What is burnout?

What is Burnout?


The term ‘burnout’ has become ubiquitous within the common vernacular. Yet what do we actually mean when we say we feel burnt-out?

There are approximately 140 definitions for burnout in approximately 15 000 peer-reviewed papers​1,2​ with little consensus for the criteria for symptoms and characteristics of burnout​3​ . Commonalities amongst definitions are an acknowledgement that burnout is an occupational experience, it involves psychological and physical exhaustion, burnout has a negative impact on individuals, and it is multidimensional. If we are all referring to burnout with no common understanding, then our desire to create interventions to prevent it becomes incredibly difficult.

For burnout to exist it must extend beyond exhaustion.

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How burnout is measured

The gold standard for measuring burnout is the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). It is a 22-item survey that measures three dimensions emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and personal accomplishment.   The three dimensions comprising burnout are regarded as continuous rather than linear, and to date, the literature does not support evidence of phases or stages of burnout, or the existence of a ‘typical’ burnout process.

Emotional exhaustion (EE)

This is strongly correlated with stress and refers to psychological depletion, overwhelming exhaustion, loss of energy and the emotional fatigue experienced due to employment experiences​4,5​ EE is a core construct of burnout, though on its own, it is exhaustion, not burnout.

Depersonalisation (DP)

This represents the interpersonal features of burnout (National Academies).  DP has been described as a crisis of meaning, and a loss of ability to live by personal values (National Academies). DP can present as cynicism, irritability, inappropriate attitudes, and a lack of interest in clinical work and compassionate care towards patients.

Personal Accomplishment (PA)

Refers to an individual having a sense of efficacy or competence with their work. Low PA is characterised by an individual’s sense of inefficacy, incompetence and concerns they are not achieving or are non-productive in their role (National Academies, Maslach & Leiter, 2016).

In 2016 Maslach and Leiter, in recognition that the MBI was being modified and misused, extended the measurement of burnout to include workplace profiles​4,6​ . The MBI was originally designed for discovery of the systemic issues in a n organisation so that organisations could engage strategies and planning to create change so their employees could thrive​6​ . The new workplace profiles generate five profiles of people’s work experience:

  • Burnout: exhaustion, cynicism and professional efficacy
  • Overextended: strong negative skill on exhaustion only
  • Ineffective: strong negative score on  professional efficacy only
  • Disengaged: strong negative score on depersonalisation or cynicism only
  • Engaged: strong positive scores on exhaustion, depersonalisation and professional efficacy

In the Harvard Business Review 2021 Maslach stated that burnout profiles allowed for targeted systemic interventions and that the MBI was currently being used in a way that was unethical and inaccurate​6​. Maslach also called for burnout to be explored with qualitative research to better understand issues for employees (Maslach, 2021)

6 things that affect how employees experience burnout:

  1. Excessive workload
  2. Lack of control and autonomy
  3. Having recognition and rewards
  4. Social support
  5. Fairness and transparency at work
  6. Shared values

What Burnout is (and what it isn’t)

What Burnout isWhat Burnout isn’t
Being overworked due to a deficit of organisational resourcesA lack of personal resources
Poor rostering schedulesDue to an absence of mindfulness
Rosters that are not distributed early enough to allow staff to organise their personal livesA lack of resilience or hardiness
Not enough recovery days in between shiftsA lack of skills
No opportunity for professional development and growthAnything that upsets you at work. Sadness, distress, anger, and compassion fatigue are not burnout. If these things persist due to systematic issues they may contribute to burnout over time
A lack of transparency for job promotion and career opportunities 
Problems with leadership 
When an organisation talks about values and missions and acts in the complete opposite way 


  1. 1.
    Hewitt DB, Ellis RJ, Hu YY, et al. Evaluating the Association of Multiple Burnout Definitions and Thresholds With Prevalence and Outcomes. JAMA Surg. Published online November 1, 2020:1043. doi:10.1001/jamasurg.2020.3351
  2. 2.
    Hillert A, Albrecht A, Voderholzer U. The Burnout Phenomenon: A Résumé After More Than 15,000 Scientific Publications. Front Psychiatry. Published online December 9, 2020. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2020.519237
  3. 3.
    Bianchi R, Schonfeld IS, Laurent E. Burnout: Moving beyond the status quo. International Journal of Stress Management. Published online February 2019:36-45. doi:10.1037/str0000088
  4. 4.
    Maslach C, Leiter M. Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry. 2016;15(2):103-111. doi:10.1002/wps.20311
  5. 5.
    Koutsimani P, Montgomery A, Georganta K. The Relationship Between Burnout, Depression, and Anxiety: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Front Psychol. 2019;10:284. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00284
  6. 6.
    Maslach C, Leiter M. How to Measure Burnout Accurately and Ethically. Harvard Business Review. Published March 19, 2021. https://hbr.org/2021/03/how-to-measure-burnout-accurately-and-ethically

Cite this article as: Liz Crowe, "What is Burnout?," in St.Emlyn's, December 6, 2022, https://www.stemlynsblog.org/what-is-burnout/.

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