Employee burnout has been a hot topic - a burning hot topic - since the pandemic induced seismic shifts in the psychogeography of the workplace. Right, now that we’ve satisfied our quota for pop-psych-speak, we’ll say what we really mean. Since we’ve had to lobby a steady stream of cataclysmic curveballs like a global health crisis, the threat of nuclear war, lockdown, learning to work remotely and, now, the contentious return to the workplace, employees are mentally and physically exhausted. 

Fill me in quick - what do you mean by burnout? 

The term is anywhere and everywhere since the pandemic pushed everyone inside, but the term has its origins all the way back in the 1970s. Way back then, a psychoanalyst called Herbert Freudenberger opened a free clinic for impoverished patients in New York City. After a full workday at his private practice, he would put in an additional shift at the free clinic. Eventually, his overcommitment yielded physical and psychological symptoms which he coined “burnout symptoms”. 

In Freudenberger’s estimation, “burnout syndrome” was a state of perpetual exhaustion caused primarily by one’s occupation. According to his records, burned-out workers don’t just have negative attitudes towards their jobs - they also suffer headaches, stomach problems, trouble sleeping, and shortness of breath. 

Sound familiar? Remarkably, Freudenberger’s observations would only become a phenomenon recognized by the World Health Organization in 2019, but then that might just be a symptom of what’s been happening in the workplace since then. The WHO defined burnout as

“...a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; reduced professional efficacy; and increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism to one’s job.” 

Burnout shares many symptoms with anxiety and depression. According to this 2022 report from the mental health startup Total Brain, the risk of Generalized Anxiety Disorder in workers increased by 44% from mid-August to September of last year. The numbers are clear: the world has been in the thick of burnout since late 2019, and we certainly aren’t out of the woods yet. 

Kindling spirits: not even HR is immune to burnout  

And nobody knows the scale of this exhaustion quite like HR professionals. As the emotional soundboard for employees of every rank, HR professionals have a unique oversight of just how badly the challenges outlined above are affecting employees. And when the pandemic hit, all eyes were on HR to see how they were going to handle a human-based crisis in workplaces which were suddenly devoid of humans. Ironically, this level of scrutiny - as well as the challenges we’ve already outlined - created a harsh spotlight trained with a laser focus on HR professionals. 

Now, that’s a different problem altogether - and not one which is given the scope of attention it deserves. Ironically, despite the popular obsession with burnout rates, few of us recognize that HR professionals are in a double bind. By nature of being human, HR professionals are susceptible to all the same workplace stressors as the employees under their care. But they also have to maintain a challenging degree of self-regulation in order to perform their jobs. HR professionals are being burned by the spotlight of scrutiny, and they’re being burned out. 

Burnout could burn companies down 

According to this 2021 report by Mental Health America about mental health in the workplace, burnout is typically brought on by one or more of the following factors: 

  • An overwhelming workload
  • Long working hours 
  • Chronic staff shortages 
  • An aggressive administration environment 
  • Lack of support from management 

Hmm. It so happens that these are the very same issues which HR professionals field from dissatisfied employees on a regular basis, especially in more recent work circumstances. As folks in the people profession (like HR) are increasingly burdened with complaints of this nature, they begin to experience the affliction of what the VP of people and talent at the HR consultancy Mineral, Carla Yudhishthu, calls “compassion fatigue”.