The term burnout has been used widely across all industries in an attempt to describe the sensation of feeling completely run down from work. In turn, the World Health Organization just classified burnout as a diagnosable condition. As this term shifts from an expression to an actual syndrome, it’s important to be in the know about what exactly we’re dealing with.
What is it?
According to the ICD-11, burnout is a syndrome defined by three main symptoms: Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy
Who has it?
Burnout is described as an occupational phenomenon, so it’s technically only applicable in work environments. It’s largely prevalent in industries that require high levels of empathy for little pay, such as clinic healthcare, social work, and education. Depression, anxiety, and adjustment disorders have to be ruled out before applying burnout as a diagnosis.
Stress vs. Burnout
Stress and burnout are often used interchangeably, but they represent two opposing conditions.
Stress is characterized by over-engagement. When you have an enormous amount on your plate, with looming deadlines and high-stakes decisions to make, it’s easy to go into panic mode.
Loss of productivity in moments of stress is usually caused by the inefficiency in work patterns that come from frantically trying to go back and forth between different tasks. This might produce over-reactive emotions, but in most cases there is still a light at the end of the tunnel. You might tell yourself, “I have so much to do, and no idea where to start, but it will end and I’ll be ok.” As terrible as stress is, it usually instils a sense of urgency and pressure that gets work done. Chronic stress, however, can lead to anxiety disorders and cardiovascular issues.
Burnout goes beyond stress. It’s characterized by disengagement; you have work building up, but it’s at the back of your mind because you simply don’t care at this point. Your thoughts become cynical and go beyond the tasks you have at hand: “I hate this job, I can’t do this, and I don’t want to be here.”
Decreased productivity experienced during burnout comes from a loss of motivation and lack of effort. Unacknowledged burnout usually leads to depression.
Depression vs. Burnout
It took a while for burnout to be recognized like this just because of how similar it is to depression. For the most part, they are still difficult to differentiate. Depression and burnout exhibit practically identical symptoms, and the two conditions are mutually exclusive.
Though symptoms of depression permeate all aspects of life, the workplace is one where they hit especially hard. A recent study by the World Health Organization showed that depression and anxiety costs the global economy about $1 trillion in productivity loss.
Even though a burnout diagnosis excludes mood disorders like depression, it has brought about promising conversation around and initiatives to improve mental health and productivity in the workplace. Each dollar put into scaled-up treatment for mental disorders provides $4 in returns due to improved health and productivity.
How do we treat it?
Acknowledging the difference between burnout and other conditions is essential in going about treating it properly. Because burnt out individuals usually attribute their symptoms to stress, burnt out individuals often turn to stress-management techniques to get back in their groove, only to find their symptoms worse than before.
Treating stress involves channeling the hyperactivity that comes with it into healthy activities like exercise, meditation, and journaling. When you’re burnt out, you just don’t have the energy or motivation to carry out these tasks. Failure to participate in treatment exercises can leave you with guilt that only adds to the hopelessness that makes burnout so debilitating.
Instead, go back to the basics. Save your energy as much as possible by getting adequate rest, taking a break from work, and limiting screen time. Channel it into socializing with your loved ones and remembering your passions. It might seem daunting to let go like this, but recovery will get you back into the swing of things much faster than multiple attempts to just “get it together”.
How do we avoid it?
Burnout is common in people who carry perfectionistic personality traits. Setting boundaries is the most important thing to do to avoid getting to this point. Allocate your time and energy to your career realistically, and aim for a steady and sustainable rate of production to ensure long-term success.
Anyone, regardless of mental health status, can benefit from therapy techniques and exercises. The classification of burnout as a recognizable condition in the workplace emphasizes the need for workplace initiatives that introduce modalities like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to employees that they can use not only in the workplace but in other areas of their lives.
Like with any medical condition, we recommend you seek a health care provider to determine if burnout is the right diagnosis. However, being aware of the signs can get you the right help sooner.
Feature Image via Emma Craft