top of page

From Great Exhaustion to Great Resignation

For a situation that is all too prevalent in modern life, the term "burnout" is rather new. First coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, this concept has more to it than simply being stressed out. Workplace burnout is a term that many of us are familiar with. It describes the severe physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and long-lasting stress at work. It is a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic stress and which is better defined by three key dimensions: an overwhelming tiredness, feelings of cynicism and alienation from work and a sense of lack of achievement. The initial enthusiasm and drive that motivated one to embrace a certain position starts to fade as stress increases, i.e. as burnout develops. Despite being preventable, if left untreated, burnout can have long-term and extremely damaging effects. Triggered by prolonged stress at work, be it interpersonal or emotional, burnout results from an imbalance or a lack of suitable coping strategies for managing high levels of stress. The COVID-19 pandemic added new stressors, that is, any action, event, or other stimulus that creates stress, to practically every sphere of our lives, ranging from longer work hours to increased responsibilities at home. These pressures and their respective consequences are persistent and undetermined as the world continually adapts, increasing the risk of burnout for everyone.

Burnout: A COVID-19 Pandemic Problem?

At the end of 2019, cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) of unclear cause emerged in Wuhan, China (Huang et al., 2020; Li et al., 2020). According to research conducted in China and by the World Health Organization (WHO), the culprit for this atypical pneumonia known as COVID-19 (coronavirus disease) was the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) (WHO, 2019c; Zhu et al., 2020). Due to the sudden increase in cases worldwide, the WHO quickly recognized that the COVID-19 outbreak posed a serious public health threat (WHO, 2019b). The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to healthcare systems, but also to the global economy. Companies and institutions had to change their work organization almost overnight, requiring employees to quickly adapt to new constraints. The use of masks for individual protection, social distancing, isolation, and successive lockdowns, quickly became a part of everyday life (McIntyre & Lee, 2020; Xiong et al., 2020). Furthermore, alongside the ambiguities of daily life and dizzying political turmoil, the Great Resignation, an ongoing trend in which large numbers of employees have voluntarily resigned their positions, has turned companies upside down, leaving those exhausted workers left behind with significantly increased professional workloads (Stahl, 2021). The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic recession have negatively impacted the mental health of many people and created new barriers for those already suffering from mental illness (WHO, 2022). The duration of the pandemic, loneliness resulting from social isolation, and the yo-yo effect of positive news followed by negative news have all contributed to anxiety and depression (Ximena et al., 2021). All of these factors, compounded by the panic and fear that have become commonplace during the Covid-19 pandemic, have contributed to exhaustion and an increase in COVID-19-derived burnout cases (Silva et al., 2021; WHO, 2022).

Figure 1 - The social media age has experienced its first pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in social distancing, lockdowns and increased media coverage, all of which have had a detrimental impact on people's mental health (Gladwell, 2020).

During the pandemic, burnout was particularly prevalent among health workers as they struggled to provide patient care in unprepared health systems (Bradley & Chahar, 2020; Leo et al., 2021). The burden of making critical decisions, the grief of losing patients and colleagues, and the risk of infection to themselves and their families all contributed to burnout of health workers (Leo et al., 2021). Additionally, workers in the general workforce were also confronted with significant COVID-19-related stresses stemming from workplace factors such as a lack of or inadequate workplace policies and an inadequate supply of protective equipment (Simms et al., 2020). Because of the ubiquity of burnout and stress at work and the devastating impact they can have on productivity and health, the WHO revised its definition of burnout in the 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases. In 2019, workplace burnout was officially recognized as a syndrome that occurs particularly in the occupational context and thus should not be used to describe experiences in other areas of life (WHO, 2019a). Up until this point, burnout had only been identified by the organization as a state of "stress and vital exhaustion", which barely captures the severity of the syndrome.

Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” “Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.” - World Health Organization.

