silhouette and flame representing burnout

I have doubt about burnout.

Understand, not only do I feel certain that employees experience exhaustion, cynicism, disengagement, self-doubt, and depression often as a result of work stressors, but I’ve spent the better part of my career spotlighting these processes in my work as a well-being practitioner. Further, if an employee says they’re burned out, I believe their experience is credible — it should be accepted, respected, and addressed.

Only because the term burnout means so many different things to different people I wonder whether it’s been stripped of any real meaning at all. Sure, the World Health Organization defines it as exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced efficacy as a result of unmanaged work stress, but that’s not how either employers nor employees understand it, nor is it how it usually is measured in research.

When I question whether it exists, I’m asking, “How can we say burnout is… burnout… if everyone understands burnout to be something different?”

There are a couple of articles I’d recommend for those who want to get a better grasp of what we do and don’t really know about burnout. The most recent is New Directions in Burnout Research. A key takeaway:

If burnout scholars do not talk to individuals with burnout and burnout practitioners do not read scientific literature on burnout, the puzzle of burnout cannot be solved.

The other article is “How to Measure Burnout Accurately and Ethically,” by Maslach and Leiter (who developed the most commonly used assessment instrument). The authors note that a common misuse of their Maslach Burnout Inventory is “people use only 1 of the 3 dimensions of burnout (usually exhaustion), implicitly proposing a new definition of burnout.”

They add…

When measured properly, evidence suggests that only 10% to 15% of employees fit the true burnout profile…

I’m not sure I buy into this prevalence being characterized as “only” — it’s 15% of the workforce with a serious problem — but it’s less than we’re led to believe by media declarations of a “burnout epidemic” or even by other researchers.

One thing most credible researchers (for now, I’m excluding those with a product to sell) agree on is that, after 50 years of study, we haven’t identified practical, scalable, evidence-based solutions. This aligns with the previously mentioned scholar/practitioner dichotomy, but also it gives me (and others) pause to consider whether there may be something fundamental about burnout that we’ve misunderstood from the beginning.

One of those doubters is Renzo Bianchi. In “Is Burnout a Depressive Condition? A 14-Sample Meta-Analytic and Bifactor Analytic Study,” he and his collaborators conclude:

Burnout does not present the unity expected of a distinct syndrome. Burnout’s core—Exhaustion—more frequently co-occurs with depressive symptoms than with either Detachment or Efficacy… in other words, the core of the burnout syndrome is depressive in nature.

Over many years, Bianchi has published research supporting the idea of occupation-related depression as an alternative to the distinct burnout syndrome. It’s a position dismissed by many psychologists who fear the medicalization of the issue — a fear that is probably well founded. But Bianchi may be right, and framing burnout as occupational depression may open the door to identification of effective interventions (medical or not). Ultimately, then, the term “burnout” can take its place in the popular lexicon to mean whatever the user wants it to mean — exactly where it came from and perhaps exactly where it still belongs.

[Join a lively discussion of a version of this article on LinkedIn.]