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What Actually is Burnout?

Nathan Kuik
Clinical social worker turned developer. Have worked inside and outside of frameworks. Prefer to see the human element in everything, including tech. He/Him.
Updated on ・7 min read

It's basically impossible to scroll through our phones or computers without seeing a bunch of articles about the negative impacts of burnout, including
the recent slew of articles, started by the Buzzfeed piece, discussing generational experiences of burnout. To me this increase touches on a common nerve; regardless of our generational label, many of us have a sense of what it's like to hit snooze with the feeling that we can't possibly drag ourselves to work for another day. However, it's rare that resources go deeper than "burnout is bad and you shouldn't let it happen". This is why I decided to do a series on burnout, consisting of four parts:

  • What is burnout and why should we care? (this article)
  • What are some things we can personally do about burnout? (Part II)
  • What about systematic circumstances that might contribute to burnout? (Part III)
  • How can we make the behavior changes we make stick? (Part IV)

If you're looking for a deeper dive into burnout, and what we might actually be able to do about it, this series is for you.

What Actually Is Burnout?

In the last few years, burnout has been getting more attention as a problem. As a clinical social worker turned developer, this makes me happy. It's time we reject the normalcy of burnout, the trial-by-fire, "I did it when I was younger so you should too" attitude commonplace in many professions--including software development. Burnout is something to change rather than relish.

mental health burnout

Comic by Sow

Despite having its own inventory--the Maslach Burnout Inventory--and increased media coverage, burnout is not a diagnosable mental health condition like Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) or Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

Burnout is unfortunately not a diagnosable mental health condition and there is no universally agreed upon definition for burnout1.

The fact that burnout is not a diagnosable mental health condition makes its treatment difficult, as health insurance reimbursement for treatment and workplace leave policies hinge on such diagnoses--at least in the United States2. Thus, if a person is burned out and is having difficulties working, they must be diagnosed with a different condition (like MDD or GAD) or they must find some other "valid" explanations for their suffering to be medically validated and for their treatment to be covered by insurance or by workplace policies. This gap presents challenges in correctly diagnosing, supporting, and treating a person experiencing burnout--challenges I will write about in Part III of this series.

That said, the literature suggests a cluster of three characteristics that commonly develop in the presence of chronic stress:

  1. Emotional exhaustion
  2. Feelings of low professional efficacy
  3. Depersonalization or cynicism directed towards one's job

In addition, a number of symptoms or behaviors (not included in the Maslach Burnout Inventory) have been identified to accompany the three main characteristics such as:

  • A compulsion to prove oneself
  • Leaving little time for non-work related activities
  • Feelings of meaningless and/or lack of interest
  • Feeling no upper limit in the vigor in which one works
  • Neglecting personal needs
  • No time for non-work related hobbies/responsibilities
  • Increasing denial of a problem and decreasing flexibility of thought and behavior
  • Feelings of inner emptiness, anxiety, and/or addictive behavior
  • Feelings of meaningless and/or lack of interest
  • Physical exhaustion

These symptoms often manifest themselves in a way similar to depression, and there is debate regarding burnout's classification as a standalone disorder. There's no utility in adding an opinion to this debate, so let's just agree that depression, burnout, and their potential overlap are bad and should happen less.

Depending on one's personal psychology and circumstance, one might identify the source of burnout on an interpersonal ("I'm personally not cut out for this job") vs. external ("My sucky manager prevents me from doing my job correctly") spectrum. Such subjectivity requires our introspection and supportive outside opinions (friends, significant other, therapist, etc) to help identify potential source(s) of burnout.

One important note: While I have previously worked as a therapist, this post should be used as an informative guide--it is in no way a diagnostic tool. If things are feeling a bit too heavy, I urge you to consider finding your own therapist. This can be challenging, considering the web of health insurance coverage (or lack of it), finding a good fit in a therapist, etc. However, there are guides to ease the process, even if only a little.

