The Big Burnout
BBC Science Focus|New Year 2022
Long hours, low pay and a lack of appreciation — among other things — can make for a stressful workplace and lead to burnout. It’s something we should all be concerned about, because over half of the workforce reports feeling it
By Dr Dean Burnett. Photographs by Getty Images and Alamy
Burnout is mentioned a lot these days. But what is it, exactly? A disease? A disorder? A driving based video game? Actually, it’s none of these things (well, there is a video game but that’s not what we’re discussing here).

Burnout is the phenomenon where an individual’s health (physical and mental) and functionality suffers due to them experiencing excessive stress for extended periods, specifically from their job. As such, it’s officially classed as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ (see ‘What is burnout?’, p41).

There are those who may scoff at this. After all, hard work never hurt anyone, right? It’s character building! You’ve got to work hard if you want to succeed. You don’t get something for nothing, etc. Overall, there are many societal factors and assumptions that can, and do, lead people to assume that constant hard work only has positive outcomes.

The data tells a very different story, however. The reason burnout is mentioned so often is because surveys (conducted in the US) reveal that, pre-pandemic, 43 per cent of workers reported experiencing some form of burnout. Nearly half of the entire workforce.

Alarmingly, yet predictably, the pandemic’s made things worse. The same studies conducted post-2020 reveal that 52 per cent of employees, a 9 per cent increase, now report experiencing it. So burnout now affects over half the workforce. Particularly younger employees, who have many more working years ahead of them; those closer to retirement, in more senior positions, with more savings, report less burnout. But even they’re feeling the pinch of the pandemic.

Why, though? Given everything we’re led to believe about the benefits of hard work, why is burnout such a problem?

STRESS AND ITS IMPACT ON HEALTH

A persistent cause of poor health in modern, developed-world humans, is stress. While we’re all familiar with stress, its long-term effects are more profound than most realise, leading to many health problems.

Stress is part of our body and brain’s defence system. It’s essentially a precursor, a build-up stage, to the more potent, but shorter lived, fight-or-flight response. When we encounter things that we perceive as threats (or potential threats), we experience stress. Which has health consequences, often due to the constant presence in our systems of stress chemicals, such as cortisol.

Physically, stress negatively affects our blood pressure, respiration, weight, immune system and more. Mentally, stress can negatively affect our focus, memory, mood and cognition. Stress is also believed to be a key factor in the onset of both depression and anxiety.

It’s well established that burnout causes genuine physical illness, increased feelings of hopelessness or despair, irritability, impatience, and damages relationships with family, friends and co-workers. Burnout can even lead to problems with executive functioning (our ability to think and self-regulate), attention, and memory. Overall, burnout mirrors the consequences of excessive stress. It’s not just severe exhaustion (although that’s a key part of it). However, burnout is specifically a consequence of stress induced by someone’s work, their job (see ‘What does burnout do to us?’, p42).

So, what’s so special about work stress?

Much modern adult stress comes via the workplace. Psychologically speaking, there are many things about work that reliably trigger stress in the brain, things that we’re less likely to encounter outside of work.

For instance, the human brain likes a sense of control, of autonomy. When we feel we have control over things that affect us, we tend to feel better, more reassured. Most jobs involve adhering to a strict schedule, however, or taking instructions from someone more senior. And in big organizations, it’s often hard to understand the logic or rationale of the things you’re being made to do. This loss of autonomy is a reliable cause of stress. As is uncertainty, a constant issue when you don’t understand why you’re being made to do what you’re doing.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM BBC SCIENCE FOCUSView All

How to Build the Future of Social Media

At the Polarization Lab in North Carolina, multidisciplinary researchers – including social scientists, statisticians and computer scientists – are breaking apart the social media status quo to rebuild it, one peer-reviewed brick at a time

5 mins read
BBC Science Focus
May 2022

W Boson: Is About to Break Physics?

The mass of the W boson, a subatomic particle, appears to be wrong. What could this mean for the Standard Model of particle physics?

3 mins read
BBC Science Focus
May 2022

YOU CAN'T BEAT BEETROOT

How this humble, purple vegetable can improve the health of your heart

2 mins read
BBC Science Focus
May 2022

Sleepiness in Alzheimer's patients is caused by damage to neurons that help them stay awake

The finding treatments could lead to new for those with the disease to help them stay alert

1 min read
BBC Science Focus
May 2022

THE DAY THE DINOSAURS DIED

New BBC documentary, Dinosaurs: The Final Day, presented by Sir David Attenborough, digs into a fossil site that may have recorded the moment an asteroid wiped out almost all life on Earth. Holly Spanner met with Robert DePalma, one of the palaeontologists at the site, to find out more about the significance of this discovery...

