With reports of long hours, chronic stress and exhaustion rising among sections of the workforce, it might be time to reframe the burnout narrative.
While burnout has long been a widespread workplace phenomenon, rates spiked during the pandemic. Amid lockdowns, caring responsibilities and a public-health emergency, global data shows more workers reported feeling chronic stress and exhaustion: according to a March 2021 study of 1,500 US workers by hiring platform Indeed 67% of respondents believed burnout had increased during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yet, three years on, there are few signs burnout is abating. In the new world of work, large swaths of the workforce still say they’re burnt out. Rates continue to climb: in a February 2023 survey of 10,243 global workers by US think-tank Future Forum, 42% reported burnout, its highest figure since May 2021.
In theory, flexible working arrangements would mean increased work-life balance, productivity and well-being for employees. Conversations around burnout have increased, and companies seem to be more willing to offer employees perks such as gym memberships and home-office expenses that, intuitively, should help mitigate stressors driving burnout.
But despite these factors, reports of burnout are still on the rise – and the phenomenon can no longer be solely associated with the pandemic. Its prevalence suggests it's here to stay for the long term, even with companies making adjustments in the workplace. Given this, experts say it may be the case that employers and workers need to instead focus on managing burnout, rather than aim to eliminate it entirely.
A long-standing issue
Burnout had been a growing concern even before the pandemic. A 2018 Gallup study of 7,500 US workers showed that 67% experienced burnout on the job. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) included it in its International Classification of Diseases, defining it as an ‘occupational phenomenon’, rather than a medical condition.
While extreme working culture and gruelling hours have been glamorised in some cases, the conversation around burnout has largely shifted to recognise its seriousness. Data has been a part of this evolution in attitude: a May 2021 study by WHO and the International Labour Organization suggested that an estimated three-quarters of a million people die annually from ischaemic heart disease and stroke, due to working long hours.
“Even before Covid-19, we saw that burnout had turned from an occupational risk in a few high-status, high-stress professions, to something that was more of a public health problem,” explains California-based Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.
Major causes of burnout include prolonged heavy workloads, sustained overworking and toxic cultures. Pang says such workplaces practices have been common for decades. “Many companies have felt entitled to demand long hours from their employees, and extract the maximum amount of work from them in order to improve the bottom line.”
Traditionally, businesses have left the onus of managing burnout up to the employee. “They’ve tended to think of it as a worker's responsibility: it’s something that happens to you,” says Pang. “It’s typically been treated in the same category as health and fitness, rather than a phenomenon the employer allows to happen as a result of certain workplace conditions. Burnout is an organisational problem, left for the individual to deal with.”
Why it’s rising
When the pandemic hit, pre-existing workplace issues like dealing with daily stress and career anxiety were greatly exacerbated by the ongoing uncertainty of the health crisis.
Sean Gallagher, director of Centre for the New Workforce at Swinburne University of Technology, based in Melbourne, says this had a “compounding effect” for workers. In global surveys, Australian employees often rank among the most burnt out in the world.
“Workers not only experienced mental-health issues arising from isolation and not knowing if they had a job the next day, but they also had to juggle caring responsibilities with a new way of working,” adds Gallagher. “It created a residual effect in terms of burnout: many workers to this day are still struggling to catch up on their wellbeing across their personal and professional lives.”
While remote and hybrid working have afforded employees greater autonomy, flexibility can also come at a price. Workdays have extended: an April 2022 survey of 32,924 global workers by ADP Research Institute showed that employees worked 8.5 hours of unpaid overtime each week, compared to 7.3 hours before the pandemic.
“It can all too often mean that the work never stops,” says Pang. “You’re accessible wherever you are, round the clock. Like burnout, workers are often left with the responsibility to fix problems that result from flexible working, in which they're often trying to fit in as much as possible between home and work responsibilities.”
The changed workplace also enables new causes of overworking to flourish. “We’ve seen bad habits emerge from remote working in how we communicate, such as having a meeting where an email would suffice,” says Gallagher. “It leaves workers with less time in their workday to focus and get heavy workloads done, forcing them to regularly work beyond contracted hours to catch up – it leaves them exhausted.”
Although some employers have recognised the need to address worker wellbeing, they often don't provide them with the right resources. Pang cites the example of Big Tech firms and lavish on-site perks. “Benefits like dry cleaning and sushi chefs help to keep the employee in the office for as long as possible, rather than reduce burnout,” he says. “In effect, it’s creating a comfortable workplace for people to work themselves to death.”
Employers often don’t address the underlying issues that cause burnout, says Gallagher, instead offering employee perks that only mask its symptoms. “Offering workers meditation apps or yoga from time to time isn’t a bad thing, but it’s a temporary, Band-Aid solution to structural problems: overly long hours, overwork and uncertainty over flexible work arrangements.”
Can it end?
Pang and Gallagher both say that current working practices mean burnout, in some cases, is inevitable.
“Really, there should only be a fraction of occupations in which burnout should occur: when putting yourself repeatedly on the line could save lives,” says Pang. “But right now, in too many workplaces, it comes down to an individual’s tolerance to long hours, overwork and fatigue whether they suffer from it or not.”
Alongside high rates, some experts believe broader economic concerns mean burnout is likely to stick around longer term. “Away from work, employees are also having to deal with enormous cost-of-living pressures,” says Gallagher. “Inflation is worse, layoffs are happening and workers are concerned they’ll lose their homes. So, it wouldn’t be surprising if burnout levels are exacerbated even further.” The ongoing childcare crisis and enduring instability is also a compounding factor across the globe for parents particularly. One May 2022 report from The Ohio State University showed 66% of US working parents meet the criteria for burnout.
As long as there are workplaces that cause workers to experience chronic stress, overwork and long hours, burnout is here to stay. However, Pang says that more organisations are beginning to realise they have a responsibility for the burnout burden. “We’re gradually moving away from a world in which burnout rested wholly on the individual to recognising that organisational solutions are key. There’s a wider acknowledgement that workplace factors contribute to burnout, and that a worker suffering from it may have negative consequences for the wider business.”
In some cases, change could come in the form of legislation. For example, new laws in Australia now classify burnout as a work health and safety hazard, meaning bosses are legally obliged to identify and manage risks that may cause employee work-related stress, from peak periods of high workload to excessive working hours. “If work practices are leading to burnout, employers now have a significant obligation to bring their employees back from the brink,” says Gallagher.
However, such measures could take time, especially on a global scale – and there’s no guarantee they’ll convince employers to overhaul their working practices, anyway. In the meantime, Gallagher says that flexible working arrangements can be more formalised for workers, helping to manage their workloads. “Having better guardrails in place can clarify working hours, reduce unpaid overtime and improve work-life balance.”
For now, given its pervasiveness, Pang believes the narrative surrounding burnout needs reframing. “The idea that it can be eliminated is as realistic as thinking we can solve work-life balance once and for all,” he says. “Instead, we need to figure out if the sacrifices that put us at risk of burnout are worth making for the sake of our jobs and careers.”
Going forward, experts still say the goal should still be to eradicate burnout. Even if it may be unrealistic, its pursuit remains worthwhile: it could help reduce its most harmful effects, and mean fewer workers ever have to experience it. “Mitigation is always better than doing nothing,” says Gallagher.