In response to the news that burnout has been recognised as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the authors of the commentary explore the root causes and highlight what more can be done to address burnout.

Studies have shown that burnout has negative consequences on overall functioning and health, and it effects include reduced work performance, productivity, and work-life balance, to increased chronic depression, prolonged fatigue and cardiovascular disease. In the most serious cases, burnout may also be lead to sudden stroke or suicide.

Across industries and occupation, long working hours have been the primary cause of burnout. For example, in China’s tech companies, it is a norm to work ‘996’, a work schedule that stretches from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week. The effects of this norm on its workforce are telling, with sharp increase in reports of burnout, fatigue, and chronic depression. Issues with long hours are not easily changed just by mandating shorter hours as there are also deep-seated culture and social norms at play.

Other work-related causes of burnout may include lack of autonomy in job responsibilities and work-life boundaries. In some hierarchical companies, employees have little control over their work environment and decision-making. This leads to employees feeling stressed over work as they are not able to make changes to improve their work conditions. Another group of workers who may face job stress is the gig economy workers, who often clock long, isolating hours to compensate for their low and unstable income.

With many different forms of work stress and life circumstances faced by individual employees, it is important for employers to invest in a human-centred approach to manage employees, putting in place adequate support systems. The authors also encourage employers to give more flexibility in work arrangements, and autonomy to define job scopes such that employees can balance their work and life commitments.

Read the full article on Channel NewsAsia: Commentary: What’s behind burnout? Confusing long hours and face time for work performance


Having the WHO put this syndrome in the books is a step forward in increasing awareness of the health risk at work that goes beyond physical safety. Although it is normal for people to face work stress, it is seldom talked about – one of the factors could be due to the culture of being passive and not wanting to appear vulnerable in front of our co-workers. However, getting social support, and even professional support in difficult times is essential for overcoming the challenges.

It can be observed that some companies may still be stuck in the traditional way of doing things, subscribing to the value of face time in the office, and long hours to indicate performance. Legacy issues are difficult to change if the management team does not look at modern problems with open minds.  

The comforting fact is that more organisations have picked up the signals, and are increasingly shifting towards more flexible work arrangements. Employees have the option to choose better working conditions, and companies need to attract and retain the right talent for their organisation. On the other hand, there are also companies which have no issues with finding people to join them despite demanding work hours and stressful conditions. Companies like these attract hires for other reasons such as the reputation of the firm that increases one’s employability in the future, and other benefits that motivate employees to work through the demands.

Questions for further personal evaluation:

  1. Would you value health and work-life balance in your future career?
  2. In what other societies do you see the problem of burnout?

Useful vocabulary:

  1. ‘corrosive’: tending to cause corrosion; abrasive
  2. ‘ameliorate’: make (something bad or unsatisfactory) better