What is Burnout?

Man Alone and Thinking

What is burnout?

In what has become the most common definition, the World Health Organization refers to and describes burnout like this:

"Burn-out is included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. It is not classified as a medical condition.

It is described in the chapter: ‘Factors influencing health status or contact with health services’ – which includes reasons for which people contact health services but that are not classed as illnesses or health conditions.

Burn-out is defined in ICD-11 as follows:

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

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
  • 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.”

"... chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed"

Creating the Environment for Intensity

Over the years I have worked with many executives and leaders experiencing feelings of burnout. In general they share these common characteristics.

  • Key decision makers
  • Heavily involved
  • Highly committed
  • People intensive
  • Major responsibilities
  • High expectations from others
  • High expectations of themselves
  • Demanding workload

This may describe you. In light of this, consider the following definitions of burnout, some from respected researchers and others from those making keen observations. What they have to say may strike a chord for you, only confirming and helping to put a name to what you are experiencing.

What is Burnout? Some Further Definitions.

Woman Alone and Thinking

Our first contemporary burnout definition came from a 1974 book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He defined burnout as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”

The current environment doesn't meet my internal expectations. I've poured myself into it for so long now and the return isn't there. I'm exhausted. And I don't see any reason to be there when it is so futile.

"A maladaptive coping mechanism to working conditions that are stressful, demanding, or lacking sufficient challenge and recognition." Sarros and Densten

"Emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do 'people work' of some kind" Maslach and Leiter

People intensive work is often present. Not always, but often. Seems where you have people you will have challenges and stress.

"A progressive loss of idealism, energy, and purpose." Edelwich and Brodsky

An Erosion of the Human Soul

Man Walking Alone

So what is burnout? Some clients have said they just feel beaten down with no support, no encouragement and a big question about whether it has been worth the effort at all.

"A state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations." Pines and Aronson

It's not just physical and external. It's internal and emotionally and mentally exhausting. Some have described 'having a tired soul'.

"Burnout is the index of the dislocation between what people are and what they have to do. It represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit, and will -- an erosion of the human soul." Maslach and Leiter

There it is again, the 'tired soul'. When who you are and what you have to do don't line up, it produces stress. Stay there long enough and it can contribute to burnout.

Another definition of burnout ...

"A three dimensional syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment that occurs among individuals who work with people in some helping capacity." Griffith University, Australia

I'm exhausted in every way. Nobody cares so why should I?

"The experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest (depersonalization or cynicism), usually in the work context." Wikipedia

Physically and Emotionally Exhausted

Man on Bench

This is insightful. 

"Burnout is a symptom of a person not being currently able to clearly discern their current primary needs and personal rights, set and stick to realistic local and long-term personal priorities, and assert and enforce appropriate personal boundaries (limits) with (a) themselves and/or (b) other people." Peter K. Gerlach MSW

Peter goes on to propose that the most accurate definition of burnout be:

"Burnout is a normal symptom (sign) of dominant personality subselves...

distrusting and disabling the person's resident true Self, and...

feeling too confused, weary, hopeless, conflicted, guilty, scared, shamed, hurt, angry, frustrated, and bored to (a) acknowledge this and (b) correct it without help."

All to say that I haven't paid attention to who I am, my values, my sense of what's right, my expectations, hopes, dreams and knowledge of the contribution I feel called to make. And now I'm too confused to see it or acknowledge it and do something about it on my own.

"Burnout is being physically and emotionally exhausted as a result of long term stress." Charles Figley, Ph.D.

Whatever definition of burnout you use, you need help. You are exhausted, done in, running on empty, and a tired soul.

I Invite You to Contact Me

Over a number of years I have coached many leaders, executives, and senior-level professionals experiencing overload and burnout. An initial conversation will determine if and how I might assist you.

Call our office at 705.687.2711 or send me a message using this convenient contact form.

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