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  • Writer's picturePaul DeChant MD, MBA

Understanding Burnout

Updated: May 13

Burnout is the manifestation, in an individual, of dysfunction in the workplace.

If you are feeling burned out, it's important for you to understand this simple, yet profound, statement. It's very clear, yet contrary to what many people think. It's not the individual who is burned out. It's the workplace that is dysfunctional.

What Is The Definition Of Burnout?

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and

  • reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Notice what this definition says, and does not, say:

  • It says burnout is a syndrome, which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as "a group of symptoms which consistently occur together, or a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms". One can debate whether to call exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy "symptoms" or "manifestations" or "dimensions". We can agree that these are the shared experiences of people who are experiencing burnout.

  • It says that burnout results from chronic workplace stress. It's not just having one bad day. It's the result of chronic exposure to stress in the workplace.

  • That stress has not been successfully managed.

    • It does not say that if you are burned out it is your fault. When we realize that over half of clinicians are burned out, it's clearly not an individual weakness. (Our acculturation process as clinicians leads us to feel that burnout is an individual weakness, but that is just wrong.)

    • Research in the field of Human Factors Engineering (HFE) shows that cognitive overload is a key factor driving exhaustion for clinicians. Referring to the multiple demands on clinicians these days, Dr. Michael Privitera, an HFE expert says, "The job of the clinician has become undoable."

    • It's not the individual who can't handle the workplace, it's the way the work is designed that overwhelms most people.

  • And one more point, the definition says burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

    • You may feel burned out in other aspects of your life, but in order for us to fix the workplace, it's important for us to focus there, and not on other personal challenges.

What is the leader's job regarding burnout?

If you are a leader, whether you lead a group as small as team of two or three people, or a health system with 20-30,000 employees, how you choose to lead has a big impact on your workplace.

In subsequent posts let's explore how you can make a difference in the lives of your people. It is the most important thing you do in your leadership role.

What do you think? Do these concepts make sense to you? Drop a note in the comments below.

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