Maverick Life


You are not alone, burnout is real, and on the rise

You are not alone, burnout is real, and on the rise
Burnout is defined as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Image: Tangerine Newt / Unsplash

Even as opportunities for remote work have increased, employees are reporting even higher levels of burnout. Studies have found the dedicated and committed are particularly prone to burnout.

The chorus from David Bowie’s Cat People – “Putting out fire with gasoline” – conjures up graphic and riveting images of possible physical manifestations, while inspiring a plethora of metaphoric applications.

One of the most pervasive burning platforms in the world today is “burnout”, which prevails across industries, economies and countries, with its knock-on effects on families, communities and society at large.

The World Health Organization defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised 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; reduced professional efficacy.”

Ironically, while burnout is included in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon, it is not classified as a medical condition.

Read in Daily Maverick: Are you feeling burned out? Here is how to know the signs

Burnout was discovered and named in the 1970s. Bob Dylan sang about it on his album Blood on the Tracks with the lyric “burned out from exhaustion”, and Neil Young in early 1974 sang of “burn-outs” aimlessly dragging their feet, in his song Ambulance Blues.

Herbert Freudenberger, a psychologist in New York who emerged in the early 1970s, would regularly put 10 hours a day into his private practice and then head downtown for a second shift at St Mark’s Free Clinic.  After the clinic closed for the night, Freudenberger and the volunteer staff would hold meetings until the early hours and he would then head back uptown for a few hours of sleep before doing it all again the next day.

Obviously, this could not be sustained and a year into this schedule, Freudenberger broke down as he was unable to get out of bed on a morning the family was supposed to leave for a holiday.

Freudenberger did an in-depth self-study, resulting in him publishing a paper, Staff burnout, in an academic journal. In asking “who is prone to burnout?” he unequivocally states: “The dedicated and the committed.”

The term burnout was first coined by workers at the St Marks Free Clinic to describe themselves. They picked it up from the East Village streets where people used to describe heroin users’ veins: “Inject into a spot long enough and it becomes useless and burned out.”

While Freudenberger was making his findings in New York, Christina Maslach was on the other side of the country, making similar discoveries and producing a report that preceded Freudenberger’s paper by only a few months.

The phenomenon, called burnout in research papers, rapidly extrapolated into what became a ubiquitous buzzword used even more prolifically today. Over the past few decades, burnout has become a global phenomenon that greatly intensified during the Covid pandemic, particularly in sectors that had to remain open, such as manufacturing, retail and healthcare.

Workplace burnout around the world reached a record high in 2020, with 43% of people from more than 100 countries claiming to have experienced workplace burnout, according to the Global Workplace Burnout Report.

Co-founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute, David Rock’s SCARF model articulates five key “domains” that influence our behaviour in social situations: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. 

The model is based on neuroscience research that implies that these domains activate the same threat and reward responses in our brain that we rely on for physical survival.

It takes little imagination to see how much of this has featured so significantly moving into the lockdown of Covid. Status, which speaks of our relative importance to others, was under threat; certainty, there was none; autonomy, our freedom to choose on so many levels, was removed; relatedness was at an all-time low in our isolation; fairness, conspicuous by its absence.

The world reported unprecedented levels of mental and anxiety disorders, most of these on the back of the enormous fear and uncertainty that people were feeling. This was fuelled by the tsunami of negative content that spewed forth from across all media and communication channels. 

Not only was the content alarming and negative, but an immeasurable portion of it was also falsified. The anxiety quotient in the case of those who contracted Covid, was a double-edged sword, since it proved in many instances to be the precursor of the cytokine storm that often resulted in death. It was important for us to recognise then, and in any similar situation in the future, that we cannot control the content that is presented to us, but we can control the context which is the inner place that receives and responds to that content.

In truth, we have the capacity to choose what we focus on and internalise.

The underlying common catalyst that is blatantly obvious, is fear. It is the primary mechanism in self-preservation as it is our early-warning system to enable us to survive life-threatening situations. Similarly, it can make a positive contribution in managing risk by causing us to appropriately consider the potential hazards in planning new pursuits.

However, fear can often be of great disservice by creating analysis-paralysis and risk aversion, thereby preventing important decisions being made and acted upon.

Our observations through coaching senior business leaders across industries and geographies over 20 years, is that a surprisingly large percentage of these accomplished and successful people are primarily motivated by fear. Our use of the psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) diagnostic, which measures current levels of efficacy, self-worth, gratification, resilience and burnout, has proved to be invaluable in enabling leaders to make significant positive inner shifts.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

Emerging from the pandemic, there was hope that some of these pressures, fears and anxieties would diminish. However, the impact of Covid-19 on remote work burnout has been staggering as reported by TravelPerk in its blog “Surprising Remote Work Burnout Statistics in 2023”: 69% of remote employees are experiencing burnout (CNBC); 53% of virtual or work-from-home (WFH) employees are working more hours now than they were in the office: Nearly one-third (31%) say they are working “much more” than before the pandemic (Indeed); 48% of employees working from home say they lack emotional support (Mental Health America); 38% of employees suffer remote work burnout because they feel pressured by management to work more hours (Indeed).

It is really startling that after all this time, burnout syndrome is conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed and is not a medical diagnosis. There are varying views that clinical depression could be a precursor to burnout or a consequence of it.

Whichever way you look at it, it is a syndrome that has a profound impact on society and the individuals and groups therein. Simply put, stress, which is both a cause and consequence of burnout, is a killer. It has been proven to be a key precursor to early-stage osteoporosis, diabetes II, clinical depression, cardiovascular disease, carcinomas and Alzheimer’s.

We as individuals must take ownership of managing our stress through the pursuit of greater self-awareness through reflection and introspection, meaningful health and well-being programmes and learning to forge courage out of fear. 

Organisations must invest the time and money in programmes that help their people to become increasingly aware and equipped in managing fear and uncertainty in an ever-increasingly complex world.

If we allow ourselves individually and collectively to lose hope through fear of the unknown and what may or may not be, we will find ourselves trying to put out fires with gasoline. DM/ML

Bryan Hattingh, CEO of Cycan, a Leadership Actualisation Practice. To read more of his op-eds, click here.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Zi Hattingh says:

    Over the past few years we have been measuring levels of burnout and the cost thereof to organisations. Our finding sho that post covid burnout levels are still on the increase.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options