Sometimes, work sucks. It’s a sad yet unavoidable fact of life that applies to pretty much everyone in every industry at some point. (With the possible exception of luxury mattress testers.)
But occasional work suckiness (a boring meeting here, a frustrating project there) is one thing. Total work suckiness—the kind that triggers chronic exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy—is a whole other. And if you’re experiencing the latter, you may be suffering from a medically-defined condition known as “burnout.”
Yes, it’s an official thing—and a serious one at that. Last May, the World Health Organization (WHO) added “burnout” to its International Classification of Diseases, recognizing the syndrome as the result of “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
Burnout isn’t new, but it is somewhat on the rise, says Michael P. Leiter, PhD, a psychologist and professor at Deakin University in Australia who’s studied the phenomenon for 35 years. Global data is still incomplete, but Leiter estimates that in the healthcare industry (his main field of study), 7-8 percent of folks are burned out, and another 10-15 percent struggle with exhaustion. That doesn’t include people who may be unemployed because of severe cases of burnout.
“I don’t think it’s a reasonable expectation … [that] anybody should be able to adapt to any workplace at any time.”
“There’s a lot about how work is put together that aggravates people towards burnout more than it used to,” he says, including increased busywork and administrative overlay, among other factors. Whatever the origins, burnout is real—and it may be impacting you or someone you know. Here, Leiter explains how to spot a case of burnout and how to alleviate it.
3 signs that you’re suffering from burnout
The WHO’s definition of burnout aligns with the Maslach Burnout Inventory, a leading measure of the syndrome that describes a combination of three factors.
You feel tired—like, really tired—a lot of the time
We all have days where we’re seriously dragging, but hopefully they’re few and far between. If you regularly feel exhausted—especially before the work day even starts—you may be trending towards burnout.
Chronic low energy isn’t a sole indicator of burnout, Leiter says, because you can be exhausted but still fully engaged in work. Or you could be so tired because you’re so engaged. True burnout also bears these two symptoms.