Understanding Burnout: When you need more than just a vacation

Understanding Burnout: When you need more than just a vacation

Understanding Burnout: When you need more than just a vacation

Pia is a 30-year-old management consultant at a top consulting company. She enjoyed going to new cities and exploring them weekly alongside problem-solving for different companies. Being able to solve problems of a wide range of companies from automobiles to FMCGs while meeting new people, and traveling to new places gave her a sense of purpose.  She also enjoyed art, sports & binge-watching crime thrillers in her free time. In other words, everything was going really well

However, a year into working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Pia suddenly shut down. Parts of her job that gave her meaning no longer appealed to her. Travel, for example, became something she detested. She started waking up with an intense fear of being incompetent & judged every day and was petrified about going to work. From someone who jumped out of bed to catch the next flight to work, Pia started waking up in cold sweats simply at the thought of having to get to work. Headaches, breathlessness, and digestive issues were some of the common physical symptoms she experienced. She no longer had the emotional strength to fulfill the demands of her job. Tasks that she once did easily were a struggle to get through. She also had difficulty concentrating and could no longer find her creative spark.

That’s what Pia was going through. If this also sounds like you – you may be experiencing burnout syndrome.

What is burnout?

The term burnout was coined by Herbert Freudenberger in 1974 (Fontes, 2020). He defined it as “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources in the workplace.’’ Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout syndrome as “a result of chronic stress that has not been taken care of”. Burnout is also included in the ICD 11 as an occupational phenomenon. However, it is still not recognized as a medical condition.

Identifying burnout

Burnout is identified by 3 key symptoms

  1. Emotional Exhaustion: You feel drained of energy and you no longer have it in you to get things done–emotionally, physically, or socially. You may experience headaches, bodily pains, anxiety, and even depression. Correlates between depression & emotional exhaustion are rather high. (Benali et al, 2015). So, the next time feel like you have no emotional energy to get work done, attend that family dinner or catch up with a colleague over a drink. You may be experiencing burnout.
  2.  Depersonalization: You start having negative and resentful feelings towards things that you enjoyed earlier with respect to work. The social interactions at work, the recognition for that proposal that came through no longer fill up your heart with joy but rather feel inauthentic. In other words, you no longer identify with the job. If you feel like all the recognition monetary rewards associated with work are no longer worth it, your burnout might need attention.
  3. Reduced professional efficacy: You may feel incompetent to manage work that was earlier a breeze or feel incompetent to be in your position overall. You start questioning your self-worth and feel helpless, not sure when all of it got so bad.

Prevalence of Burnout in India

Burnout is more common than you think. McKinsey & Company reported that over 49% of their team was burned out. Forbes reported a higher number with every third corporate professional facing burnout. The situation is even worse in the healthcare sector. 59% of healthcare professionals in India have been experiencing psychological distress since the start of the pandemic. (Menon et al 2022). Burnout also shows a gender skew – it is about 40-50% higher among caregivers most of whom happen to be women. Clearly, management of burnout is the need of the hour.

However, it is essential to acknowledge that burnout is not an individual concern. Blurred boundaries between work and personal life and the extended work hours are pushing people beyond their limits and costing not just individuals but also organizations. Burnout costs organizations dearly; approximately, $125 -$190 billion dollars a year according to Harvard Business Review.  This monetary loss goes by the names of absenteeism, intentions to leave jobs, and actual turnover.

Another important aspect of burnout is that it is contagious. Surprised? Let me explain. I am sure you have heard the saying you are the average of the 5 people you spend most time with. Well, it’s true. People we interact with don’t influence our choice of Netflix shows but our thoughts, behaviors and emotions as well. This is called the principle of emotional contagion, a principle that burnout operates on. If your colleagues are experiencing burnout, you can catch it too.

For example, you have two colleagues Pia (experiencing burnout) and Priyanka (not experiencing burnout). Pia works in your department and you tend to collaborate on a lot of projects. Over time she also becomes your go-to person to discuss personal aspects over cutting chai. Priyanka on the other hand works in a completely different department and your interaction with her is limited to offsites and largescale events organized by HR. You would be more likely to experience burnout as compared to Priyanka’s teammate.

What causes burnout?

Burnout doesn’t have a single cause. It’s a combination of both organizational and individual factors. At an organizational level, burnout is caused by a mismatch between an individual’s workload and the resources available at work. Research shows that a combination of high work-pressure, time limits, irregular work hours and limited motivational processes such as autonomy, job satisfaction and social support are the biggest causes of burnout. (Alarcon, Shefali & Baker 2020).  To breakdown these two factors further six key factors have been identified at the core of burn out namely workload, lack of control, fairness, values and rewards. Excessive workload depletes individuals emotionally, physically & socially. Lack of control and autonomy make it harder for people to understand the larger impact of their work while a lack of rewards be it financial, psychological or social breaks down the reinforcement cycle and hurts both the work and the worker. Fairness is the degree to which employees feel that the decisions taken are being fair and take their wellbeing into account. Values is a match between the goals of the organization and its employees. At an individual level a very important aspect of burnout is personality factors. This is not to say that your personality leads to burnout with certainty, but some personality factors have been found to predispose people to burnout. These include the ambitious, I carry my heart on my sleeve and want to get it all done type A personality and the caregiver personality. The caregivers urge to put others needs above their own is so high that they reach a point of burnout. In other words, they care so much that they are not able to care. Burnout is therefore, both an individual an organizational level and needs to be handled taking both the aspects into account.

