The Dark Tales of Burnout

This week, the World Health Organization redefined occupational burnout, which previously was a vague description of being overworked, but now has specific criteria that workers and employers should use to be on the lookout for burnout.

According to the new definition, occupational burnout is characterized by “feelings of

The definition of employee burnout was recently updated by the World Health Organization. Photo by Alexander Dummer.

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.”

For me, my anxiety and depression gives me each of these symptoms, making it difficult if not impossible to go to work sometimes. This is likely true for many who struggle with such disorders. The overlap between these conditions and burnout can make diagnosis difficult, but it can help to look at your feelings leaving work, and your feelings when you are home.

Having depression and anxiety can also make burnout more likely. That is the case for me at least. Having to go into work and interact with other people can sometimes stress me to the point of having all these symptoms, but maybe that is more related to how I handle my stress than burnout or anxiety (more on handling stress in tomorrow’s post).

These are serious issues, given that a 2018 Gallup poll concluded that almost a quarter of employees feel burnout most or all of the time and almost half feel burnout sometimes. Just as anxiety and depression can make burnout more common, burnout can feed depression and raise the risk of suicide.

And employers have just as much incentive to be on the lookout for this as employees do, given the associated drop in productivity. Yet unfortunately, especially in the United States, employees are driven harder than they should be in search for benefits such as healthcare that in turn they then use to treat the burnout that they get from working so hard.


It is a sick business. And it needs to stop.

Depression and anxiety can contribute to the development of burnout, but burnout can also foster feelings of depression. Photo by Tim Gouw.

I say this as someone coming from a legal background, a profession that has higher than average rates of depression, burnout, substance abuse, and suicide because of the tendency of attorneys to overwork themselves in pursuit of partner.

The dark tales of burnout are very dark indeed. However, it is my hope that with new definitions, like this one, and more people speaking up, that we will begin to brighten those dark tales, and all the darkness that goes with mental illness.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s