However, the WHO does not consider burnout a disease but classifies it as a context-specific syndrome, which is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of lack of energy or exhaustion; increased mental detachment from one's work or feelings of negativity or cynicism about others' work and reduced professional productivity. This three-dimensional model centers on the individual's stress experience in a social context, while also including the person's view of themselves and others. In practical terms, burnout comes into play when one starts feeling exhausted, loathes their job, and feels less capable of succeeding at work (Maslach & Leiter, 2016). Most people spend the bulk of their waking hours at work. Therefore, burnout can have a high toll on one's life. This toll manifests as burnout symptoms. Dread of going to work, disillusionment and dissatisfaction at work, trouble concentrating, and lack of interest in once-meaningful hobbies are some of the mental symptoms of burnout. Burnout is also frequently accompanied by physical symptoms such as exhaustion, body pains, headaches, gastrointestinal disorders, alterations in appetite, heightened susceptibility to infectious diseases and sleep disruption (Yale Medicine, n.d.).

Figure 2 - Burnout is a gradual process, with subtle signs and symptoms at first that worsen over time. It's a result of excessive and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress (Molla, 2022).

This change in terminology by the WHO, can help raise awareness and ensure people get better care. It is important to note that burnout, while treatable, is a preventable condition. A quick Google search for "burnout at work" returns 500 million results, demonstrating the magnitude of the problem. Despite the fact that the pandemic has now been going on for four years, many managers are still struggling to adjust themselves and their teams to this new way of living and working, as some companies have shifted to a full remote or even hybrid working method. While the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the causes of burnout, burnout was already a common condition. In 2015, a Deloitte survey found burnout to be a widespread problem rather than a pandemic problem (Deloitte, 2015). While 91% agreed that excessive stress is detrimental to the quality of their work, 77% of professionals surveyed said they had experienced burnout in their current job. Additionally, a 2020 study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 41% of employees were burned out at work, struggling to keep focus, and motivation (SHRM, 2020).

However, the COVID-19 restrictions have resulted in a major reorganization of both work and family life, having an unprecedented impact on mental health and well-being. Not only have burnout occurrences soared as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but shifts in employee engagement and burnout trends have also been highlighted by a Gallup analysis entitled "The Wellbeing-Engagement Paradox of 2020" (Wigert et al., 2021). Greater employee commitment is often associated with reduced burnout and higher motivation and performance. However, since the Covid-19 outbreak, mental health specialists have seen that more engagement does not necessarily lead to increased productivity and mental well-being in the long run. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, research conducted all over the world indicates that around 50% of workers and 53% of managers are burned out (Outlook, 2022).

Figure 3 - Battling COVID-19 on the front, healthcare professionals have faced the toughest situation of their lives, experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety and unprecedented work loads resulting in exhaustion and burnout (Pearl, 2021).

2021: A Record-Breaking Year for Job Resignations

The "Great Resignation", a term first coined in May 2021 by Anthony Klotz, refers to the unprecedented number of individuals leaving their jobs since the beginning of the pandemic (Kaplan, 2021; Washington Post Live, 2021). After working from home for extended periods of time rather than commuting, many people have opted to prioritize their work-life balance. The COVID-19 pandemic has given workers the chance to rethink their long-term objectives, working circumstances, and career paths. As many firms attempted to bring their workers back to the office, workers craved the independence that remote work offered them during the COVID-19 outbreak, as well as the flexibility to organize their work schedules, which was the major reason for most of them to seek a new job (Cohen, 2021). In 2021, 47.8 million people in the United States quit their jobs, an average of over 4 million per month. This marked the highest monthly average of employment resignations ever recorded, surpassing the 2019 average of 3.5 million (United States Department of Labor, 2021). According to PwC's Global Workforce Hopes and Fears survey, which was conducted in March 2022 and included over 52,000 workers from 44 countries and territories, this transformation in the workplace appears to be persistent, with one in five workers globally expected to quit in 2022 (PwC, 2022). 71% of respondents mention income as a major motivator for seeking to switch employment.

