What is burnout?

| Article
A row of 8 matches that go from lightly to completely burnt. The last match is broken into a shape that resembles a human figure.
A row of 8 matches that go from lightly to completely burnt. The last match is broken into a shape that resembles a human figure.

Odds are you’ve experienced the feeling at some time or other. Tired from the moment you wake up in the morning. Staring at your computer for hours without accomplishing anything. Finally logging off and leaving your workspace to find a whole other set of taxing jobs to do in the rest of your home—and life. And maybe even being impatient, withdrawn, or irritable with the ones you care about most. These feelings could be the result of burnout.

One explanation for burnout is that it is an occupational phenomenon that builds up over time, brought on by a chronic imbalance between job demands and available resources. Basically, that means too many things to do and not enough tools, time, or energy to do them. And “too many things” doesn’t have to mean a thousand: if the one thing you’re trying to do isn’t getting done, for whatever reason, that can easily cause the alienating feelings associated with burnout. And these feelings are quite different from simply feeling a bit tired or looking forward to a break.

If that sounds all too familiar, you’re not alone. Between February and April 2022, McKinsey conducted a global survey of nearly 15,000 employees and 1,000 HR decision makers in 15 countries. On average, one in four employees surveyed across various demographics and all over the world reported experiencing symptoms of burnout, per the Burnout Assessment Tool.

Burnout can have a major impact on a person’s well-being. It is typified by four core symptoms: exhaustion, mental distancing, cognitive impairment, and emotional impairment. But the problems don’t usually stop there: burnout is also associated with negative brain health symptoms such as anxiety or depression—which in turn can be associated with more severe mental health conditions.

Circular, white maze filled with white semicircles.

Introducing McKinsey Explainers: Direct answers to complex questions

Many companies worldwide are investing more in the mental health and well-being of their employees with benefits such as yoga classes or subscriptions to mental health apps. But as an employer, these efforts alone won’t create conditions for holistic employee health. McKinsey research suggests that there are concrete steps employers can take to improve the situation.

What’s the real cost of burnout—not just for employees but for society at large? And how can people guard against burnout and help their colleagues and employees safeguard their own well-being? Read on to find out.

Learn more about the McKinsey Health Institute.

How did COVID-19 affect employee well-being?

COVID-19 affected nearly everyone’s well-being, in ways that we’re only beginning to reckon with. Prior to the pandemic, there were already signs of a prevailing mental health crisis among employees; the pandemic only made matters worse. McKinsey research during the pandemic indicated that nine out of ten employers knew that COVID-19 was having an impact on their employees by creating unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression.

If there is a silver lining, it’s an increased awareness of and open dialogue about mental health and the importance of investing in well-being, says McKinsey partner Erica Coe. Employers, she goes on, have a special responsibility to address any factors that might compromise the physical or mental health of their workforces.

Do women experience burnout more than men?

Everyone has the potential to become burned out. But McKinsey’s annual Women in the Workplace report indicates that women experience burnout symptoms at higher rates than men, and that it’s only getting worse: the 2022 report shows that the burnout gap between women and men is almost double what it was the previous year. Forty-two percent of women report feeling burned out—but at the same time, productivity across corporate America is at an all-time high. This means that many of the women who are experiencing burnout symptoms may be in work environments where they are struggling.

Part of the problem is the extra work that women take on, both in the workplace and at home. In households, even before the pandemic, women dedicated more than twice as many hours as men to caring for household members. At work, women senior leaders do more than their male peers to help their employees navigate work–life challenges—something McKinsey senior partner Lareina Yee has called the “third shift.” And yet only a quarter of women say that the extra work is reflected in their performance reviews, a promotion, or a raise.

Women at the intersection—women of color, for example, or LGBTQ+ women—face a much greater challenge. These women are much less likely to be promoted at each rung of the corporate ladder. For every 100 men who are promoted, only 86 women are. And the odds are even slimmer for women at intersections of different identities: Asian women, for example, account for one in 15 roles at the entry level among women, but they’re only one of 50 in the C-suite.

Learn more about the McKinsey Health Institute.

What are the workplace factors undermining employee well-being?

In all 15 countries surveyed by McKinsey, toxic workplace behavior was the biggest predictor of burnout symptoms and intent to leave—by a large margin. And toxic workplace behavior is more common than you might think: about one in four employees report experiencing some form of toxic behavior at work. Employees who report experiencing high levels of toxic behavior at work are almost eight times more likely than those who don’t to experience burnout symptoms, according to the 2022 survey.

