also have lost a connection with their work, which has implications for their motivation and identity (Gafanhão 2021).

The cynicism aspect capture disaffection with work and creates a distance between the person and the work. The inefficacy aspect of burnout leads to a crisis in their efficacy expectations and professional goals (Leiter and Maslach 2016).

If we do a combination of those three factors, we get five categories of burnout levels (ibid.):

  • Engagement: Comfort feeling with work and a sense of belonging and pleasure;
  • Overextension: Only high exhaustion, with excessive workloads or sleep deprivation;
  • Disengagement: Only high cynicism, distant relationship with work;
  • Ineffectiveness: Only high inefficacy, low morale, and inability to cope; and
  • Burnout: At least a combination of high/medium levels of two out of three previous characteristics, burnout may affect people in different ways, from lack of enthusiasm until a needed hospitalization.

A report provided by Blind, a trusted community focused on tech companies in the United States where verified professionals connect to discuss, declares that in the sector at the end of 2020, 73% of professionals were burned-out as compared to 61% in mid-February (Blind 2020), where the top three reasons denote:

  • No separation between ”work” and ”life.”
  • Unmanageable workload
  • Job security concerns

Review

Burnout is not 0 and 1, it’s not only being burned-out or not. Burnout has three dimensions, exhaustion, cynicism, and efficacy. The combination of these dimensions generates a spectrum that is composed of engagement, overextensions, disengagement, infectives, and burnout, each one with its specific characteristics.

It is important to all of us, to start to analyze our current situation and reflect upon our life/work relationship. Have you already stopped to think about what does work means to you? Can you split work and life? Do you have a strong sense of purpose that is aligned with your job?

Those questions helped to reflect more about this relationship and to start to evaluate the impacts of work in my life.

In the next article I will go a little bit more into the impacts of burnout in people and organizations.

References

Heinemann, Linda V. and Torsten Heinemann (2017). “Burnout Research”. In: SAGE Open 7.1, p. 2158244017697154. DOI:10.1177/2158244017697154.

Nunn, Ken and David Isaacs (2019). “Burnout”. In: Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health 55.1. The impacts of burnout mainly in doctors, pp. 5–6. ISSN: 1034–4810. DOI: 10.1111/jpc.14331.

Moss, Jennifer (2021). Beyond Burned Out. https://hbr.org/2021/02/beyond-burned-out. [Online; accessed at June 26, 2021].

WHO (2019). Burn-out an ”occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out- an — occupational — phenomenon — international — classification — of — diseases. [Online; accessed at June 26, 2021].

Gafanhão, Bianca (2021). Interview to introduce the burnout topic. personal communication. Psychologist with a Masters in Occupational Health.

Leiter, Michael P. and Christina Maslach (2016). “Latent burnout profiles: A new approach to understanding the burnout experience”. In: Burnout Research 3.4. A next step article after BMI main article, on combining different variables., pp. 89–100. ISSN: 2213–0586. DOI: 10.1016/j.burn.2016.09.001.

Blind (2020). The evolution of the burnout, COVID-19 Edition. https://usblog.teamblind.com/wpcontent/uploads/2020/05/StateofBurnoutCovid19. pdf. [Online; accessed at June 26, 2021].