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Published April 25, 2023


The persistent problem of burnout

Portrait of Scott Meier.

Scott Meier

Department of Counseling, School and Educational Psychology

Is burnout categorically different than depression? The short answer is that even with 50 years of research, there’s still not a definitive answer, according to Graduate School of Education faculty member Scott T. Meier.

Meier, professor in the Department of Counseling, School and Educational Psychology, discussed “The persistent burnout/depression problem” in a recent issue of The Journal of Psychosomatic Research. Meier’s editorial examined the substantial scientific evidence accumulated over decades of research to determine if there’s a correlation between burnout and depression.

“These studies are essentially coming to completely opposite conclusions,” he explained. “Some groups of researchers will read the same literature and say the burnout and depression are separate, while others conclude that burnout and depression are identical.

“And so here we are, still having this fundamental discussion about whether burnout and depression are separate entities in any kind of meaningful sense,” he said.

Meier first became interested in studying burnout in the early 80s while a graduate student at Southern Illinois University.

“My PhD adviser was a psychotherapist before becoming a professor and said she personally felt burned out as a psychotherapist,” he said. “She said that after a while, everybody seemed to have the same problems, and she just didn’t have the energy for dealing with them.

“The timing of this also happened shortly after Herbert Freudenberg coined the term ‘burnout’ in his article in 1974, where he specifically documented how counselors working in clinics burned out. He noted that they came into the position with a lot of enthusiasm, but after doing this intense work for a period of time, they lost their flame and passion, and left the profession, or felt kind of stuck.”

Meier and his professor talked about the problems associated with burnout and, inevitably, they noted that depression and anxiety appeared on the long list of symptoms.

Over the years, Meier says his approach changed from looking at a specific occupation to looking at large data sets collected from many occupations.

“Some of my recent publications are on meta-analyses,” he noted. “I’ve worked with Dr. Sunha Kim, who is a meta-analytic expert in our department, on a meta-analysis looking at a large number of studies that reported correlations of burnout and depression. So, I’m looking at the literature as a whole to try to get a sense of what’s going on when we aggregate all these studies.”

Nothing’s changed

Even after conducting these meta-analyses, Meier found the results of studying burnout haven’t changed much since he worked on his dissertation.

“We found basically the same thing that I had found 50 years ago with a single study for my dissertation,” he said.

Meier’s dissertation involved 500 faculty members at Southern Illinois, and he found that burnout measures correlated as highly with measures of depression as they did with each other—which ultimately led to more questions than answers.

“We had hoped that the burnout measures would have correlated at a higher level with each other than with the measure of the depression, but that was not the case,” he said.

Even though there has not been a definitive conclusion on whether depression and burnout are separate entities, Meier says there has been progress regarding burnout. For one thing, people talk about it more openly now.

“Especially with the pandemic, you hear a lot about health care workers being burned out in their field,” he noted.

Which raises another interesting point: If we know burnout exists and it’s discussed on national and international platforms, why do people continue to become burned out?

“All I can do is speculate about that,” Meier said. “The people that are being affected by burnout are the people that are, in some ways, the least powerful in their organization. When employees strike, it’s usually not just about pay—it’s about staffing and other issues.”

In many different fields, executives could hire more workers, but many don’t. Meier says that’s because there’s not enough public pressure on these organizations to fix the problems.

“Unfortunately, I think employees in almost any occupation are the least cared about,” he said. “And I think burnout and occupational stress affects so many different areas that it’s not like there’s one class of people that say, ‘hey, we need research on this.’ And so, it’s kind of diffused, and I think everybody has some experience with burnout and even with depression, but the research on it isn’t getting enough support.”

Burned out studying burnout?

So, is Meier burned out on conducting research about burnout? 

“Well, I feel stuck in a way because we need better methods and measures of studying it,” he said. “There are three major symptom categories when studying burnout, but those measures say nothing about causes. The assumption with burnout is that it’s something that happens over time—we’re typically talking about years. The problem with doing research with years is you’re trying to do longitudinal research.

“And interestingly, despite all the public interest in burnout, there’s no funding to do research about burnout and occupational stress in the U.S.,” he added. “So, we don’t have the kinds of answers and conclusions we could have because there’s a lack of funding to do those kinds of studies.”

In the meantime, Meier says the focus is on individuals to fight off burnout, as opposed to the employer companies and organizations.

“It’s kind of amazing how many businesses seem dysfunctional these days because they don’t have enough employees to provide their basic services. So, it’s like we’re at this push and pull point,” he said. “We’re teaching students to self-care as opposed to intervening with the organizations they are going to work for.

“As people burn out, they move out of the occupation, and we put new, young people in and continue the cycle,” he explained. “But again, from my perspective as a researcher, we just don’t understand enough about burnout and occupational stress well enough to be able to talk much about how to intervene here except in really basic ways.”

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