What is toxic workplace behavior? It’s less about the behavior itself and more about the way it makes people feel. We define toxic workplace behavior as anything that leads to employees feeling unvalued, belittled, or unsafe. This can include unfair or demeaning treatment; noninclusive behavior; sabotaging; cutthroat competition; abusive management; and unethical behavior from leaders or coworkers.

What’s the cost of burnout to employers?

McKinsey research points to a correlation between burnout and costly organizational issues such as attrition, absenteeism, lower engagement, and decreased productivity. The Great Attrition—an unprecedented period of employee turnover propelled by the COVID-19 pandemic—made these costs more visible to employers.

The feelings resulting from toxic workplace behavior can be extremely challenging for employees. But toxic workplace behavior is costly for employers as well. McKinsey’s 2022 global survey suggests that employees experiencing burnout symptoms are six times more likely than those who aren’t to say that they intend to leave their employers in the next three to six months. Replacing employees is expensive—it can cost up to two times their annual salary—but so are the higher rates of sick leave and absenteeism that are associated with burnout. For employers, not addressing burnout may lead to a downward spiral in individual and organizational performance.

Learn more about the McKinsey Health Institute.

How can leaders know if their employees are burned out?

As is the case with many aspects of running a business, you can’t know if your employees experience symptoms of burnout unless you take measurements. To put it simply, if you don’t take the necessary steps to fully understand the current state of your workforce, burnout symptoms may worsen. But measurement also brings responsibility: if you’re going to perform a baseline study, your employees will expect you to do something with the results. It’s important to note that feelings of burnout at work are not equivalent to a clinical diagnosis.

The McKinsey Health Institute has launched a free open-access survey for any employer around the world to take a baseline of their employees’ mental health and well-being. Employers who use the survey share their data for broader learning and research on burnout levels around the world.

How have employers addressed burnout symptoms in the past, and why are their efforts not working?

An estimated nine out of ten organizations around the world offer their employees some kind of wellness program. A lot of these perks might sound familiar to you: yoga classes, subscriptions to meditation apps, or even well-being days or productivity trainings. These are important efforts, but they tend to focus on the symptoms of burnout rather than the root causes. (Again, many organizations haven’t taken baseline measurements of burnout symptoms, so there’s no way to know whether these interventions are effective.) What’s more, these types of surface-level interventions are far less likely to deliver returns on investment than more systemic approaches targeting root causes.

Some employers address burnout by training employees to become more resilient. McKinsey’s 2022 survey indicates that employees who are resilient and adaptable have an edge in managing adversity. But individual skills alone, while critical to a healthy workplace, can’t compensate for insidious workplace behaviors. Toxic workplace behaviors should be addressed and eradicated, not just shifted to more adaptable employees. While employees who are more adaptable may be better equipped to work in toxic environments, they’re also less likely to tolerate these kinds of workplaces in the long term. McKinsey has found that employees with high adaptability are 60 percent more likely than their peers to say that they intend to leave their organizations if they experience high levels of toxic behavior at work.

Learn more about the McKinsey Health Institute.

What does a systematic approach to addressing employee burnout look like?

As with any health issue, preventing problems before they start is always preferable. Simply put, employers can’t “yoga” their way out of these challenges.

A systemic approach means addressing both toxic workplace behavior and redesigning work to be inclusive, sustainable, and supportive of individual learning and growth—including leader and employee adaptability skills. It also means rethinking organizational systems, processes, and incentives to redesign work, job expectations, and team environments.

Addressing toxic behavior in the workplace is a vital factor in addressing burnout. McKinsey’s 2022 survey shows that improving all other organizational factors—without addressing toxic behavior—does not meaningfully improve reported levels of burnout symptoms. But when the level of toxic behavior is low, each intervention contributes to reducing negative outcomes and increasing positive ones.

Learn more about how leaders can address burnout-related challenges.

How can employers target toxic work behavior?

A first step should be to recognize and address signs of toxic behavior and then enshrine and protect channels for upward feedback. If toxic work behaviors are identified, employers should factor this into employees’ performance reviews. But it’s not just about removing or preventing toxicity; it’s also about amplifying compassionate leadership and cultivating a supportive environment.

Beyond taking steps to eliminate toxic behavior, leadership can prioritize communicating to their employees that they care about their workers’ mental health and their community’s well-being. Addressing toxic behaviors can help employees feel safer and more comfortable raising issues in the future.

Learn more about the McKinsey Health Institute, and check out healthcare-related job opportunities if you’re interested in working at McKinsey.

Pop quiz

Articles referenced:

A row of 8 matches that go from lightly to completely burnt. The last match is broken into a shape that resembles a human figure.

Want to know more about burnout?