In 2021, resignations hit their highest level of the past two decades, owing to an unprecedented rise in burnout cases. While burnout may occur in any career, those working in healthcare, especially physicians, are more vulnerable to it. This is because physicians operate in a culture of self-reliance and independence, holding the belief that they must not reveal any signs of weakness. As a result, they are often the least likely to seek mental health treatment and the most prone to experience burnout (Rashmi, 2021). Healthcare professionals have been emotionally and physically drained by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left a significant physical and physiological legacy. This has been reflected in a mass exodus of healthcare professionals as they have been subjected to unprecedented stressful conditions including making critical decisions, dealing with the loss of patients and staff, an increased risk of infection for themselves and their families and unbearable workloads. (Leo et al., 2021). On the other hand, remote employees also experienced remarkable levels of stress while carrying the heavy burden of ensuring work continues during lockdown, which ultimately led to high resignation rates (Christian, 2022). Work infiltrated their personal lives in the same way that it provided stability and routine for them to maintain focus among the ever-changing realities of COVID-19. Stress, anxiety, and loneliness brought on by inadequate rest and leisure time are the main determinants of remote job burnout (Outlook, 2022).

Figure 4 - The 'Great Resignation' Isn't Over: Number of people quitting their jobs in the United States, seasonally adjusted (U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, 2022).

The "Great Resignation" has dominated the news for months and has had a major impact on companies across many industries. This is not just a fleeting trend, it is a major shift in the way people interact with the organizations they work for: a wake-up call for today's corporate leaders.

"Workers are leaving their jobs in unprecedented numbers, and it revolves around what companies are delivering regarding workplace culture” – Cheryl Fields Tyler

It Takes Two To Tango

Success in an organization can only happen when there is a good working relationship between managers and employees. No successful relationship ought to be one-sided. Both sides must make equal contributions and recognize mutual benefits. However, the massive employee burnout crisis that most companies are currently experiencing shows how flawed this connection can be (Attard, 2022). Traditional workplaces can be nerve-wracking. Demanding employers, unpleasant co-workers, unsustainable workloads, and long hours in the office can negatively impact our mental health and personal well-being. Although burnout has become the norm for many employees, the organizational impact of burnout is significant. Workers who are burned out are 63% more likely to take a day off and are 2.6 times more likely to be actively seeking a new position. Even when they stay, they show 13% less confidence in their performance and are half as likely to talk to their managers about how to achieve performance goals (Moss, 2019).

For leaders who care about their employees, this is a double-edged sword: they must encourage greater productivity and performance while trying to prevent employee burnout. In most cases, however, this is a false dilemma. Employee burnout is caused by variables less related to harsh work expectations and high productivity and more related to how someone is managed. A Gallup survey of 7,500 full-time workers confirms this, identifying the top five causes of burnout as unfair treatment at work, an unmanageable workload, a lack of role clarity, a lack of communication and support from their manager, and unreasonable time pressures (Ben & Agrawal, 2018). This demonstrates that the primary causes of burnout are not personal and could be prevented if leaders started employing preventative measures far sooner. Employee burnout is a commonplace phenomenon, but it is often handled as a performance management or personal issue rather than an overall organizational concern, a completely misleading concept.

Figure 5 - Unmanageable workload is one of the leading causes of employee burnout (AndreyPopov, 2019).

A report by Willis Towers Watson shows that companies today place a high focus on the mental health of their employees, with stress and burnout being recognized by virtually all companies as threats to employees (WTW, 2022). While 86% of employers recognize that mental health, stress, and burnout are key concerns, only 25% of them have actually developed and implemented a comprehensive workplace health policy (WTW, 2022). The top actions organizations are implementing in 2022 or considering for 2023 to improve employee well-being are as follows: establish a behavioral health strategy and action plan for the organization; redesign its Employee Assistance Program (EAP); expand service and increase visitation limits; foster the use of mobile apps for physical well-being; Setting goals and overseeing financial wellbeing programs at key financial decision points such as starting a new family, having children, and buying a first home, to name a few.

