While Sweden is the only country in the world to recognise burnout as a disease, in 2019 the World Health Organization (WHO) added burnout as an occupational phenomenon (not a medical condition) to the revised version of its International Classification of Diseases. WHO states, “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
“…in 2019 the World Health Organization (WHO) added burnout as an occupational phenomenon (not a medical condition) to the revised version of its International Classification of Diseases.“
“Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.“
It goes on to describe the symptoms of burnout as:
- 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.
“If stress feels never-ending and comes with feelings of exhaustion, apathy, and hopelessness, it may be indicative of burnout.”
What’s the difference between burnout and stress?
When stress is short-lived or tied to a reaching specific goal, it is not considered harmful and may even have a positive effect. If stress feels never-ending and comes with feelings of exhaustion, apathy, and hopelessness, it may be indicative of burnout. Thus, by definition, burnout could be seen an extended period of stress that feels as though it is overwhelming and without end, with detrimental physical and mental effects.
How do you know if your employees are suffering from burnout?
Employees who are suffering from burnout may do these things:
- Disengage or withdraw
- Appear demoralised, worried or stressed
- Take frequent absences
- Become sick often
- Leave your company for another opportunity
Can remote workers also suffer from burnout?
Remote employees can be under great pressure to demonstrate their work ethic and productivity levels while “out of sight” and working from home. Because they do not share the same physical workspace with their boss and colleagues, they can become fearful that their peers think they are not pulling their weight. As a result, they may overcompensate in their hours worked and obsess over quality of work output. Plus, with fewer boundaries between work and personal life – exacerbated by constant communication via cell phones, email and instant messaging – remote workers can also feel as though they are on call 24/7 and never able to take a break.
What are some antidotes for burnout?
Living with a sense of purpose, having a positive impact on others, or feeling as if one is making the world a better place are all valuable tools to counter burnout. Often, this meaningfulness can counteract the negative aspects of a job. Other motivators in counteracting burnout include experiencing self-sufficiency and, as counterintuitive as this may seem if someone is experiencing the exhaustion of burnout, tackling a good, hard challenge.
“Living with a sense of purpose, having a positive impact on others, or feeling as if one is making the world a better place are all valuable tools to counter burnout.”
How can employers prevent burnout in their workers?
Employers can prevent burnout by providing wellness programming, incorporating mindfulness in the workplace, and promoting psychological safety. Here are two of specific areas in which organisations can impact their employees to alleviate and prevent burnout:
- Make wellbeing a conscious part of your organisational culture
When an organisation makes wellbeing a priority and provides resources, such as health and wellbeing programmes, toward employees living healthier lives, it encourages them to take better care of themselves and to inspire one another to live a healthy, meaningful and productive work life. The ideal is for employees to support each other in pursuing their ideal work-life balance — whether this entails working reasonable hours, taking advantage of a flexible work environment or collectively demonstrating making healthier choices.
Conversely, if an organisation’s culture promotes working routinely long hours, being “switched on” 24/7 and generally putting work ahead of family, these burnout-inducing habits are going to be entrenched and difficult to shift. Similarly, an authoritarian leadership style in which leaders encourage managers to give orders and meet performance expectations at all costs will increase the risk of burnout related to feeling disrespected, unsupported and underappreciated.
- Equip your managers to prevent burnout.
Ultimately, managers significantly influence how employees feel about their job and have it in their power to reverse burnout or prevent it before it starts. Managers are directly responsible for generating positive employee experiences and it is their duty to set clear expectations, remove barriers, facilitate collaboration and ensure that employees feel fully supported to do their best work.
- Educate managers about burnout: Managers are an organisation’s best solution to alleviate burnout when they take time to learn the causes of burnout and are open to changing how they manage their teams. Help managers examine how their habits, communications and management style could be causing or mitigating burnout. Incorporate burnout-related conversations into meetings and gatherings where managers can reflect on common scenarios and share best practices with peers.
- Position managers to focus on their team members: Leaders should consider whether job expectations allow managers to prioritise people needs first and then review their managers’ job descriptions and role expectations accordingly. People-manager positions with overloaded job descriptions tend to include lots of management tasks that do not have to do with leading and developing their people. When managers are buried under administrative responsibilities, how can they provide employees with necessary support?
- Hire managers who are the right fit: A good manager is one who is a natural fit for their job and who is prepared to lead the members of their team – that is to help employees feel energised to do their best and get motivated to help their co-workers. In this way good managers naturally create a positive work environment while weak managers do the opposite: They contribute to inefficiencies and dysfunction, leading to a downward spiral in team morale and performance.
- Managers suffer from burnout, too: A closer inspection of the typical manager-experience sheds light on how it can be that managers are at an even higher risk of burnout than their bosses and the people they manage. Often, their jobs are chaotic and they find themselves stuck between fulfilling requests from their superiors and managing their employees. Among the biggest challenges of the job are unclear performance expectations, large amounts of work, distractions, stress, competing priorities and performance challenges.