How to predict burnout

What if you could tell if you or a colleague were going to burn out a full year before it was to happen?

For companies and their leaders, the value would be tremendous. Burnout among physicians alone cost the U.S. an estimated $4.7 billion per year, according to recent research by Harvard Business School.

Burnout is the presence of three primary symptoms, according to Berkeley professor Christina Maslach who pioneered academic research on the topic: emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. To figure out if she could predict who would burn out, Maslach joined forces fellow researcher, Michael Leiter, to assess a group of employees on these three symptoms and the six factors that influence them twice one year apart.

It all comes down to whether or not your workplace is fair.

They found that two patterns on the first assessment differentiated those who ended up burnt out from those who stayed healthy. First, they were either emotionally exhausted or cynical, but not both. Emotional exhaustion and cynicism tend to exist together, so if one is there but the other is not, it’s often because the other is lagging.

However, not all employees who were high on one became high on both. The tipping point was how employees rated their company on fairness. If an employee was high on either emotional exhaustion or cynicism and thought their workplace was unfair at the time of the first assessment, they were significantly more likely to be burnt out by the second assessment than their peers.

While Maslach and Leiter are not certain why fairness is the tipping point and whether fairness will be the tipping point in all contexts (instead of one or more of the other five factors), fairness does directly impact both emotional exhaustion and cynicism. Experiencing unfair treatment is emotionally upsetting and it leads to the belief that one’s company or leadership have unjust motives.

If you find yourself or a colleague with these warning signs, what can you do? Sometimes unfairness is certain and severe. In those cases, you should consider looking for another job before burnout or something worse unfolds. In other cases, you should check your perception of inequity before allowing it to lead you into burnout. Sometimes situations feel unfair, but only seem that way because you lack full information. Here’s how to systematically test if unfairness is at play:

Are there similarities among others experiencing the same unfavorable circumstances?

Inequity often leads to isolation by making you feel like your company sees you differently than those who received more favorable treatment. However, rarely, are you the only one receiving a bad deal. Find others who are experiencing the same inequities and see if there are common characteristics across the group. If there are (e.g., race, gender, seniority), then there’s a good chance unfairness is at play. However, if the group appears to be random, there may be other reasonable explanations for what felt like purposeful unfairness.

Are leaders’ motives actually what you assume they are?

Unfairness and cynicism lead you to doubt others’ motives. Yet, the best you can do is make assumptions about others’ motives unless they share them to you. Making assumptions about others’ motives is particularly dangerous if you’re already cynical because confirmation bias is likely to influence your thinking, strengthening the mistrust you’re already feeling. The only true way to know others’ motives is to ask them in a nonjudgmental way.

Are others’ more favorable treatment compensating for past inequities they’ve experienced? 

Weighing the scales of justice accurately is hard because you are more aware of your hardships than the disadvantages and inequities others have endured. For example, it is easy to label affirmative action policies or workplace diversity quotas as unfair to those of the majority race or gender if you don’t acknowledge the inequity minority populations have faced prior to the application processes.

No one should have to work at a company that knowingly treats some of its people unfairly. However, if you think you do, it’s worth taking the time to make sure before conceding to burnout or looking for another job. Testing whether unfairness is perception or reality might just save you from a bout with burnout.

We originally published this article on Inc and on Zarvana.


  • Matt Plummer



    Matt Plummer is the founder of Zarvana, an online platform that helps professionals developing time-saving habits and avoid burnout and offers coaching and training services. Before starting Zarvana, Matt spent six years at Bain & Company spin-out, The Bridgespan Group, a strategy and management consulting firm for nonprofits, foundations, and philanthropists.