Understanding Burnout – why it matters and what to do about it

By Samantha Fernando

Published on 08-10-2021


Most of us understand the importance of taking time off work when we are injured or unwell, however more and more workplaces are seeing staff call in ‘sick’ to mend their mental health. As the conversation around mental health grows, there is also a growing trend of mental health-related leave days coming into workplaces.

Mental Health Days are a key step in ensuring employees can prioritise both their mental and physical health, however this may be merely treating a symptom rather than the root cause of the issue - Burnout.

The term Burnout has been bandied around more recently with the effects of lockdowns taking their toll, but recognising the signs early to avoid or manage the effects has benefits for both employees and employers.

This article explores:

  • The concept and dimensions of Burnout

  • Understanding Burnout versus general disengagement

  • The cost of Burnout and the value of rest

  • Recognising the warning signs: What are organisations doing?

What is Burnout?

The concept of burnout isn’t new, in fact, the very first paper to discuss “Burnout” as a potential syndrome was published in 1974. In 2019 the World Health Organisation officially categorised and defined Burnout as a legitimate occupational experience resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. This has been a monumental step in the right direction, as prior to this, Burnout and more generally, stress were undistinguished, making the research, study and data on work-related causes of stress difficult to isolate.

According to WHO, there are three main dimensions that are indicative of Burnout:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion

  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job

  3. Reduced professional efficacy


Understanding burnout versus general disengagement

The term “Burnout” has become more frequently used as the effects of the pandemic are prolonged. As the effects of the pandemic spill over from health and safety into other realms of our lives such as the physical blurring of work and personal space, and emerging cultures of ‘work anywhere, anytime/all the time’, the impact on mental health is being felt.

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight, so it’s easy to miss the warning signs. Refined over decades of research, a common tool to identify burnout is using the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), the first scientifically developed measure of burnout. The MBI scores employees on the three dimensions of burnout and differentiates between employees who have been exposed to chronic work-related stress and those who are disengaged. This HBR article on MBI further details the differences in these scores and how to ethically measure them.

Whilst all three dimensions of Burnout can be interrelated, a distinguishing factor about burnout versus general work dissatisfaction, is the mental load that engages high performing staff, that without regular breaks, can also drain their efficacy. The key is in understanding that mental fuel is also a scarce resource. Human beings were not designed to be ‘on’ all the time and the mind and body both need adequate rest to function effectively.

The recent study by researchers at George Mason University, who conducted an experiment on two groups of students. Both groups were asked to perform a detailed task for a period of 45 mins. One group was given a short 5 min break halfway. While we can already guess that the students who had the break were better off, what is surprising, is that all students in the group with the short break significantly outperformed their sustained performance counterparts.

The cost of Burnout and the value of rest

We have all seen the statistics and fiscal costs of employees who are burnt out, but what is often overlooked is the intangible costs to the health, physical and financial wellbeing of the individuals and their families.

Prolonged exposure to mental strain without adequate rest can lead to mental fatigue, which challenges your ability to focus, resulting in loss of efficacy, increased depression, and anxiety. As such, burnout can have a very real effect on a person’s overall well-being. Researchers have linked anxiety and heart disease due to the persistent strain on their hearts. 

While there’s good evidence that breaks are beneficial to ensuring that burnout doesn’t occur, it’s less clear how to build the perfect break—in fact, according to the American Psychological Association, the type of rest depends on the person, the type of work and the situation.

Knowing the warning signs: What are organisations doing?

Are you exhausted, experiencing anxiety, forgetful, frequently sick, or feeling isolated and detached? Recognising the signs early can help you manage the effects and make resting BAU.

Organisations are prioritising and providing avenues for staff to proactively manage their mental health. A number of firms have implemented unlimited leave policies to foster guilt-free leave days, however, trends show that Aussies aren’t utilising these.

Here at Six Degrees Executive, we recently implemented the ‘Wello’ - a dedicated day where all employees can openly and actively plan a wellness day every quarter to rest, relax or do something to help detach from work and combat burnout. The initiative allows us to convert a day of personal leave into a scheduled day away from work to rest and reboot so we can return to work at our best.

Implementing such programs and having the leaders openly demonstrate and celebrate the benefits of taking time to recover, paves a pathway for all to do so, openly. Having scheduled time out from work also helps negate the impact of employees calling in sick without notice.

I get it—you’re an overachiever, you’re going to put on your cape, and run the world. But make sure that you hang up that cape every now and then so you can do so sustainably. Queensland Health’s list of 5 things to do and 1 to not do on a mental health day is a great start.