The Debate on the Existence of Burnout

For people who have experienced burnout it is very real. It is something they hope to avoid in the future. Others do not believe in burnout. They hold this view despite others describing the experience and accepting the diagnosis. They seem to be emotionally invested in denying that burnout could be a legitimate experience. These two views reflect different experiences of worklife and different views of human nature.

Harvey Schachter talked with me recently about why employers sidestep the topic of burnout. In his Globe and Mail article, Burnout: The Topic Your Boss Doesn’t Want To Talk About, he descrbied the links between burnout and the way things were managed in companies. We talked about the powerful impact of chronic work overload combined with value conflicts as the major drivers of burnout these days.

There were six comments on the article when I wrote this post. They included one that was completely irrelevant, three that were dismissive of burnout, and two that acknowledged its experience. One dismissive view was that burnout was another name for depression. That statement could mean that burnout is a serious mental health problem or it could convey that burnout as depression is an individual problem and not related to work. Two other statements attributed burnout to laziness. People want to take the easy way out. Because teachers have three months of vacation they cannot have a legitimate claim to burnout.

The two that recognize burnout relate their own experiences and observations of chronic exhaustion and value crises at work. These problems were more evident among the dedicated than among the lazy.

These posts agreed with the article`s premise that employers lacked a commitment to addressing burnout. Employers did not want the topic discussed. These posts argued that employee wellbeing was of little importance to employers. This attitude creates a sense of injustice among employees leading to a cynical attitude that translates into further burnout.

The laziness theory assumes that work is always manageable. Employees always have the personal and operational resources necessary to address whatever demands come their way. Chronic exhaustion reflects personal inadequacies. It may even reflect a deliberate intention of employees to take advantage of their colleagues and bosses. They complain of exhaustion as a ploy to lower their work demands or to improve their compensation.

Which view makes sense to you?

How can one distinguish between unreasonable employment demands and employee malingering?


  1. Dear Dr. Leiter:

    Thanks for sharing this experience and your comments. My experience shows me that we must be aware about how the terms are used and by who. Employers want to justify their position and terms as “stress” and “laziness” are appropriate to their intentions, because it’s easier to say that the responsability is on the employee. “Burnout” in our context is used to critisize organizations and directive staff policies when you have no more arguments and you don’t agree with them.
    But when we talk about health, I use a longitudinal cirteria, making comparision of early performance of employees against actual performance and attitude. The more complex his or her statements, reveal a greater capacity turned in to negative perceptions of work environment. People looks like caugth in their personal history inside the organization, because they now excactly how things must be, their performance included, but they lack resources to bring it to reality.

  2. Heriberto
    Thanks for your perspective on this post.

    Employers do need to focus more carefully on sustaining, supporting, and developing the people who are their most important resource.

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