Burnout: Does it even exist?

Despite the frequent use of the term, there is much uncertainty about what a burnout is, where it comes from, and what we can do about it. Researchers wonder if we should banish this term altogether.

This post is also available in Dutch.


We live in a society that can demand a lot from us. Although our biological stress system is generally a Gift from Godreally—continuously running on emergency mode for extended periods is, to put it lightly, suboptimal. The tank runs empty, and you burn out: you have a burnout. It is a much-discussed topic: many people have heard, seen, or read something about it at some point. But what is a burnout exactly?

Lastig te definiëren

Burn-out was first described in the 1970s as a phenomenon that occurs in employees in people-oriented professions such as healthcare and education. In a portion of these workers, it was observed how they became increasingly tired over time, began to doubt their own competencies, and felt more and more mentally distant from their work. Since the 1990s, this definition has been broadened to the entire workforce, with a focus on persistent stress-related complaints. The World Health Organization included burn-out in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) in 2019 as a ‘work-related phenomenon’. Stress, on the other hand, occurs in all domains of our lives. It is therefore conceivable that a combination of stress in both work and personal life can lead to the characteristic exhaustion of burn-out.

The symptoms of burn-out have remarkably large overlap with the characteristic symptoms of depression. Because of this overlap—exhaustion, feelings of sadness, difficulty concentrating—some researchers argue that burn-out should actually be seen as a work-related depression. It is noteworthy that highly educated individuals more often receive the “diagnosis” of burn-out, while lower-educated individuals more often receive the diagnosis of depression. This might reflect society’s perception of burn-out and the difference in stigma associated with having a burn-out compared to depression.

Burn-out symptoms

In recent years, many newspapers have featured alarming figures such as ‘1 in 7 working Dutch people suffers from burn-out symptoms’. These figures are based on an annual survey by TNO and CBS. However, the burn-out symptoms measured here are mild stress symptoms that we all experience in our lives. Suggesting that this is directly related to burn-out or that these people are all on their way to burn-out is misleading. This is why TNO and CBS have stopped reporting these statistics in this way.

Current situation

Now, 50 years after the term was coined, there is still much uncertainty about burn-out. Professionals use different definitions, and each definition is still not very specific or distinctive. As a result, doctors and psychologists cannot yet reliably diagnose burn-out. Consequently, a lucrative market has emerged with hundreds of self-help books and numerous therapy forms that are supposed to help people with these serious and impactful stress-related symptoms.

Our understanding of the phenomenon is still very limited. Psychiatrist and professor of Stress and Resilience Christaan Vinkers therefore wrote this book about the shaky scientific basis of burn-out, on which I partly based this blog. For further exploration of this topic, I also recommend this podcast (Dutch only).

Fortunately, there is a lot of attention for burn-out in today’s society. Hopefully, this will help facilitate the much-needed research into it.


Author: Lucas Geelen

Buddy: Judith Scholing

Editor: Eline de Boer

Translator: Swantje Neil

Editor translation: Elena Markantonakis

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

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