Burnout: the advent of the modern brain drain?

Understanding how people can recover following career burnout may be just as difficult as unravelling the root cause, according to new research.


It’s said that human beings require three things to be truly happy in life – someone to love, something to do and something to hope for. And that if you do something you love, you will never work a day in your life.

Yet, passionate and dedicated individuals like small business owners, teachers and nurses are burning out at alarming rates. In fact, burnout even affects individuals who work part-time, complete mundane tasks for a living or work for little to no paid reward.

We currently have minimal insight into how people experience the ‘recovery’ phase of burnout, how organisations help to facilitate this, if at all, and what implications this has for individual career trajectories and outcomes.

My doctoral research focuses on this neglected area of burnout and its fallout for individuals and organisations.

Burnout does not discriminate based on how long you work, how passionate you are or how interesting and valuable your work may be. It’s commonly equated with its most obvious symptom, exhaustion.

More than just stress

However, three decades of research have proven that burnout is more than just a singular dimension of exhaustion, it is incapacitation at every level of your being, including your personal affect and professional self-belief.

People who are burnt out are not only physically exhausted – they become withdrawn, cynical and no longer believe in their ability to set and achieve goals.

Despite what is commonly believed, burnout does not arise solely from an excessive workload or work hours. Research on burnout has revealed five additional stressors that push individuals to this state of exhaustion, withdrawal and hopelessness:

  • The amount of control you have in your job.
  • The fairness with which decisions are made in your workplace.
  • The level of social support you have at work.
  • How you are rewarded.
  • Whether or not you believe in your organisation’s values.

People suffering burnout are more than physically exhausted

Workplace stress is inevitable and, in some instances, can be healthy and motivating. Burnout, however, represents a state of persistent stress that slowly degrades an individual’s personal resources – their resilience, identity and self-belief – to the point of harm.  Burnout is also linked to increased cardiovascular events, depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse.

Beyond anecdotal evidence, there is little insight into this recovery phase, which is the focus of my research.

It’s not me it’s you

Even with this knowledge, much of the attention on burnout management has framed the issue as a problem with individuals rather than work environments.

Most people turn to person-centric interventions for assistance, such as exercise and mindfulness programs despite their negligible impact on the overall prevention and trajectory of burnout.

While there are countless suggestions on how individuals can find ways to combat burnout, the evidence is out as to whether or not these approaches work. They also concentrate on the individual and don’t approach the problem organisationally.

Environmental changes – like designing jobs where individuals have more control over their output – are shown to be more effective but because they often require complex re-organisations, researchers have difficulty studying them and workplaces are unmotivated to enact them.

For example, despite the rise of digital nomads and increasingly flexible work practices, many organisations still remain wedded to the idea that a present worker is a productive worker – multinationals like IBM, Bank of America and Yahoo are a case in point, slashing their work-from-home policies citing a lack of productivity and collaboration.

One group of individuals resisting traditional expectations of work are FIREs – Financial Independence, Retire Early – who dedicate themselves to the early withdrawal from paid work, ideally within their thirties.

Of course, this involves acquiring sufficient cash and assets through hyper-frugality, investments and lifestyle changes in order to withdraw from the voluntary labour market.

New vistas into burnout management

 width=So how can we expect to achieve healthy workplaces when we see burnout as a personal failing, rather than one of environmental misfit?

If we want to stem the flow of burnout we need to turn our attention towards environmental changes – a burden that falls to both individuals and organisations who collectively perpetuate a work culture that normalises burnout.

Ironically, recovery measures for individuals with burnout have been developed without individual perspectives.

For example, the burden of repair is currently placed on individuals to manage their own stress through small lifestyle changes like well-timed holidays, exercise and mindfulness interventions with little regard for the social and practical impediments to these suggestions.

There isn’t enough quality evidence to suggest the true utility or efficacy of any of these measures. While individual tips have been well documented in the media despite a lack of evidence, I am adopting a critical position of this person-centric view – my research is about integrating individual perspectives into environmental measures.

A key question for us as workers and knowledge producers is: how do we want the future of work to look beyond the ‘rise and grind’?


Published on 24 Jul 2019