The Costs

The cost of burnout is one reason awareness of it is increasing. One article from the Lancet Journal of Psychiatry notes that disorders like anxiety and depression affect around 700 million people worldwide, contribute $1 trillion in lost productivity, and result to around 12 billion total days of lost work. As I mentioned, burnout is not a diagnosable condition, making it difficult to quantify its cost. But we can assume that the costs lie within the overall costs of mental health conditions, as its symptoms are commonly diagnosed as depression.

Am I Burntout?

While listing the symptoms can be insightful, direct questions can be a bit more helpful. Ask yourself the following:

  • Do I feel tired all of the time?
  • Is there any energy left over after a workday to do things I enjoy?
  • Do I feel like I actually want to do anything other than work?
  • Am I using the appearance as the super busy, all-important workaholic as an excuse to work more?
  • What kind (if any) negative energy do I have towards the work that I'm doing?
  • Does it feel like I'm failing to make any kind of difference in my work?
  • Do I feel guilty when I'm not working?
  • Does my workplace feel like some kind of Stockholm Syndrome--I don't feel my needs are considered in the workplace, but it is also difficult for me to leave work at a reasonable hour?
  • Does it feel difficult for me to empathize with people?

If these questions ring true to you in some way, a level of burnout might be present in your life.

What Can We Do About It?

I'm not here to only list symptoms, throw out cost statistics, or offer glib advice like "improve your work-life balance", "get a new job", or "make more friends". While it is true these things might work, they also assume a level of control that we might not have or include things that are personally challenging to us.

From burnout's three defining characteristics, it is clear that circumstances (country of residence, personal life, company, manager, etc.), experiences of "isms" (racism, sexism, ableism, etc.), and/or microagressions contribute to burnout. These circumstances have a huge impact on feelings of burnout. But while they might have the biggest impact, they might be the things we have the least power to change.

Systemic contributors to burnout are real and they should never be ignored or minimized. We should never forget that larger system changes must be made to reduce burnout potential.

Despite potential feelings of circumstantial powerlessness, there are still things in the realm of our control. Accordingly, I will write about some of the things we can do in our own lives to fight burnout in Part II of this series. In Part III, I will come back to the environmental factors that might contribute to burnout and how we can cope with them. Finally, in Part IV, I will tackle the difficult task of maintaining the changes we decide to make.

Hope to see you there :)


If you are experiencing any strong negative mental states, please get the help you need--OSMI's resources are a good place to start. Otherwise the number to the suicide hotline in the US is: 1-800-273-8255.

I've started a repo with the main concepts of this article, in addition to providing a number of other resources to help those on their journey to flow more. The repo can be found here--any additions, suggestions, or criticisms are appreciated and be made in the form of PR. Finally, this article supplements a 2018 workshop I did for WordCamp Europe, in cooperation with OSMI, which you should check out for everything mental health in tech.

1The International Classification of Disease (ICD) 11 does include burnout in a chapter about factors that influence health, but it does not designate it as a diagnosible condition.

2It is important to mention that some countries (Denmark and Sweden, for example) do have policies that cover employee burnout (it's called "going down with stress").

Discussion (4)

nkuik profile image
Nathan Kuik Author

Yes and no.

First, it is true that mental health diagnosis is difficult. The mental heath disorder bible, the DSM 5, has plenty of criticisms, so I don't think a disorder existing there should be the end and be all. For instance, homosexuality was only removed as a disorder in 1972, and even that change was a bit, let's say, weird. However, burnout does appear in the ICD-10, but diagnosing it is a challenge.

Second, the presence of compassion fatigue, burnout, or vicarious trauma is well-documented in professions like social work, medicine, and nursing. So even if we haven't narrowed in on a "perfect" diagnosis, the prevalence of this phenomenon can't be ignored.

karltaylor profile image
Karl Taylor

Thanks for this Nathan, great read.

nkuik profile image
Nathan Kuik Author

Glad it was useful!