8 mins read
BBC Science Focus
May 2022

A WHOLE NEW WHORL

MANY OF US HAVE SEEN SEASHELLS ON THE BEACH AND MARVELLED AT THEIR COLOURS, AND PATTERNS OF CURVES AND RIDGES. BUT SEASHELLS ARE FAR MORE THAN JUST PRETTY OBJECTS, AND THEIR INTRICATE STRUCTURES CAN HELP US LEARN MORE ABOUT THE INHABITANTS THAT ONCE DWELLED INSIDE THEM

6 mins read
BBC Science Focus
May 2022

DOES YOUR DOG REALLY LOVE YOU?

Sure, they wag their tails to greet us and are happy to snuggle up and watch TV in the evening, but are our beloved pooches actually experiencing the same love for us as we feel for them?

9 mins read
BBC Science Focus
May 2022

COVID-19 can have long-term impacts on the brain

According to a study on nonhuman primates, effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection on the brain include reduced oxygen flow, neuron damage and bleeding

1 min read
BBC Science Focus
May 2022

Experts call for NHS to provide genetic tests to usher in era of personalised medicine

We must move away from the current "one drug and one dose fits all" model to make treatments safer and more effective

1 min read
BBC Science Focus
May 2022

Huge DNA study reveals new clues about cancer-causing mutations

The findings could lead to better diagnosis and treatments for cancer

1 min read
BBC Science Focus
May 2022
RELATED STORIES

A Profit and Loss Statement for Your Life

One approach to dealing with stress and burnout: Think of your emotional and other resources like a portfolio

8 mins read
Newsweek
November 05, 2021

Science of Us: Katie Heaney

The Clock-Out Cure – For those who can afford it, quitting has become the ultimate form of self-care.

6 mins read
New York magazine
May 10 - 23, 2021

THE BRINK OF MENTAL EXHAUSTION: IMPORTANCE OF REFUELING MIND, BODY AND SOUL

If I told you that you needed to drive your car nonstop cross the United States, no fuel stops, what would you say? Impossible – why… because our cars were not built to go that far without stopping for fuel.

5 mins read
Natural Solutions
October 2020

Heroes Get the Blues, Too

THE BRAVE HEALTHCARE PROFESSIONALS, first responders, law enforcement, military, funeral directors and those delivering necessities to hospitals and communities affected by COVID-19 are our new heroes. They’re risking or losing their lives to provide care for us. Some sleep in their cars in hospital parking lots. Running on cortisol, adrenaline and caffeine, they plead, “We stay here, so you stay home!” Many wish stay-at-home orders would have happened sooner.

2 mins read
Central Florida Health News
May 2020

WE'RE CALLING TIME OUT

AMERICANS ARE OVERWORKED, OVERSCHEDULED, AND JUST PLAIN EXHAUSTED. THE SOLUTION? FORGET ABOUT RADICAL DIETS ABND INTENSE NEW FITNESS PLANS-WHAT WE ALL REALLY NEED IS TO SLOOOW DOWN. PRESENTING 17 RELAXING STRATEGIES FOR BEATING BACK STRESS AND RECLAIMING YOUR MOJO IN 2020.

10+ mins read
Outside Magazine
January - February 2020

Body Mind Spirit

The Gift of Self-Care for the Holidays and Always

2 mins read
Central Florida Health News
December 2019

The New Energy Crisis

You may have heard people blame their crushing exhaustion, brain fog, and moodiness on burnout or adrenal fatigue. But experts say those usually aren’t accurate diagnoses. Here, a new term for what ails us, along with new thinking on exactly how chronic stress is affecting our health—and why yoga can help.

10+ mins read
Yoga Journal
September 2018

The Big Burnout

Long hours, low pay and a lack of appreciation — among other things — can make for a stressful workplace and lead to burnout. It’s something we should all be concerned about, because over half of the workforce reports feeling it

10 mins read
BBC Earth
Volume 14 - Issue 2

Burnout y su impacto en la salud en la era postcovid

La crisis causada por la pandemia ha aumentado los casos de burnout, por lo que es importante conocer sus efectos y cómo hacerle frente

3 mins read
Forbes México
Diciembre 2021 / Enero 2022

How To Cope With Dating Burnout

Remember, dating is meant to be fun.

4 mins read
Cosmopolitan India
October 2021