Is “Burnout” Real?

Industrial-Organizational psychology (“I/O” for short) is a branch of psychology that studies what work means to us and how it affects our lives. I/O psychology introduced a phenomena that’s been referred to commonly as: BURNOUT.

Burnout is that feeling that you just can’t do anymore.

When you experience burnout you feel tired, exhausted, uninspired, frustrated, overworked, and under-appreciated. Most workers can remember at lease one case of burnout.


The dimensions of burnout can occur in any order and be experienced simultaneously

Maslach describes the dimensions of burnout:

  1. Emotional Exhaustion
  2. Depersonalization
  3. Low Personal Accomplishment

These dimensions can occur in distinct stages or overlap.

The effects of burnout are disastrous. You’re more likely to produce poor work if you are tired and inattentive. You’re more likely to take a few sick days if you feel run down. If you feel cynical and hopeless, you will start “checking out” of your work environment.

We learned in our previous post that our mental health is the lens through which we experience the world. Burnout is relevant because it affects our mental well being. The frustration and hopelessness of a stressful jobs can spill past the borders of our workplace and into our personal lives.

Let me be clear: burnout is not a mental disease. Burnout is not a indication of unhappy or listless workers. Burnout is usually a symptom of larger problem. It can occur for a number of complex reasons. It can happen when the job isn’t really a great fit for the person hired to do it, alternatively it can be a reflection of a particular field, specific job/title, or management issues.

When I worked as a claims adjuster – it was daunting. Adjusting claims for any type of insurance is super stressful. Your customer’s first contact with you as an adjuster is always after something horrible has happened: someone hit their brand new car, they hurt themselves at work, their house was broken into, etc. You’re working with the general public – many people purchase insurance without understanding their coverage. Their first crash course is when they’re angry and need to use this invisible “product” they’ve been putting money towards for months or years. The natural frustration of an accident coupled with lack of consumer education means claims adjusters must be extremely empathetic and gentle. So why do claims reps have the stigma of being a cold-hearted bunch?

Part of it is burnout. Often claims adjusters are overloaded with claims. They hear tears, frustration, screaming, and cursing through their entire work day. Receiving 20-30 voicemails daily is common. Handling lengthy investigations that end up being fraudulent is common. And though adjusters don’t sell the policies – it’s their responsibility to educate consumers on the details of coverage purchased years prior. That’s not to mention the often complex and specialized laws/state regulations one must learn to be compliant in the industry. I truly did enjoy the human contact of my job in claims – I like to help and coach people, that’s why I’m a counselor now! However there’s no denying that working claims is a perfect storm for burnout: (1) high claims volume (2) pressure of legal and organizational restraints and (3) helping those who are emotionally distraught and angry.

Let’s look at some solutions for both the burned out employee and the organization at large.

(1) Seek better training. (Management: OFFER effective training.)

Once I learned the systems and process better, I became more efficient at my claims job. Taking extra time to learn a new skill or master technology may seem counter productive – after all, you’re already overloaded with tasks you don’t have time to finish, right? Well, view training as an opportunity to learn how to work more efficiently. Tasks that once took an hour were completed in 10-15 minutes after training and practice with the right tools. This freed up more of my day to get tougher things done. If there’s no formal training – take initiative to find someone in your department or team that’s performing well. Ask for time to sit with them or observe them.

(2) Participate in team building. (Management: Encourage fun team building.)

As mentioned earlier, some fields or particular jobs are just going to be stressful. If you are a nurse, a social worker, or working in retail during Christmas – no amount of training is going to make your job less hectic. It’s the nature of your position and industry. So if you can’t change the situation, what can you do? Embed yourself positively in your workplace. The support of friends at work who best understand what you’re going through can make or break you during tough times. Participate in team events if you have the time. Better yet, make the time. Finding a coworker to meditate with during breaks or someone who can lift your spirits at lunch is very valuable. Get to know your team and have fun with them.

(3) TAKE TIME OFF. (Management: ALLOW TIME OFF.)

I realize this isn’t available to all workers/managers. But if you have the opportunity to take a short break – seize it. Plan a vacation or “stay-cation” over a weekend to unplug and come back refreshed.

(4) Have a constructive conversation with your boss. (Management: Seek feedback.)

Complaining to coworkers and friends outside of work may feel cathartic but once it becomes too frequent and too negative it can turn toxic. You’ll recognize a toxic conversation because these interactions make the speaker and listener feel worse afterward instead of relieved or uplifted. Everyone needs to vent, but sometimes communicating to the right people in the right way can be more constructive than daily rant sessions around the cooler. Talking to your team members about the issues and brainstorming solutions to present to your manager might be the key to changing things.

If things still don’t improve?

Ask yourself if you’re truly a good fit for your job. Does it intersect with your knowledge, skills, interests, and personality? Only you know the answer there. If the answer is “no”, consider making a game plan to change things. You may not have the luxury of landing a new job immediately once you realize this. But you can take small steps in the right direction – try to incorporate more of your style into the position you’re working to increase happiness. My friend and ex-coworker Chris is a guest writer  for this blog. When we worked together he started a weekly email chain with funny clips and hilarious inter-office quotes. What started off as something goofy became this wonderful thing that everyone started to look forward to. He got to uplift the team, express his personality, feel valued, and become more embedded. All of that made working harder feel easier. If you’re are looking for a more concrete change: consider moving to another department or saving up to take time off for a serious job search. Vocational counselors use different methods to help you find and secure a job that’s better suited for your skills and interests. Many community centers have free vocational counseling and job training programs.

Stay sharp and fresh out there,

Websign Full Color