According to several studies, the job aspects that have the greatest impact on employees' mental health and well-being include unfair treatment, unsustainable workload, restricted autonomy, and a lack of social support. Wellness programs will not solve these problems. In fact, decades of research shows that systemic approaches, such as organizational-level approaches including mentorship, guidance, active listening and empowerment, are significantly more likely to have a longer-term impact on employee health than interventions that are only geared toward the individual (Davis, 2021). Since many companies do not employ a systematic approach, they see fewer gains in combating burnout and supporting employee mental health and well-being than they would expect based on their investments (Montano et al., 2014).

Figure 6 - Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is crucial to reducing stress levels and preventing job burnout (AndreyPopov, 2019).

The Great Resignation: A Wake-Up Call for Companies

Although the phenomena of burnout have been investigated since the late 1970s, the intricacies underlying this condition remain unknown. Since then, the majority of research has focused on employment circumstances such as income, hours, management approaches, and the nebulous workplace culture. In light of this, efforts to reduce burnout have often focused on improving working conditions and replacing dysfunctional managers. While these are undoubtedly necessary, it is not immediately apparent that they are sufficient. Longstanding workplace concerns about employee well-being, and mental health in particular, have been amplified and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, there have been reports of rapidly increasing burnout rates around the world. In response, several companies have made record-high investments in the mental health and well-being of their employees. Numerous employers now offer a variety of health services, including yoga classes, mindfulness app memberships, well-being days, and seminars on performance and time management.

Companies, on the other hand, routinely disregard the influence of the workplace on employee dedication, productivity, and psychological wellness. Many managers appear uninterested in changing working conditions, instead adhering to outdated strategies. The vast majority of companies dismiss employee feedback. The most obvious example is forcing employees to return to the office after a pandemic that has enforced remote working practices. Even for those who consider that working from home enhances productivity, creativity, and fosters strong bonds. This undermines the point of work-life balance and emphasizes the importance of a comprehensive approach to manage burnout, which must entail psychological, physical, and social components of people's demands. Organizations cannot exist without their workers; thus, prioritizing them brings value to the organization. The Great Resignation serves as a wake-up call for businesses to revisit and revise their retention strategies in order to meet the demands of the new norm. Otherwise, all the talent will go away.

Bibliographical References

Attard, M. (2022). Communicating For Engagement Against Rising Burnout. Forbes.

Ben, W., & Agrawal, S. (2018). Employee Burnout, Part 1: The 5 Main Causes. GALLUP.

Bradley, M., & Chahar, P. (2020). Burnout of healthcare providers during COVID-19. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine.

Christian, A. (2022). Are workers really quitting over company values? BBC.

Cohen, A. (2021). How to Quit Your Job in the Great Post-Pandemic Resignation Boom. Bloomberg.

Davis, P. (2021). Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being and Resilience. Warthon School Press.

Deloitte. (2015). Workplace burnout survey: Burnout without borders. Consulting DLLP.

Huang, C., Wang, Y., Li, X., Ren, L., Zhao, J., Hu, Y., Zhang, L., Fan, G., Xu, J., Gu, X., Cheng, Z., Yu, T., Xia, J., Wei, Y., Wu, W., Xie, X., Yin, W., Li, H., Liu, M., Cao, B. (2020). Clinical features of patients infected with 2019 novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China. The Lancet, 395(10223), 497–506.

Kaplan, J. (2021). The psychologist who coined the phrase “Great Resignation” reveals how he saw it coming and where he sees it going. “Who we are as an employee and as a worker is very central to who we are.” Business Insider.

Leo, C. G., Sabina, S., Tumolo, M. R., Bodini, A., Ponzini, G., Sabato, E., & Mincarone, P. (2021). Burnout Among Healthcare Workers in the COVID 19 Era: A Review of the Existing Literature. Frontiers in Public Health, 9.

