Preventing Burnout in the Workplace

Burnout, Now an Official Workplace Syndrome

by Paul Kiernan September 13, 2019
Inside the Lab

 

In 1974, Herbert Freudenberger became the first researcher to publish in a psychology-related journal a paper that used the term 'Burnout'. The paper was based on his observations of the volunteer staff at a free clinic for drug addicts. He characterized Burnout by a set of symptoms that includes exhaustion resulting from work's excessive demands as well as physical symptoms such as headaches and sleeplessness, "quickness to anger," and closed thinking. 

Interesting to note that in recognition of his contributions to psychology, Freudenberger eventually had a burger named after him at Red Robin. It was a quarter-pound burger topped with a confusing sauce and served with a side of neurosis.

That’s not true. It was topped with cheese and served by a sexually questionable woman dressed like your mother.

woman eating burger

Anyway.

 

For many, the experience of Burnout has long been a struggle.  However, employers have either ignored it or chalked it up to something that Millenials have brought to the workplace in an effort to get more time off. The feelings of disconnection, lack of motivation and dissatisfaction with work-life are real but often times employees will bury these feelings, ignore the signs because they don't want to incur the wrath of uncaring bosses or CEOs who hail from a generation where the answer to every ailment was run it off or rub some dirt in it. Thankfully none of these dudes were heart surgeons.

 

Now there is good and bad news: Burnout is real.

 

What is Burnout?

In May, The International Classification of Diseases, or the ICD-11, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) handbook that helps medical providers diagnose diseases, classified Burnout as:

“A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Many initial reports categorized the classification as a medical condition but WHO clarified that Burnout is an “occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition.” This means that Burnout is a phenomenon that could lead to someone seeking help however, it is not a disease. 

Tomato/tomato I say … which means nothing when you simply write the word twice, it’s all in the pronunciation so, that didn’t work.

But the good news for all those who have been accused of being slackers or Millennials is that Burnout is real. The bad news is that … well … Burnout is real.

 

Symptoms

sheldon from big bang theory sick in bed saying he is going to die

The symptoms of this phenomenon are:

  • Energy depletion
  • Exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job
  • Feeling negativity related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

The ICD-11 notes that Burnout is specific to occupation and “should not be applied to or describe other areas of life.”

 

So, what does this mean?

It means that people are getting more and more stressed out at their jobs, feeling trapped, underappreciated, pointless, replaceable and insignificant. This is an enormous bummer for the individuals who feel this way but, it’s also a serious problem for bosses and CEOs if they have an office full of people who are suffering from Burnout.

Workplace Burnout is actually an epidemic in our culture where 1 in 5 highly engaged employees is at risk for Burnout.

The distancing from the job means that the ROI from employees is getting less and less. This turns into dissatisfied customers, the decline of business, plunging profits, layoffs, eventual business closures, mass hysteria, and bass fishing becoming the national sport. Well, maybe not but it is a situation that employers and employees alike should not ignore.

 

How to Avoid Burnout

Employers have a big role in addressing Burnout by paying attention to whether employees have a sense of community at work, strong social relationships, a collegial environment, a workload that’s not too burdensome, a sense of agency at work, and a healthy work-life balance.

Employees can also keep Burnout at bay by doing some of these things:

Sleep

Insomnia is one of the symptoms of Burnout. When one doesn’t sleep the brain doesn't function at it’s prime.

Getting too little sleep has many consequences such as lack of judgment, increased risk of accidents and the development of chronic diseases such as cancer, hypertension, diabetes or depression.

pug in banana pajamas

The AMA suggests that the average adult gets between 7 and 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night to be at their peak. The ASPCA suggests dogs sleep between 16-20 hours per day and that fish just keep swimming til' they end their days in a toilet.

 

Exercise

It may seem odd to leave work to work out unless you’re one of those people who says things like “it’s swole time” or flexes and advertises tickets to the “gun show”, and doesn't at all say it ironically. But exercise is crucial to one's mental and physical health.

