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The Exaggeration of “Burnout” in America

You might be tired of Zoom calls or home cooking, but that’s not the same as what a frontline health worker is experiencing.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I bet you’re burned out after enduring a full year of the Covid-19 pandemic. If you have kids, you’re probably trying to teach them at home, either between work shifts out in the world or while sharing a kitchen-table office with them. You might have had to care for sick family members while somehow avoiding the virus yourself. And if your job is in health care, education, transportation, or retail, then you have likely worked nonstop at great risk for months on end.

But even if you didn’t have to do any of those things, you’re probably still burned out. Are you tired of endless videoconference calls? You might have Zoom burnout. Do you dread making yet another meal at home? Sounds like “cooking burnout,” according to an article on the website Eater. Is your skin “overly sensitive, dry, or dull”? Could be skin burnout. Maybe you’re spent after the first weekend of the NCAA tournament—not playing in it, just watching it. If so, good news: An Austin hydration lounge touts itself as the antidote to March Madness burnout.

In the last few years, burnout has become an important keyword for understanding our misery at work and frustration with the rest of our lives. The pandemic only increased burnout’s relevance. But not all forms of burnout are borne equally, and the popularization of the term has both flattened its meaning and diluted its usefulness in addressing the problem with work in America. 

By all accounts, frontline workers really are frayed. Nurses, for instance, speak of moral injury from working in impossible conditions, and many have considered quitting. But the burnout conversation often turns frivolous, hyperbolic, and absurd. The Eater article on cooking burnout described roasting a week’s worth of chicken and root vegetables—a kitchen shortcut as old as the home refrigerator—as a solution we need “now more than ever.” In a survey commissioned last year by cannabis dispensary Verilife, 92 percent of respondents said that burnout affects their everyday life. This is a meaningless number, the result of an overly broad survey question. Even so, for fun, can you guess what product nearly four in 10 respondents found effective for dealing with burnout? 

Paradoxically, our incessant talk about burnout is an obstacle to ending it. The cloud of marketing nonsense obscures the real phenomenon of workers’ exhaustion and despair. The person who is bored of cooking and the nurse who might quit in the middle of a pandemic both claim the label of burnout, but they are not dealing with the same malady. It seems that everyone is burned out, but no one knows precisely what that means. Until we develop a more precise language for talking about burnout, we will never be able to help workers who are on the verge of a breakdown.

The definition of burnout has always been vague. When Herbert Freudenberger, one of the first psychologists to publish a paper on the phenomenon in the 1970s, described burnout among the staff at a free clinic in New York City’s Greenwich Village, the list of physical symptoms encompassed “a feeling of exhaustion and fatigue, being unable to shake a lingering cold, suffering from frequent headaches and gastrointestinal disturbances, sleeplessness and shortness of breath.” In other words, any common complaint could be a sign of burnout. 

More recently, the German scholars Linda and Torsten Heinemann have argued that the lack of a clear definition is part of burnout’s appeal as a self-diagnosis; you can claim you’re beset by work-related malaise without admitting to any specific disorder. This can be dangerous, though, as workers might think they’re just struggling at work when, in fact, they are undergoing a life-threatening depression. 

In the most widely accepted definition, burnout is a work-related syndrome with three dimensions: exhaustion, depersonalization (or cynicism), and a sense of ineffectiveness. That is how Christina Maslach, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, defines it—a definition that was ratified two years ago by the World Health Organization, which labeled burnout an “occupational phenomenon,” though not a medical condition. In burnout research, the three dimensions are usually scored on a standard test called the Maslach Burnout Inventory. 

When you get down to the nitty-gritty of how researchers conduct their studies, though, definitions vary widely. One meta-analysis of 182 scientific articles found 142 different definitions of burnout. It’s no surprise, then, that the articles claimed that anywhere from 0 percent to 80 percent of physicians suffered from it. Even when researchers were all using the same survey to measure burnout, they used it in dozens of different ways. Our public conversation about burnout needs to follow scientific consensus; unfortunately, there isn’t much.

Still, one promising trend in the research is a focus on the different categories of burnout, including partial forms. Burnout isn’t just one condition; it is not like Covid-19, which you either have or you don’t. This is why alarming reports that many workers “are burned out” don’t tell us very much. They lack the nuance human experience demands.

Some leading researchers, including Maslach, now see burnout as a spectrum of experiences that vary according to their chief symptoms. One person might have exhaustion only; another might turn cynical but still feel competent. The most all-encompassing form of burnout, featuring high levels of exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of ineffectiveness, could be found in about 5 to 10 percent of hospital employees, according to multiple studies. These workers exhibited strong negative feelings about several key areas of their jobs, from their workload to their relationships with co-workers and general job satisfaction. 

But not everyone goes through the full burnout experience; they’re at a different point on the spectrum. In a study of workers at Veterans Administration hospitals, the most common form of burnout, affecting 20 to 25 percent of employees, was a high level of ineffectiveness without major exhaustion or cynicism. These workers were not worn out from overwork and had not turned cynical, but it wasn’t clear to them what their work was accomplishing. Their burnout was quieter and milder but still damaging.

This frustration was especially prevalent among administrators and wage-grade workers like cooks and janitors. They are not the “heroes” of health care. No one thanks them for assisting with a birth or sending cancer into remission. They are essential workers, too, but are often underpaid and unrecognized. As one longtime employee of a Washington, D.C., hospital told Brookings Institution researchers, “These are people who work very, very, very hard, and who make very, very, very little.”

We must also recognize that burnout is not a straightforward index of how crummy your job is. If it were, then physicians would not have been reporting much higher levels of burnout than workers in general prior to the pandemic. Burnout is not the only way your job can be crummy. Burned out or not, if your schedule is unpredictable, your pay is inadequate, or your workplace is unsafe, you deserve better conditions. 

“Burnout” would not appear in so many clickbait headlines if people didn’t relate strongly to the term. Work really does suck, and “burnout” gives a satisfying name to that experience. I know this firsthand. Once I started to learn more about burnout, five years ago, the desolation I felt at my otherwise great job as a tenured college professor started to make a lot more sense. 

But there is also a deeper, more insidious side to our eagerness to claim burnout. Saying you’re burned out is a subtle form of self-praise. If you’re burned out, then you must have been a roaring blaze of productivity to begin with, an ideal worker in a culture that values work practically above all else. In the religion of work, the burnout is a martyr. 

We reach so often for the term burnout, then, because it perfectly reflects our ambivalence toward work. We complain that work is crushing our bodies and souls, but we also love it. The pain is how we validate our lives. On some level, we want to burn out.

We didn’t always think of work this way. In his book Worked Over, the sociologist Jamie McCallum notes that employers started promoting the idea that work was lovable, that it was a source of purpose, during the mid-1970s, as a way to compensate workers for declining wages and job security. Not coincidentally, that period was right when psychologists first identified burnout in free-clinic workers and poverty attorneys. Americans’ ideals for work rose not just while their working conditions eroded but because they eroded. That gap between ideal and reality is what fosters burnout.

Ending burnout will require not only labor organizing and policy changes but also a new vision of how work fits into our lives. Workers ought to demand more from their employers: more money, more security, more time off. But they also need to demand less—less meaning, less fulfillment, less assurance that they are loved—from work itself.