Science//

What 40 Years of Research Can Teach Us About Burnout

Including how the signs often show up at home before they show up at the office.

Photo by Damian Zaleski on Unsplash

Burnout is a global epidemic that doesn’t just affect your job performance—it can have serious impacts on your life and relationships outside of work, your mental health and your physical well-being.

A new review titled “Born and Bred to Burn Out: A Life-Course View and Reflections on Job Burnout” published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology looks at the past few decades of burnout research. Authors Jari J. Hakanen of the University Helsinki and Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and Arnold B. Bakker of Erasmus University Rotterdam and University of Johannesburg reflect on their own burnout research and offer some eye-opening insights into the epidemic.

Here are 6 things we learned from reading the review.

1. Socially optimistic people might be less prone to burnout
People who had higher levels of social optimism had lower levels of burnout, according to a 2011 study. Additionally, the lower their levels of social withdrawal or social “handicaps,” as the paper called them, the lower their levels of burnout.

2. Socioeconomic status and education play a (slightly unclear) role
Existing studies suggest somewhat conflicting views on the link between burnout, socioeconomic status and education. One study from 2006 found that people who had not completed “basic education” experienced more burnout, which goes against earlier theories that people with higher levels of education were more prone to burnout. But, a study from 2005 found that burnout actually increased with socioeconomic status. In light of this, Hakanen and Bakker caution that this research needs to be explored further.

3. Burnout affects women and men differently
In the authors’ own research, they found that negative life events and job demands had “a significant joint effect on both exhaustion and cynicism,” but only among women. They suggest that this might be because women are more affected by a “double burden,” as they call it—the dual pressures of work and home life—compared to men.

4. Burnout is an incredibly vicious cycle
When people are burned out, they’re likely to have problems at home too, which can perpetuate problems at work, according to Hakanen’s research from 2005. He found that when people experience burnout, they often chalk up feelings of exhaustion to issues going on in their private life rather than things happening at the office. Hakanen wrote that this might be because it’s easier to adapt to job demands by “investing more and more resources into work,” something he notes usually comes “at the expense of one’s private life.”

Here’s another layer in the cycle: When employees are feeling burned out, they’re less open to learning new information because they “lack the energy and personal initiative needed for active learning.” That makes burned out people less likely to be able to seek the resources they need to break the cycle. The authors write that exhausted and burned out employees are also more likely to make mistakes, put less effort into their job and perform badly as a result, which may actually place more job demands on them. Self-underminers, as the authors call these people, were also less likely to be “proactive, craft their jobs, or be engaged in their work.”

5. The first signs of burnout often appear at home
The authors note that because people who are burned out often use their precious energetic resources to fix the problem at work, they first signs of burnout—like exhaustion, cynicism or stress, which can strain interpersonal relationships—often appear at home.

6. You can be burned out but still feel okay sometimes
A recent review of research found that symptoms of burnout—like exhaustion and cynicism—may fluctuate from day to day depending on what happens at work and how much time you have to recover afterwards. The same review found that if burned out employees don’t “recover” from work after leaving the office, they don’t recharge in the way they need to and may suffer more from the daily burnout toll as a result.

Recovery can mean different things to different people—the most important thing is that your activity of choice helps you leave your work at the office. Whether that’s learning a new skill, exercising, relaxing or turning off email, finding ways to wash away the workday can help you replenish the resources you need for the day ahead.

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