Burnout has been a known issue for almost 50 years. Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger noted burnout in 1974, defining it as a loss of motivation, growing emotional depletion, and cynicism. Today, burnout is fully recognized as a medical disorder in the ICD-10. Burnout is noted for its close similarity to depression – symptoms, including fatigue, loss of passion, and negativity. But what exactly is the science behind burnout? How does it affect the brain, exactly? Many studies have been conducted, but here is an examination of just one study showing the science behind burnout.

What is burnout

Burnout is caused by having a workload that goes beyond a person’s coping skills. It’s the result of a slowly rising stress level, like the classic ‘frog in a pot of water’ where those suffering from burnout may not recognize their struggles until they have reached a breaking point. The most common careers which cause burnout are teachers, nurses, social workers, and physicians – though anyone can ultimately suffer from the phenomenon.

Some of the Science

Though long work-hours are tied to the problem, burnout is also marked by a feeling of low control and reward for the amount of effort put into work.

According to researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, there are clear effects made upon brain chemistry by burnout. Forty subjects with diagnosed burnout symptoms were brought in for a study which entailed emotion regulation and brain connectivity under an MRI.

It was found that participants with burnout had more difficulty modulating their strong negative emotional responses as compared to the control subjects.

On another day, these subjects were brought in and had resting brain activity studied under an MRI. Compared to the control, burnout sufferers appeared to have enlarged amygdalae. They also displayed weaker connections between the amygdala and areas linked to emotional distress, as well as between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex- the area associated with executive function.

From this, many believe that there are signs that extended periods of emotional stress can have marked effects on the brain’s very structure.


Recovering from burnout can take a very long time, much like PTSD or similar traumatic disorders that restructure our brain. This restructuring has dramatic effects on how we react and cope with stressful situations. To help prevent this damage, consider how these six key components of your work environment might contribute to your likelihood of burnout: 

  • workload – are you overworked? 
  • control – do you have a say in the workplace? 
  • reward – are you compensated fairly? 
  • community – do you feel at home? 
  • fairness – are you treated well? 
  • values – Do you agree with the company culture?

It’s important to take care of ourselves, especially at work. If you spend more than half the week at work, make sure that time is well spent and healthy.