The Truth Behind Burnout

Work, by its very nature, is work: It can be tiring and stressful. But what happens when those feelings stop being conditional and start becoming chronic?

In recent years, researchers have employed the term “burnout” to describe that very experience. “Burnout” typically refers to a work-induced syndrome that manifests in three key ways: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization — like distancing oneself from coworkers — and a reduced interest in personal accomplishment.

The rate of burnout continues to grow. In 2018, Harvard Business Review reported that one in five employees were at risk of burnout. Those numbers seem poised to rise, especially as full-time work becomes more demanding and part-time work involves piecing together multiple gigs to get by.

But Professor Irvin Schonfeld (The City College of New York, The Graduate Center, CUNY) sees burnout differently. Over the course of more than 50 co-authored studies, he and a team that frequently includes Renzo Bianchi from the Université de Neuchâtel, and Jay Verkuilen from The Graduate Center, CUNY, have looked at the correlation between burnout and depression.

Schonfeld and Bianchi’s most recent article was published in the journal, Psychology, Health & Medicine. It questions whether burnout is actually caused by the workplace. “What they’re calling burnout also colors your feelings outside of work, which is why I think it’s depression as well,” he says.

Even though burnout is associated with the three symptoms mentioned above, the core is emotional exhaustion. Schonfeld says, “Emotional exhaustion correlates more highly with depressive and anxiety symptoms than it correlates with depersonalization or reduced accomplishment.” In fact, people with a history of depression or anxiety tend to score highly on scales measuring burnout.

It might seem as though the debate comes down to a matter of semantics, but getting the diagnosis right is critical. “The implication is that if you’re suffering from burnout what you need is a vacation,” he explains. “I’m not against vacation, but it has a two-week half-life. When you come back, you feel good for about two weeks, and then whatever the working conditions are, they’re going to affect you.” Treating burnout as depression, however, could be far more useful.

Schonfeld can’t say for certain, but he believes burnout’s popularity as a term could have to do with perceptions about mental health. “It could be that burnout has less stigma than depression, so people may be more willing to admit to being burned out,” he says.

Schonfeld, Bianchi, and Verkuilen have an article about the correlation of burnout and depression forthcoming in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

Besides being a professor at City College and The Graduate Center, CUNY, Schonfeld is also a GC doctoral alumnus. He earned his Ph.D. in educational psychology.