Li, Q., Guan, X., Wu, P., Wang, X., Zhou, L., Tong, Y., Ren, R., Leung, K. S. M., Lau, E. H. Y., Wong, J. Y., Xing, X., Xiang, N., Wu, Y., Li, C., Chen, Q., Li, D., Liu, T., Zhao, J., Liu, M., Feng, Z. (2020). Early Transmission Dynamics in Wuhan, China, of Novel Coronavirus–Infected Pneumonia. New England Journal of Medicine, 382(13), 1199–1207.

Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 15(2), 103–111.

McIntyre, R. S., & Lee, Y. (2020). Projected increases in suicide in Canada as a consequence of COVID-19. Psychiatry Research, 290, 113104.

Montano, D., Hoven, H., & Siegrist, J. (2014). Effects of organisational-level interventions at work on employees’ health: a systematic review. BMC Public Health, 14(1), 135.

Moss, J. (2019). Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People. Harvard Business Review.

Outlook. (2022). How Working From Home Is Adding To Employee Burnout In A Post-Covid World.

PwC. (2022). Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey.

Rashmi, P. (2021). Navigating COVID-19’s Lessons on Burnout. Psychiatric Times.

SHRM. (2020). Navigating COVID-19: Impaxct of the pandemic onmental health.

Silva, W. A. D., Brito, T. R. de S., & Pereira, C. R. (2021). Anxiety associated with COVID-19 and concerns about death: Impacts on psychological well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 176, 110772.

Simms, A., Fear, N. T., & Greenberg, N. (2020). The impact of having inadequate safety equipment on mental health. Occupational Medicine, 70(4), 278–281.

Stahl, A. (2021). Post-Pandemic Burnout Spurs The “Great Resignation” Among Workers. Forbes.

United States Department of Labor. (2021). Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary. Economic News Release.

Washington Post Live. (2021). Transcript: The Great Resignation with Molly M. Anderson, Anthony C. Klotz, PhD & Elaine Welteroth.

WHO. (2019a). Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases.

WHO. (2019b). List of blue print priority diseases.

WHO. (2019c). Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

WHO. (2022). COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. News Release.

Wigert, B., Agrawal, S., Kristin, B., & Mayse, E. (2021). The Wellbeing-Engagement Paradox of 2020. GALLUP.

WTW. (2022). Employers pinpoint workforce mental health as one of HR’s top priorities for 2022. GlobeNewswire.

Ximena, G., Ramirez, O., van den Bosch, M., Liutsko, L., & Briones, B. (2021). Will We See a Wave of Mental Health Problems After the COVID-19 Pandemic? ISGlobal.

Xiong, J., Lipsitz, O., Nasri, F., Lui, L. M. W., Gill, H., Phan, L., Chen-Li, D., Iacobucci, M., Ho, R., Majeed, A., & McIntyre, R. S. (2020). Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in the general population: A systematic review. Journal of Affective Disorders, 277, 55–64.

Yale Medicine. (n.d.). What are the symptoms of chronic stress?

Zhu, N., Zhang, D., Wang, W., Li, X., Yang, B., Song, J., Zhao, X., Huang, B., Shi, W., Lu, R., Niu, P., Zhan, F., Ma, X., Wang, D., Xu, W., Wu, G., Gao, G. F., & Tan, W. (2020). A Novel Coronavirus from Patients with Pneumonia in China, 2019. New England Journal of Medicine, 382(8), 727–733.

Visual Sources

1 Comment

May 22, 2023

thank you very much this is a great post! it is really very important when there is a loved one who will support you with mental disorders and will not leave you in difficult times. That's what a real friend means! Read about it here Don't lose your loved ones and appreciate those who support you!

Author Photo

Maria Inês Marreiros

Arcadia _ Logo.png

Arcadia has an extensive catalog of articles on everything from literature to science — all available for free! If you liked this article and would like to read more, subscribe below and click the “Read More” button to discover a world of unique content.

Let the posts come to you!

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page