What Is Burnout & Why Does It Happen?

Alicia Nortje, Ph.D.024-02-2021 / positivepsychology.com

Defining burnout

Burnout is an occupational phenomenon where employees experience a mix of physical and psychological symptoms that result in decreased job satisfaction and productivity (Bridgeman, Bridgeman, & Barone, 2018).

Occupational burnout was first recognized in the mid-70s (Freudenberger, 1974) among healthcare professionals. Nowadays, burnout is not limited to only healthcare professionals, but can occur in any industry.

The World Health Organization (2019) defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Causes of burnout

Burnout can occur for several reasons. However, poorly managed occupational stress has been recognized as the primary cause (Bridgeman et al., 2018; World Health Organization, 2019).

Other factors contribute to work-related stress, which in turn, contribute to burnout (Edmund, 2019; Gallup, 2020). These include the following:

Unrealistic work expectations

Unrealistic work expectations include an unmanageable workload, unrealistic deadlines, and unrealistic time pressure. Employees who are expected to perform consistently for long periods under unrealistic deadlines are more likely to experience burnout.

The number of tasks that employees are expected to complete also contributes to an unrealistic workload.


Employees who feel like they have no control over their environment, tasks, or time are more likely to experience burnout.

Poor instructions

Poor instructions also includes poorly defined tasks and unclear communication from employers/managers. When employees work in environments where instructions and tasks are unclear, they are more likely to suffer from burnout.

Unclear instructions can lead to unrealistic work expectations and micromanaging because employers do not clearly explain what they expect of their employees, resulting in multiple iterations of work without an apparent end. Employees have to work hard to figure out what exactly employers expect from them, and this increases feelings of anxiety and exhaustion.


Employees benefit from socializing with their peers, and this can lead to feelings of support. Without regular contact with peers, employees may feel like they are alone.

Lack of support and unfair treatment

Employees who feel like their managers do not support them or treat them unfairly are at higher risk of burnout.

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