Even after a successful recovery, a history of professional burnout can stymie promotion possibilities. iStockPhoto.com // Pavel Muravev

Burnout Torches Promotion Possibilities

Employees increasingly encounter workplace conditions that contribute to poor mental health outcomes and, over time, burnout. But what comes after burnout? A recent article by Philippe Sterkens and colleagues helps uncover the ongoing career effects of burnout stigma.

The study, published in European Sociological Review, draws from an online vignette experiment administered to 405 American and British managers. Participants were asked to evaluate a fictitious candidate’s suitability for an internal vacancy. The vignettes included evaluations of a graphic designer, billing and cost clerk, sales manager, and biomass plant technician, and the applicants’ descriptions were varied by gender, employment record, and performance evaluation. Data analysis reveals that, notwithstanding a successful recovery, employees’ history of having a stress leave due to burnout creates a severe obstacle that hampers candidates’ options for promotion. ​​This is especially noteworthy considering that the combined effects of performance evaluation and organizational tenure are eclipsed by the impact of burnout history on promotion propensity.

The authors liken the unlikeliness of achieving a promotion after experiencing burnout to “boiling the ocean” and attribute it to stigma attached to burnout. The experiment reveals managers’ assumption that individuals who have experienced burnout may possess lower leadership capacities, a reduced ability to assume an exemplary role within the organization, lower stress tolerance, and a decreased likelihood of securing employment outside of the organization. The results emphasize the need for policymakers and organizations to address burnout syndrome: Overlooking a pool of internal promotion candidates due to discrimination risks losing out on vital institutional knowledge.