By Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter

“Burnout” has been a popular term during the last few decades. Both the word and its underlying imagery have an immediacy and easy accessibility that capture an increasingly common experience — namely, that something has gone wrong in people’s relationship to their work. In many cases, the basic narrative goes like this: people entered a job with positive expectations, enthusiasm, and the goal to be successful in their work. Over time, things changed — and not for the better. “I gave 110% for many years only to find myself exhausted, bitter and disillusioned.” The initial flame of dedication and passion has burned out.

Burnout occurs when exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy combine in the most extreme negative pattern. And there is indeed a lot of concern about what to do when people experience this extreme state of burnout. But it is usually a minority of the working population that is experiencing burnout — so what is happening with everyone else? In a recent study published in Burnout Research (Leiter & Maslach, 2016), we used a new method to answer that question. What we found, in two populations of people working in heath care, were five different patterns of work experience. On the two ends of the distribution were the extremes of Burnout (negative on all three dimensions) and Engagement (positive on all three dimensions — no exhaustion or cynicism, and a high degree of accomplishment and professional efficacy). But the exciting result was the discovery of three new profiles between these two extremes — each of which exhibited only one dimension of high burnout.

The Overextended group reported high exhaustion, but otherwise they were doing fine. They were involved rather than cynical, and they were confident rather than discouraged. The major problem they were facing in the workplace was a very heavy workload, with high demands. They believed in themselves and their work, but were always tired. Our data suggest that lots of people identified as experiencing Burnout are actually Overextended. The Disengaged group, in contrast, was not tired or discouraged, but they did feel cynical and detached. They had lost the motivation that originally attracted them to this work. Although they did not have a problem with workload, they were experiencing major difficulties in almost all other aspects of their job experience, such as a lack of critical resources and a poor quality of social relationships. Although not tired, their hopes and ambitions were frustrated. The Ineffective group had energy, and they cared about their job, but they despaired at the lack of meaningful work. Making a steady contribution was not building confidence in their own abilities.

Are these three intermediate profiles indicative of distinct workplace experiences that have not been well recognized before? Are they early warning signs of steps in the path toward burnout? If so, then the profile that was closest to the negative extreme of Burnout was the Disengaged experience of high cynicism — which argues against the mistaken notion that burnout is simply the exhaustion of working too hard.

What does seem clear is that each of these intermediate profiles would require a different kind of solution for their particular problem. For example, Overextended people who are struggling with a high workload would need to focus on reducing work demands, improving strategies for recovery, and achieving a better balance between work and home. Of the four problematic profiles, they could get the most from building resilience, mindfulness, and relaxation. People with the Ineffective profile might benefit greatly from recognition and appreciation from other people at work. They could also blossom with the intrinsic satisfaction that comes from success in doing a job that makes a meaningful contribution. The cynicism of Disengaged people presents a more serious barrier to change, just as the full-blown Burnout profile does. Both Disengaged and Burnout people look for major changes in how their work is organized and in how the organization is managed. The Disengaged have the advantage over their Burnout colleagues of having the energy and confidence necessary to try something new. But they share with their Burnout colleagues the fact that Individual employees don’t have the power to change what needs to be changed. Sometimes they have to learn to live with the way things are despite feeling incredibly frustrated. Ideally, with the right coaching and support from colleagues and managers, they could find a new beginning at work. Recovery from burnout presents even greater challenges because those experiencing burnout not only feel frustrated, they lack the energy and confidence that would contribute to an effective response.

A more precise assessment always helps. Not only should interventions be implemented earlier, when the first warning sign appears, they should be customized to the particular work profile that is emerging. When it comes to solutions for workplace problems, one size does not fit all.

Christina Maslach, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is widely recognized as one of the pioneering researchers on job burnout, and developed the major tool to assess this work experience. Recently, she and Michael Leiter became the co-founding editors of the e-journal, Burnout Research.

Michael P Leiter, PhD, is Professor of Organisational Psychology in the School of Psychology of Deakin University, Geelong, Australia. His work has focused on job burnout, work engagement, and the social dynamics of workgroups with an abiding interest in designing and evaluating organizational interventions to enhance the quality of worklife.

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