What do we do about burnout?

There is no single way to manage burnout. There can be both individual and organizational ways to manage burnout.

At an organizational level, reducing job demands and increasing job resources us at the core of managing burnout. Some of the ways to manage burnout among employees include:

  1. Job Control: Allowing employees to control aspects of their jobs such as giving choices in the kind of projects / or verticals they work in, how they do their work and where they work (even more so now, than ever before) provides a sense of autonomy. Research has shown that organizations that create an autonomous environment show low turnover as opposed to organizations with a control focused environment; a role mediated by work life balance. (Rafida & Udaipur 2021)
  2. Involving employees in decision making: Involving employees in decision making allows managers to learn more about the resources that employees need to perform to the best of their abilities and capitalize on their strengths. Further, being transparent in decision making allows for employees to understand how their contributions play a role in the overall goals of the company and how their work makes a difference. Lastly, being aware of the decision-making process including processes such as increments, appraisals increase feelings of fairness and increases a sense of community in the organizations
  3. Continuous performance management systems: Giving continuous, specific, prompt feedback that is learning focused and not just performance focused. This allows for employees space for improvement in a non-threatening manner while allowing space and time for changes.
  4. Create a culture of wellbeing: Start talking about the impact of our jobs on physical & mental health. Talking about something like burnout would create a sense of psychological safety and allow individuals to speak about it without feeling pressured. This would slowly and hopefully take us to a point where we no longer have to ‘toughen up’ at work.    

At an individual level, there can be small behavioral changes and more fundamental changes in how we think about work to manage burnout

Behavioral changes to manage burnout

  Better Boundaries: 

Set boundaries both in terms of time and place. If you are working a nine to five let it be a nine to five. Identify these boundaries and make them known to all co-workers alike Switch off from work both mentally and physically at a particular time.

Chuck Multitasking:

Yes, you read that right. Stop trying to multitask. Research has shown that our brains can actively focus on only one task at a time. What we think is multitasking is your brain switching from one task to another. And, that switch alone takes over 20% of your productivity, this is called a switching cost. (Karner et al 2019) You are wasting more time in switching tasks than saving through apparent multitasking

Keep distractors at bay:

  • Keep your phone away: I know that you have already heard this multiple times. But keeping your phone at a physical distance will make you more productive. The doom scroll on Instagram takes at least 30 mins at a time. It’s not just 5
  • Set up networking/ social media chunks in your day: I know a lot of people will come and say how can you expect me to not use my phone, I am a content creator. Social Media is my job/ part of my job. I hear you. Set up slots in your day wherein you use social media. Say Instagram hour at 11:30 am. Use social media with all your heart in that one hour. Set up a time to check your email as well. The switching cost of going back & forth between your presentation & your email is incredibly high.
  • Pomodoro Technique: If you are struggling to get work started set a timer for 25 mins. Just 25 mins and start doing the task. Then take a 5-minute break. Repeat this cycle three times and then take a long break for about 50 minutes. 4 sets of these cycles will get more work done in your day than you can think of.
  • Find your carrot hours: Everyone works well during different parts of the day. Understand your most active hours and do the most important task at that time. Pushing yourself to work at times that do not work for you will be inefficient & slow.


Burnout is a slow yet pervasive concern impacting organizations & individuals negatively. Understanding and managing burnout at the organizational & individual level is the need of the hour.  Burnout at any level in an organization erodes the impact of the work that is being done.


Freudenberger, H. J. (1975). The staff burn-out syndrome in alternative institutions. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 12(1), 73.

Khasnis, R. W., Dhaula, B. S., Mahajan, H. C., & Kulkarni, A. P. (2020). Burnout among Healthcare Workers during COVID-19 Pandemic in India: Results of a Questionnaire-based Survey. Indian journal of critical care medicine: peer-reviewed, official publication of Indian Society of Critical Care Medicine, 24(8), 664–671.

Menon, G. R., Yadav, J., Aggarwal, S., Singh, R., Kaur, S., Chakma, T., … & Panda, S. (2022). Psychological distress and burnout among healthcare workers during COVID-19 pandemic in India—A cross-sectional study. Plops one, 17(3), e0264956.

Grover, S., Sahoo, S., Bhalla, A., & Avasthi, A. (2018). Psychological problems and burnout among medical professionals of a tertiary care hospital of North India: A cross-sectional study. Indian journal of psychiatry, 60(2), 175–188.

Bianchi R., Schonfeld I. S., Laurent E. (2015a). Burnout–depression overlap: a review. Clin. Psychol. Rev. 36, 28–41.



Novant, Khusbu Rafid, and Iqbal Ramadhani Udaipur. “The Impact of Job Autonomy on Turnover Intention: Mediation Role of Work-Life Balance, and Job Satisfaction in the Banking Sector.” International Journal of Social Science and Business 5, no. 4 (2021).

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