Top five myths about burnout.
Updated: Apr 29
Whether it was us or someone else, we’ve all witnessed burnout—at home, in the workplace or in our communities. How could we not when, according to a 2019 Gallup survey, 76% of employees experience burnout on the job at least sometimes. (And that was before the pandemic!)
Burnout, according to Psychology Today, is a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. But while we may understand burnout by its definition and believe we’ve seen/experienced it, the syndrome or occupational phenomenon is still largely misunderstood.
And the issue with being misunderstood is that it leads to misconceptions, which are common opinions that we assume are facts. We then use those ‘facts’ as the basis for our decision making, which likely leads to more stress and burnout. See how that works?
Until we can dispel some of these myths that circle burnout, we can’t be truly effective in tackling it in our workplaces. Here are our top five:
MYTH #1: Burnout and stress are the same thing.
FALSE. While it may cause physical changes in our body (heart rate, blood pressure, etc.) as we struggle to cope with a ‘perceived threat,’ stress is normal and tends to keep us going. Feeling stressed isn’t fun, but we work through the pressure and move on.
Burnout is a result of extended periods of unmanaged or chronic stress. Our resources are depleted, and we’ve reached an exhaustion level that normal methods—slowing down, taking a vacation—can’t cure. You can learn more about the difference here.
MYTH #2: Burnout is an individual issue, not a workplace one.
FALSE. Because symptoms show up differently for anyone who experiences burnout, it can be easy to dismiss it as a personal issue. And then put the onus on the individual themselves to prevent, treat and recover from it.
However, this lens of isolation is dangerous because it means forgetting they’re part of a larger ecosystem, which is almost always the root of the problem. Organizations need to better understand the systemic causes and work to alleviate them.
MYTH #3: People who experience burnout are weak and overly emotional.
FALSE. It's a common, unconscious mindset that people suffering from burnout are weak, too emotional and/or poor performers. In the majority of cases, however, it’s the opposite. It’s the most engaged employees—those who are energized, enthusiastic and focused—who are likely to burn out.
In fact, per a Yale University study, 20 percent of the top-performing employees have been affected by corporate burnout. This shouldn’t be surprising since high performers are often assigned to the challenging projects.
MYTH #4: Yoga and time off will solve burnout.
FALSE. Activities like yoga, meditation and exercise are healthy ways to help manage your well-being. And a vacation, a few days off or even some extra sleep can do wonders for the mind and body.
But while these might provide a slight (or faux) respite from burnout, they’re only dealing with the symptoms, not the root causes in the workplace. In fact, as long as the pressure in our work environment is greater than our capacity to restore, our burnout will continue.
MYTH #5: Burnout is caused by working too many hours.
TRUE AND FALSE. It’s common to think that over-working is responsible for workplace burnout. And, indeed, it’s true with burnout risk increasing significantly when we exceed 50 hours and climbing even higher after 60.
However, while hours worked do play a part, how we experience our workload and how we’re managed during those hours have a stronger influence on burnout. These non-hour-related factors can include unfair treatment, unmanageable workload and unreasonable time pressure to name a few.
Burnout is a serious issue; one that deserves our serious attention. But trying to tackle the problem with industry myths and ill-informed solutions could easily end up doing more harm than good—to ourselves and to those around us.
Also, burnout is not inevitable. We can prevent—and reverse—burnout by changing how we manage and lead ourselves and others. Because if we don't address the true causes of workplace burnout, we can’t have a workplace environment that empowers everyone to feel and perform their best.