Learning & Development

Understanding the Definition of Burnout

Everyone in the working world has probably heard the term “burned out.” The term is often used even in nonemployment settings, such as by students in higher education feeling burned out by intense studies. Being burned out is generally considered negative, but there isn’t really a precise definition of the term.

employee burnout

Defining Burnout

We tend to think of burnout as an intangible—one of those things we can’t define, and we just know when we feel it,” says Kate Morgan in an article for BBC Worklife. “Right now, more of us may be feeling it than ever. In this stage of the pandemic, after more than a year spent trying to navigate its challenges, the general feeling is that we’ve all hit the wall. But there is a scientific definition of burnout, and standards by which to measure it.”

Morgan writes that in 1981, Christina Maslach, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) to define and measure burnout.

The MBI uses three criteria to identify and evaluate burnout, all of which must be present to meet the MBI’s definition:

  1. Exhaustion or total lack of energy
  2. Feelings of cynicism or negativity toward a job
  3. Reduced efficacy or success at work

Ramifications in the Workplace

So, for example, employees may feel exhausted and cynical toward their work but still exceed expectations and do a great job. These employees wouldn’t technically meet the MBI definition of burnout. Similarly, employees who are exhausted but feel positive about their job and work but still underperform due to that exhaustion also would not meet the definition.

Now, it’s important to put this definition into context. In practical terms, meeting any of the three criteria of the MBI definition is unhealthy for both the employee and the organization. Just because someone isn’t technically “burnt out” according to the MBI definition doesn’t mean it’s not an issue.

Nevertheless, it can be important to review a detailed definition and requisite criteria for a term and condition many people use vaguely.