How to know if you have burnout

We've all hit a wall, but what's really going on with our mental health right now?

“Logging off at the end of the day. It’s nearly impossible. Once the world went into lockdown a year ago, I felt like I logged onto work and I’m still waiting to log off.” 

Last week, the New York Times asked readers to share their experiences of burnout. Within two days, 700 readers responded with stories of feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and at breaking point. Personally, I’ve never had more responses to a newsletter than the one I wrote recently about my own burnout. 

I took that flood of messages as a sign that we need to talk more about this and so when it came to deciding the next episode of Is This Working?, the careers podcast I co-host with Tiffany Philippou, I said we had to make (another) one about burnout

When we were planning the episode, I made a throwaway comment that we should open with each of us discussing our experiences of burnout when Tiffany told me that she didn’t think she’d actually experienced it. She described feeling some of the symptoms but asked me something that gave me pause: is there a time limit on how long you need to feel the symptoms for it to be classified as burnout? 

I dutifully went off and looked into this and I couldn’t really find anything. When you look up the symptoms of depression or anxiety, you need to have felt them for two weeks or longer. No such parameters seem to be placed on burnout. This made me wonder if you called up your doctor and listed the symptoms, would they diagnosis you with burnout? Maybe, maybe not. Given the overlap of symptoms, it’s more likely that they’d say you have low mood or possibly depression. The UK’s Office of National Statistics collects data on depression, which shows that the number of people with depression doubled during the pandemic, but it doesn’t hold stats on burnout.  

In making a podcast about work, I’ve learned that the relationship between mental health and work is a poorly understood and underresearched field. Even within burnout research, there are diverging schools of thought, with some experts believing burnout is a subsect of depression, while others classify it as a discrete entity that increases the risk of depression if left untreated.

This isn’t surprising given that burnout is still a relatively new concept. It was first observed in the 1970s by psychoanalyst Herbert J. Freudenberger. It was only in 2019 that the World Health Organisation classified it as an “occupational phenomenon”, resulting from chronic workplace stress that’s been left unmanaged. That’s important to emphasise because people often misuse the term burnout: it’s a work problem.

Understanding the role work plays in conditions like burnout inform how they’re treated. Researchers from CUNY have found if someone is suffering from burnout, while standard treatment for depression will help, if the working environment isn’t addressed then the problem will return. As Olga Khazan wrote in the Atlantic recently, “burnout is a problem created by the workplace, and changes to the workplace are the best way to fix it.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that work is a huge part of the problem. How we work was broken long before the pandemic came along and put a magnifying glass on the negative consequences of presenteeism, workaholism and productivity fetishisation. But it’s also somewhat of a red herring because let’s face it, it’s easier to say “I’m burned out” than “I’m depressed”.

To my mind, “pandemic burnout” is a placeholder until we figure out the extent of what a year of lockdowns and social isolation has done to our individual and collective psyches. Put simply, we just don’t have the right words yet. And we urgently need that vocabulary. There’s a powerful comfort in being able to name something. Let’s just make sure we’re getting that name right.