Burnout doesn’t always happen to people who have fallen out of love with their jobs or aren’t following their passions.
After nearly two decades of long-haul flights, early call times, and 12-hour days on set, hairstylist Nate Rosenkranz was at the end of his rope. He hadn’t fallen out of love with his craft, but he had grown weary of everything that came with it — so much so that he began to question his career path. He was, simply put, burned out.
But for Rosenkranz, burning out didn’t look like it does in the movies: A law student collapses at their desk after a string of late nights or an overworked executive has an office outburst and quits on the spot. Burnout is typically sneakier than that, says psychologist Michael Leiter, PhD, a leading researcher on the topic and coauthor of the forthcoming book The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs.
“Burnout is a slow wearing-down,” says Dr. Leiter. Despite popular belief, the word “burnout” is not strictly interchangeable with exhaustion. “It’s more complicated than that,” he says. The concept of burnout is so complicated, in fact, that it took the World Health Organization (WHO) until 2019 to officially define it as a syndrome.
That timing, by the way, strengthens the evidence that shows while the events of 2020 made burnout an even buzzier buzzword, “we were already in a burnout pandemic before [that],” says Kira Schabram, PhD, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington. It’s true: According to a Gallup study conducted in 2019, 76 percent of full-time employees reported feeling burned out at work at least “sometimes.” (About 28 percent of those respondents said they felt burned out “very often” or “always.”)
How to Tell If You’re Burnt Out
The classification eventually released by the WHO solidifies that burnout is an “occupational phenomenon” resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Though burnout makes people vulnerable to illnesses like depression, it is not a disease in and of itself, says Dr. Leiter, whose research mirrors the definition. Burnout can be characterised more specifically by three symptoms: exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of efficacy.
Those with burnout tend to have a combination of all three symptoms, but depending on the nature of your work and your point of view, you might experience one more than another. For example, a nurse might not be as likely to lose sight of the meaning of their work, but could easily fall victim to exhaustion — which Lotte Dyrbye, MD, senior associate dean of faculty and chief well-being officer at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, describes not as tiredness, but as “having nothing left to give… You’re emotionally empty.”
Of course, the source of exhaustion for those in professions like health care can’t begin to compare with that of those in creative fields. But for creatives, the same feelings of emptiness can manifest as a loss of the flashes of inspiration that allow them to capture powerful images or compose catchy rhythms that enhance our world. “When we talk about creative professions, what we’re talking about is work that is useful but unusual,” says Dr. Schabram. “My argument would be that burnout doesn’t affect that useful part. Often, people are really vested in still doing good work. It’s the ‘unusual’ that can be really difficult, especially if you are feeling exhausted.”