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Job Burnout

Job burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long-term exposure to demanding work situations. Burnout is the cumulative result of stress.[1]

Anyone can experience job burnout. However, research has shown that working in professions with high job demands and few supports can increase the prevalence of burnout and reduce engagement[2]. Helping professions, such as jobs in health care, teaching or counselling, report high rates of burnout.

Burnout has three main characteristics:[3]

  1. exhaustion (i.e. the depletion or draining of mental resources);
  2. cynicism (i.e. indifference or a distant attitude towards one’s job); and
  3. lack of professional efficacy (i.e. the tendency to evaluate one’s work performance negatively, resulting in feelings of insufficiency and poor job-related self-esteem).

What causes job burnout?[4]

  • Lack of control: This is an employee’s lack of influence on decisions that affect their job.  Examples include hours of work, which assignments they receive, and an inability to control the amount of work that comes in.
  • Unclear job expectations: Examples include uncertainty over what degree of authority an employee has and not having the necessary resources to complete work.
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics: Examples include working with an office bully, being undermined by colleagues or having a boss who micromanages your work.
  • Mismatch in values: If personal values differ from the way an organization does business or handles employee grievances, it will wear on employees.
  • Poor job fit: An employee working in a job that doesn’t fit their interests and skills is certain to become more and more stressed over time.
  • Extremes of activity: When a job is always monotonous or chaotic, an employee needs constant energy to remain focused, leading to energy drain and job burnout.

Burnout can stem from many negative conditions at work. Examples of these conditions include low levels of control and support from co-workers and supervisors, job dissatisfaction and low organisational commitment. Job dissatisfaction, reduced self-efficacy, and low levels of workplace peer support in particular can lead to higher levels of cynicism.[5]

Employees are at a higher risk of job burnout if they:

  • feel so pressured to complete high amounts of work that they do not have a balance between work and personal life;
  • try to be everything to everyone;
  • have little variety and are bored with their job;
  • think they have minimal control over work.

Although burnout is common, depending on the profession, it should not be taken lightly. Burnout can be hazardous to an employee’s health. It is positively related to many mental and physical health problems, including depression, anxiety and psychosomatic health complaints.[6] The health problems that accompany burnout are linked to extreme exhaustion.[7] People experiencing burnout should be encouraged to see a health professional.


[1] Mayo Clinic, “Job burnout: Understand symptoms and take action” (2008) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/burnout/WL00062 (accessed January 11, 2010).

[2] Wilmar Schaufeli and Arnold Bakker, “Job demands, job resources, and their relationship with burnout and engagement: a multi-sample study,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 25 (2004) 293.

[3] C. Maslach, “Burnout: A multidimensional perspective,” (1993). Quoted in W.B. Schaufeli, C. Maslach, & T. Marek (Eds.), Professional burnout: Recent developments in theory and research. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.

[4] Mayo Clinic, “Job burnout: Understand symptoms and take action” (2008) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/burnout/WL00062 (accessed January 11, 2010).

[5] W. B. Schaufeli, T.W. Taris, & W. van Rhenen. “Workaholism, burnout, and work engagement: Three of a kind or three different kinds of employee well-being?” Applied Psychology: An International Review 57 (2008): 173.

[6] A. Shirom et al., “Burnout and health review: Current knowledge and future research directions,” (2005): quoted in G.P. Hodgkinson & J.K. Ford (Eds.), International review of industrial and organizational psychology Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press 269–309.

[7] W.B. Schaufeli & D. Enzmann, The burnout companion to study and research: A critical analysis. London: (Taylor & Francis 1998).