Occupational Burnout: Why leaders across a spectrum of industries are burning out at increasing rates
by Amanda Itzkoff, MD
November 23, 2017

Although the workplace has evolved over the past several decades, the condition colloquially known as “burnout” has become more prevalent over time. Far from casual byproduct of professional and business culture, burnout has become so serious that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now classify it as a major health concern.

High achievers and corporate leaders are particularly susceptible to the symptoms of burnout, which can alternately be described as a type of stress. The lack of work-life balance in which the demarcation between personal and work life is eroded, can lead to an identification with work that is so strong that basic personal needs are neglected. High achievers often desire to be “everything to everyone,” and adopt a persona that on the surface resembles a superhero. The reality, of course, is that endeavoring to fulfill the needs of everyone-subordinates, peers, investors, and board members among them–is unrealistic and often leads to a sense of failure and inadequacy. Over time, burnout can cause significant mental and physical health problems.

Signs You May Be Burning Out
In a September 2017 New York Times article by Kenneth Rosen, the Stanford scientist Emma Seppala recalled the dichotomy between press workers and writers at a publisher during her time in Paris as a research assistant. The press workers kept snacks and drinks in a pantry and seemed to strike an equitable balance between performing well at their job and taking the time to enjoy life. Upstairs however, the writers seemed overextended, stressed, cynical, and ambivalent. In other words, suffering from signs of burnout. For high achievers, accepting unpleasant, uncomfortable, and life-altering conditions as normal has sadly become a normal part of professional life.
For high achievers, accepting unpleasant, uncomfortable, and life-altering conditions as normal has sadly become a normal part of professional life.

Rosen notes that today 50% of people questioned in the General Social Survey note they are exhausted from their work, up from 18% just two decades ago. Seppala describes the current state of the American workplace as “go-go-go,” and that somehow over time, the entire notion of productivity has been mistakenly linked with the need to be stressed.

Incipient signs of burnout include becoming cynical, irritable, and critical at work. Sufferers also commonly note lacking energy and feeling a sense of dissatisfaction with their job, feeling ostracized from colleagues. Sometimes burnout can manifest in physical ways: inexplicable headaches and backaches. Acute warning signs for burnout include outbursts directed at coworkers or loved ones, and a loss of appetite and motivation.

These indicators often result from unrealistic workloads, a poor job fit, and extremes of activity–either jobs that are too intense or too monotonous. Having unpredictable workloads and unreasonable interpersonal demands can exacerbate moderately stressful job conditions. If someone is experiencing these feelings, it may be necessary to seek out a qualified mental health practitioner to help assess the severity of the problem and its attendant root causes.

Too Many People Ignore Burnout Much to Their Own Peril
If the symptoms of burnout are ignored, the consequences can be drastic. Stress, fatigue, relationship problems, substance abuse, high cholesterol, and even stroke can arise from untreated burnout. The imperative to succeed in business and professional life has become more urgent over time, but it has unfortunately created a new class of chronically burned-out workers. Recognizing this danger can be crucial for your mental and physical well-being.