Regular exercise reduces stress levels, improves self-confidence, prevents cognitive decline, increases productivity, and improves memory. 

Fear not, this doesn’t mean you have to get a gym membership and become one of those spaghetti strap style tank top wearing freakshows, you can simply go for a walk with friends during lunch hour or after work. Any kind of exercise is going to go a long way to staving off Burnout.

A side benefit of this is that taking care of yourself makes you realize that there is more to life than just your job and that your health and well being is vitally important.

 

Laugh

Yes. Laugh.

It’s proven that laughter relieves stress and has short-term as well as long-term effects on one’s mental health. Laughter really is some of the best medicine. Although I’d hate to have my triple bypass done by a clown. Every study done on laughter has produced only positive results.

So, spend time with your funny friends, find more humor in the office, don’t hide laughter when something is funny. Laughter, much like second-hand smoke, affects those who hear it as well as those who are doing the actual laughing. See comedy shows, watch funny movies. In other words, laugh your Burnout away.

 

Socialize

Spending time with people outside of work gives much-needed emotional fulfillment. Only socializing at work and making work your entire life will lead to Burnout very quickly. This will eventually lead to the emotional detachment from those people that were once socialized with outside of work on days off. The world suddenly feels smaller and purposeless and this will lead directly to Burnout.

 

Learn to Say No

For some real go-getters, this may seem like an impossible task. If you need help, ask any woman I have ever dated, they’ll teach you how to say no toot-sweet.

Those who want to rise up in the business, the ones who say yes to every project, to speaking at every convention or conference will find themselves dealing with Burnout very quickly. Learning to focus on the things that elicit engagement, excitement, and energy will help with the feelings of Burnout. 

michael scott yelling god no please no

Choose what’s truly important to you personally, not just everything that happens at work and stick to those projects. Pour your passion into a select few things rather than spreading it across a huge field. Learning to say no will keep you sane, energized and free from Burnout.

And seriously, if you need help, I can give you phone numbers, not a problem.

 

Unplug

Take a vacation and unplug completely. This means no phone calls from the office, no meetings on the beach, no emails, no texts. Remove yourself completely from the office, from all forms of the workplace and find your center again. If this involves drinking heavily and doing a lot of limbo dancing in shorts that really reveal a little too much, you do you. Which was something the nuns would hit us with a ruler for doing but, that’s another thing altogether. Unplug, recharge and then you’ll see work in a very different light.

 

Pursue a Passion

When you look at old photos or yearbook clips do you think dear God what was I thinking with that hair? Do you also think “wow, I used to be really into rock climbing.” or sailing, or theater. Maybe it's time to reignite an old passion and bring it back into your life. 

Pursuing a passion outside of work makes your downtime feel more full and your work-time less tedious. Some think that pouring energy into an outside of work passion will negatively affect work performance but, that’s not true. Passion is the fuel that charges our engines. Once you start filling your tank, that energy will infect all parts of your life, including work.

 

In Conclusion

Some parts of this article are written with a less than serious tone and that was done on purpose. Following the advice of psychologists, I tried to infuse the subject with a little levity. That should not detract from the reality that Burnout is a very real, very serious problem that 1 in 5 people are dealing within the workplace.

The effects of Burnout can be long-lasting and they can lead to more serious problems, Earlier in the article, I mention connections between Burnout and cancer as well as depression. Both of these are serious conditions with depression leading to possible drug abuse and even suicide. Mental health is still somewhat of a mystery in the medical world and the world at large. Ignoring symptoms of Burnout or pretending that everything is fine just to placate a boss is not wise and can lead to terrible consequences.

As a boss, look to your office and make sure you’re doing your best to make it a pleasant, productive place. As an employee, be aware of your mental and physical condition and the condition of your fellow workers. Talk to each other, ask questions and don’t be afraid to get help. As with all mental illness, there is no shame in getting help.

Take care of yourself and of each other, that too can keep Burnout away.

 

 

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