White collar, blue collar, clergy collar, shirt-optional: If you’re part of the workforce, then you probably work in an industry infected by burnout, because the occupational stress disorder is a full-on epidemic, according to behavior science. Burnout might be most prevalent in healthcare — somewhere between 25 percent and 60 percent of med students and practicing doctors are, you guessed it, seriously b-ed out. But educators, social workers, lawyers, journalists, customer service reps and, well, members of the general working population, are struggling to keep their flames lit too.
Does burnout deserve the public-health spotlight it gets? I’ve had my doubts. I’ve said things like “it’s called work for a reason.” But I’ve changed my tune. We spend more time working than doing nearly anything else in our lives (even sleep). Researchers should, by all means, analyze different work environments to understand why some optimistic workers turn into drained, dispirited sacks of DGAF. Because burnout isn’t a 9-5 affliction. In studies, it’s consistently associated with poor overall well-being and health issues — notably insomnia and other sleep disorders. In fact, one such study, recently published in the journal BMJ Open, suggests that poor shuteye explains why some workers burn out from high-demand, low-power jobs while others can totally deal.
The term burnout formally showed up in research in 1974, when the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger noticed formerly idealistic volunteers at a mental health clinic exhibiting “loss of motivation, growing sense of emotional depletion, and cynicism,” according to The Observer. While definitions for burnout vary, it’s generally thought of as a state of stress defined by three things: 1) emotional exhaustion; 2) depersonalization, which describes cynical, detached feelings toward coworkers and/or clients (or patients or customers); 3) reduced personal accomplishment.
What leaves workers feeling like detached do-nothings? They might be stuck in jobs that require too much, reward too little and don’t fit their personalities. One new study suggests that burnout bubbles up when employers try to impose meaning on work that employees don’t authentically find meaningful. Another oft-mentioned cause of burnout is the neverending workday — the smartphone-as-a-leash syndrome. In one famous effort to give workers a break, France enacted an after-work email ban last year.
And poor sleep seems to unite burnt-out workers in all sorts of crappy, stressful job situations.
Burnout has consistently been linked to sleep problems, including insomnia and non-restorative sleep disorder, which happens when people get enough sleep but still don’t feel refreshed. Studies, however, differ in how they frame the relationship between between burnout and sleep. Some research says insomnia triggers burnout (and not the other way around), while at least one study says the relationship is bidirectional, meaning insomnia could cause burnout or burnout could cause insomnia, and then both issues mutually reinforce each other.