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Hooray! Burnout does exist

Workplace “burn-out” is finally recognised as a condition

The World Health Assembly in Geneva, which finished yesterday (28 May 2019) has for the first-time recognised burn-out. This means it can be included in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which is widely used as a benchmark for diagnosis and health insurers.

According to the classification, burn-out refers specifically to it occurring in the work context and it cannot be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

A positive step forward

This is a positive step forward for people who suffer from workplace burn-out. It provides recognition that a growing number of working people are suffering from it and that it may require medical intervention. Of course, counsellors and psychotherapists working outside of the medical model have always recognised burn-out as a legitimate condition and treated it as such. However, with this recognition from the medical model, people may be more inclined to talk about it and seek help before it develops into a mental health condition which can be harder to recover from.

What is burn-out?

According to WHO ‘burn-out’ has three defining co-occurring features;

  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.

While no mention has been made of a duration for experiencing these co-occurring features, an indicative time frame may be anywhere between 2 weeks (as it is for depression) and 6 months (as it is for anxiety).

When does stress become burn-out?  

The WHO defines burn-out as a condition “conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

This means an employee will experience burn-out when they have exhausted all of their resiliency skills to productively manage the stress they experience in their workplace. As everyone has their own tolerance level for stress, a depletion of resiliency skills can occur at any time after experiencing workplace stress. Once those resiliency skills are exhausted and are not able to be ‘topped up’ burn-out starts to develop.

How do I know if I am experiencing burn-out?  

In my experience, it is hard for professionals to recognise burn-out in themselves until they ‘crash and burn’. This happens mainly because they aren’t looking for it in themselves, they are too busy juggling everything to get through their day, week and month.

Signs you may be experiencing burn-out:
  • The joy of work has all but fallen away and you’re considering changing jobs or a career change
  • Getting ready for work takes longer than usual and may even be filled with dread for what waits for you there
  • The working day takes more out of you than it used to
  • The quality of what you produce has dropped and you may not be considered reliable or a ‘safe pair of hands’ anymore
  • Struggling to summon up the energy to complete tasks
  • It takes longer to carry out tasks compared to before
  • Increasingly busy and feeling like you’re ‘spinning your wheels’
  • Fewer non-work interactions with colleagues at work
  • Rarely waking from a night’s sleep feeling refreshed
  • Suspicious of the motivations of others
  • Eating less healthy foods or eating more stronger tasting foods
  • The weekend is not enough for you to recover from the previous week of work and start the next one feeling refreshed
How to prevent burn-out

Burn-out prevention strategies differ person to person however there are a few simple principles you can use to work out what activities might work for you.

  1. Consider you day as a series of sprints and reflect on how you manage your energy throughout the day. What activities sap your energy and which ones lift your energy? Look to include a balance of activities, in as much as you can, so you can finish your workday with some lifted energy.
  2. What fuel are you using to maintain your performance throughout the day? Consider drinking water for hydration, minimising your caffeine intake, and eating low GI foods to maintain energy levels throughout the day.
  3. Be kind to yourself. At the end of each day acknowledge the effort and achievements from the day recognising you are doing the best you can, with what you have available to you. Catch yourself during the day when your self-talk is negative or beating you up and acknowledge you are doing the best you can, with what you have and recognise nobody is perfect!

The next iteration of the ICD, ICD-11, will come into effect in January 2022. This gives us plenty of time to get used to the idea that burn-out is real and happens due to workplace stress, for those who never believed in it!


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