December 08, 2021

Breakroom: “I think I’m burned out, but I don’t feel stressed”

Breakroom is a new series on the Bravely blog featuring practical food for thought for your everyday professional life, wrapped up in a colorful package you can read in two minutes or less.

Burnout, much like “resilience” or “gaslight,” has morphed into one of those words that we use constantly, despite not necessarily all having the same definition in mind.

Burnout probably isn’t new to your vocabulary, but it got a sizable boost in popularity in 2019, when the World Health Organization (WHO) defined and labeled it as an “occupational phenomenon.” (They had technically already done this in 1990, but the new, more detailed definition made headlines nonetheless.) Two years of high-uncertainty, high-stress conditions later, burnout is everywhere.

Ask 100 people to give a word they associate with burnout, and you’ll likely hear most say “stressed,” with a strong showing for “overwhelmed” and “exhausted.” If you end up having to answer this question on Family Feud, you’re welcome.

It’s easy to see where association between “burned out” and “stressed” comes from, but it misses the mark. To use a related analogy — with apologies in advance for any SATs flashbacks — burned out is to stressed what depressed is to sad. That is, burnout isn’t just a heightened state of stress; the two may be related, but it’s a different experience entirely.

Here’s how the WHO defines burnout in the latest revision of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11):

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

– feelings of 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.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

You may be wondering why the distinction between stress and burnout matters. It’s not just semantics: we’ve seen firsthand the harmful impact of misdefining burnout. The title of this post — “I think I’m burned out, but I don’t feel stressed” — was a common refrain for employees seeking coaching in 2021.

Many were expressing guilt or blaming themselves: “What right do I have to feel the disconnect, negativity, exhaustion, etc. of burnout out if I haven’t been overworked… Am I just lazy?”

But, as we recently said on LinkedIn, burnout often has nothing to do with workload. There are countless other ways burnout can arise, including:

  • unrewarding work
  • isolation
  • lack of recognition
  • conflicting feedback
  • lack of purpose or direction
  • intense emotional labor
  • misaligned values
  • being micromanaged
  • a culture of microaggressions
  • feeling disconnected from the company strategy
  • not getting opportunities to grow

You’ll notice that these causes have something in common: they’re all related to aspects of company culture or conditions that are mostly in someone else’s control.

We hope these examples expand your vocabulary (so to speak) for discussing burnout with your manager and resolving whatever’s holding you back from feeling connected to, and excited about, your work.

Dealing with burnout is hard enough without layering on guilt or self-doubt. Give yourself permission to call burnout what it is, and to start the conversations that will get you to your best life at work.

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