Why we need to stop using the term 'Burnout' and rather use ‘Non-Optimal State’.

For years Psychologists and organisations have been referring to the term ‘burnout’.  I recall developing and delivering a workshop 20years ago called ‘Preventing Burnout’ for the organisation that I worked for at the time as the Staff Psychologist, and at the time had no issue with the use of the term ‘burnout’.

However, over the last five years delivering well-being interventions across the globe I have become much more aware of the deeply embedded and unchanging stigma around mental health and well-being.  Much of this stigma comes from the language we use when talking about mental well-being and the way we respond to well-being issues in the workplace.

One word that I now believe is unhelpful is the term ‘burnout’.  I believe that this term contributes to the stigma around mental well-being and contributes to people feeling fearful of reaching out for support. 

I have a very clear view on why we should not be using the term 'burnout' which I would like to share with you, and hopefully prompt you (and organisations, leaders and Psychologists) to pause before using the term 'burnout', and deliberately choose the a more appropriate term.

Literal Definition

Let us first examine the definition of 'burnout'. If we simply go to the literal definition of 'burnout' (which actual is 'burnt out'), it essentially means that there is nothing left to burn.  There is no fuel for the fire.  There is no potential for re-ignition. There is nothing left but ashes. 

What this means from a well-being perspective is that a person is at the extreme end of the well-being spectrum.  In a state of 'burnout' the person has completely exhausted all their physical and emotional resources.  If a person is at the extreme end of the well-being continuum and has exhausted all possible physical and emotional resources then the term ‘burnout’ might be applicable. 

However, if the person is struggling but not at a point where they have exhausted all possible resources, then we need to use a different descriptor and not the term ‘burnout’. 

The risk of 'buzz words' is that these words are often used inappropriately and in an unhelpful way.  We need to be far more discerning in our use of language around mental well-being. 

‘Burnout’ is Used as Form of Diagnosis

I am pretty confident that if I asked if it was OK for a leader to either conclude that you were depressed or label you as depressed you would respond that this would be inappropriate.  And I completely agree.  It is not our place, as leaders, peer supporters, colleagues or team members to diagnose someone else in our team. 

When we use the term 'burnout' it is the equivalent of determining a diagnosis.  Leaders, workplaces and colleagues have no right or place to diagnose, and therefore should not be using the term 'burnout'.  Only medical professionals who have been requested to make a diagnosis should make a diagnosis.

More importantly, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V) does not list ‘Burnout’ as a diagnosis.  No Psychologist, Psychiatrist or Doctor following the DSM V criteria would ever use the term ‘Burnout’ as a diagnosis. 

However, WHO’s International Classification of Diseases 11th edition (ICD), which categorizes diseases for diagnosis by health care professionals and determines coverage by health insurers, does refer to a new diagnosis of ‘Burnout Syndrome’, which is defined as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy.

Once again, to determine a diagnosis of ‘Burnout Syndrome’ using the ICD11, the person must be assessed my a medical professional and evidence for all criteria met. Exclusion to this diagnosis include adjustment disorder, disorders specifically associated with stress such as PTSD, fear-related disorders and mood disorders (anxiety and depression).

However, what we can do is make an observation, describing what we observe, our gut feel, or what we hear.  It is completely ok, and respectful, to make an observation with the intention of care and support.  So you might make an observation that a colleague looks ‘exhausted’, or seems ‘anxious’, and this is really helpful and in many cases prompts the awareness and subsequent action to address the issue.

Locus of Power

The term 'burnout' also has a power component.  What I mean by this is that if we compared the use of the term 'burnout' by an employee versus an employer, there is a completely different potential consequence.  For the employee the term typically implies that they are not able to do the normal work, that they will most likely need to take time off from work, and potentially worst-case scenario result in questions about the person's ability to actually keep their job. Furthermore, the term 'burnout' also often implies the individual's responsibility.

For the organisation, the term 'burnout' typically implies that the employee is just not up to the task or able to manage the challenges or expectations around workload.  This gives the organisation all the power and renders the individual powerless to the judgement and consequences of the label.  Furthermore, the term allows the organisation to avoid the responsibility that actually sits with them.

An Alternative Term

Instead of 'Burnout', we should use the term 'Non-Optimal'. A ‘Non-optimal state’ refers to when a person is not at their optimal emotional state, and more importantly is most likely to recognise the earliest signs of struggle.  The term ‘non-optimal’ carries far less judgement, is not a diagnosis, and doesn’t imply specific responsibility.  It is a far more constructive term for identifying when someone might be experiencing an increased negative impact from their current situation.

Even better, instead of focusing on what is not working or the problem (the medical model), how about we focus on the goal state.  In other words, use the term 'Optimal Emotional State' and then support people toward achieving and maintaining the optimum emotional state.

Definition of the Optimal Emotional State (Zone of Proximal Development):

  • Feeling stretched but not stressed
  • Feeling challenged by the work, but supported by the team and the leader
  • Feeling a level of constructive anxiety, but supported to manage the anxiety
  • Feeling frustrated for short periods of time followed by a sense of achievement
  • Feeling valued as a team member for the contribution
  • Feeling proud to work for the team and the organisation
  • Feeling listened to and supported
  • Feeling engaged and purposeful
  • Feeling motivated
  • Feeling connected

Best Practice

Perhaps my greatest concern about the term ‘burnout’ is that if organisations are investing in programs to prevent burnout i.e. the extreme end of the well-being continuum, they are leaving the intervention to very late in the piece. 

A far better practice, which is true for all aspects of organisational and human performance, is to implement preventative strategies and early intervention.  In other words, we need to identify as soon as possible if someone is non-optimal and provide the supports and interventions to assist the person to get back into the optimal state.

Instead of referring to 'burnout' or someone being 'burnt-out' let’s start using the term 'Non-optimal'.  This change in language changes not only the judgement associated with 'burnout' but the stigma associated with any one of us going through a challenging time.  More importantly, lets focus our efforts and energy on assisting our people to maintain a state of optimal emotional state.

How Do Organisations Reach Optimal Emotional State?

  1. Change our language: Talk about aspiring towards ‘Optimal Emotional State’ and creating a work culture and environment that supports this state.
  2. Equip Leaders with the Requisite Skills: Build the leadership capability to enable leaders to create an environment that delivers results but also supports the optimal emotional state and well-being.
  3. Educate on Optimal Emotional State: Provide programs for individuals and teams to attend that equip them with the tools, frameworks and strategies to reach and maintain the optimal emotional state.
  4. Enable the Optimal Emotional State: Implement the relevant processes, systems, clarity of priorities, and decision rights to enable both leaders and team members to reach and maintain the optimal emotional state.

How can TLC Solutions Assist Your Organisation?

Our team of Psychologists has the expertise, the tools, and the experience to support the transformation of the well-being and performance of your organisation by identifying the critical transformational levers unique to your organisation. We then guide and support the organisation through the implementation stage of the transformation through to ongoing optimisation and sustainable performance.


Copyright © TLC Solutions Australia 2019

About the author

Gregory Bayne is one of the Directors of Total Leader and Coach Solutions Australia.  Greg works with senior and executive leaders assisting them to make shifts in the way they work, the way they think and the way they live their lives to become better leaders, colleagues and team members. Greg has a particular focus on assisting leaders create a culture or accountability and high performance. His expertise and knowledge is around building and developing a culture of accountability, leading high performing teams, and getting the most out of people to deliver the highest standards of work. We cultivate sustainable behavioural change in individuals, teams and organisations to drive a performance culture.