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What is burnout?

An explanation of how stress can lead to burnout.
A woman scrolls on her phone in the evening.

Stress is only helpful and effective in the short term. When stress is excessive or we experience it for a prolonged amount of time, it can be incredibly damaging to our physical and mental health. For example, it can lead to heart disease, anxiety and depression [1]. One of the biggest concerns about stress management in the workplace is burnout.

Burnout is defined by the World Health Organisation as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed [2].

Burnout is characterised by:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job
  • Feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • A sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

Burnout can lead to employee absences, resignation and potentially long-lasting consequences for our mental health.

Who is most at risk?

A study by Gallup found that 34% of women experience burnout compared to 26% of men [3]. This gender gap is often attributed to additional unpaid labour that women do as a result of gender expectations.

Teachers and health care workers are more prone to burnout [4]. Professionals in these occupations spend their working lives looking after others. The workplace expectations they face can mean they are left with little to no time to support their own needs while doing this. Looking after the self must come before looking after others.

High performers are most likely to be affected by burnout [5]. High performers are often given the hardest tasks. They are likely to compensate for other members of the team and to give all their energy to their work, which is unsustainable in the long-term.

These people are most susceptible to burnout, however it’s crucial to remember that everyone is at risk.

Preventing burnout

Burnout isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s a symptom of chronic stress and chronic pressure over a long time. What that means is there are so many opportunities to intervene and prevent that stress from developing into burnout. That’s where managers play a really important role by listening to their workforce about workload and pressures and their anxieties and taking action based on that feedback. Supporting people with early signs of distress – and enabling those with existing mental health issues to recover and avoid relapse – is a prevention model that mitigates impact both for individuals and for businesses.

Over to you!

Where is the line between healthy and unhealthy stress? When does stress become distress? How can we identify when we or our colleagues are at risk of burnout?


  1. CAMH. Stress article. CAMH. 2018.
  2. World Health Organization. Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. World Health Organization. 2019.
  3. Saad L., Agrawal S. and Wigert B. Gender Gap in Worker Burnout Widened Amid the Pandemic. 2021.
  4. Abramson A. Burnout and stress are everywhere. American Psychological Association. 2022.
  5. Moeller J, Ivcevic Z, White AE, Menges JI, Brackett MA. Highly Engaged but Burned Out: Intra-Individual Profiles in the US Workforce. OSF Preprints. 2018.
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Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Modern Workplace

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