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Burnout Is An Occupational Disorder

Uncategorized Sep 20, 2021

Many of us are familiar with workplace burnout — the feeling of extreme physical and emotional exhaustion that often affects doctors, business executives, and first responders.

There’s a difference between the exhaustion of a long workday and the perpetual fatigue of burnout. 

As Dr. Christina Maslach, creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, explains, burnout is “a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job.” 

More than just increased stress, burnout causes overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from your job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. 

Until recently, burnout has been called a stress syndrome. However, the World Health Organization (WHO)Trusted Source in 2019 updated its definition.

It now refers to burnout as “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” in the organization’s International Classification of Diseases diagnostic manual.

The three symptoms included in the list are:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings negative towards one’s career
  • reduced professional productivity

The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger.
Working in a New York substance abuse clinic, Freudenberger observed something alarming.

Over time, the clinic’s most dependable and enthusiastic staff would seem to wilt before his eyes.

Once-cheerful employees would become cynical and lose their charisma – and even display signs of illness. In spite of this dramatic change in demeanour, they continued to pile on their volunteer hours, all the while becoming less effective at their work as they grew more exhausted.

Freudenberger recognized these symptoms because he had experienced them himself. He called the phenomenon “burnout” and decided to investigate to attempt to understand what caused exemplary clinic employees to lose their spark. What he found was that the staff who were the most invested in the outcomes of their work – and consequently gave the most of themselves to their work – were the hardest hit.

Burnout can have a significant impact people’s mental health. This change in definition may help bring about an increased awareness and allow people to access better treatment.

A change in definition may also help remove the stigma that surrounds burnout

One of the largest problems when it comes to burnout is that many people feel ashamed for needing help, often because their work environments don’t support slowing down.

Frequently, people equate it to having a cold. They believe that one day of rest should make everything better.

People with symptoms of burnout may fear that taking time away from work or investing in self-care makes them “weak,” and that burnout is best overcome by working harder.

Neither of these is true.

Left untreated, burnout can cause folks to become depressed, anxious, and distracted, which can impact not only their work relationships, but their personal interactions, too.

When stress reaches an all-time high, it’s harder to regulate emotions like sadness, anger, and guilt, which may result in panic attacks, anger outbursts, and substance use.

However, changing the definition of burnout can help dismantle the misbelief that it’s “nothing serious.” It can help remove the incorrect assumption that those who have it don’t need occupational support.

This change may help to remove the stigma that surrounds burnout and also help to draw attention to how common burnout is.

There’s a difference between the exhaustion of a long workday and the perpetual fatigue of burnout. 

What’s the best way to get over burnout? How long does it take? And is extreme change always necessary?

Craig Foster was the definition of a burnt-out man. In 2010, he was overwhelmed with work, sleeping badly and had completely lost interest in his great passion, which also happened to be his profession: film making. He needed a radical change.

So, Foster turned to his childhood playground: the bracing waters of the aptly-titled “Cape of Storms”, almost at the very tip of South Africa. While the surface is all crashing waves and murky currents, beneath he found a tranquil kelp forest full of strange inhabitants. As he relates in the Netflix film My Octopus Teacher, he swam amid its swaying fronds every day for a year, learning about the ecosystem and bonding with an unlikely friend (yes, an octopus), who quite literally reached out a tentacle and invited him into her world.

Not only has Foster now found new meaning in life, he also has a hit nature documentary under his belt. His “octopus love story” has been called a “breathtaking” success, and it’s already been nominated for more awards than its protagonist could hold in her many arms. That’s what you might call a well-executed burnout recovery.

Less than a decade ago, burnout was an obscure psychological concept. The idea of a type of chronic stress that leaves people physically and emotionally drained was more often found in academic papers than the news. But in recent years, the experience has become alarmingly common.

We now have political burnout, fitness burnout, Zoom burnout, relationship burnout, parental burnout, creative burnout and even video game burnout. The problem is sneaking up on people in almost every imaginable career, including Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and social media influencers.

And there are hints that working from home might be making it worse. According to a survey by the job-search website Monster in July, 69% of employees are experiencing burnout symptoms while working from home during the pandemic – up 35% from just two months earlier.

Many stories of burnout recovery are similar to Foster’s. Someone has an ‘aha’ moment, which makes them completely overhaul their life, quit their job, move country, end a relationship, or find a new passion.

But according to Stela Salminen, a doctoral candidate at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, who has co-authored several studies into burnout, this is a red herring.

Dramatic life changes might be beneficial for some people, but in her own research Salminen has found one factor which unites those who recover, and that's realising that they are in control.

For a small study in 2015, she interviewed 12 burnout sufferers who were attending a rehabilitation course about their experiences. Participants were assessed for the severity of their burnout at the time of the course, and then seven months later. Their scores were compared to what they said, to see if there were any tell-tale patterns.

For people who have a sustained recovery, the concept of agency seems to be at the core of this - Stela Salminen

The analysis revealed that those who recovered successfully experienced a revelation that they are in charge of their own wellbeing.

“For people who have a sustained recovery, the concept of agency seems to be at the core of this,” says Salminen. If people believe that they can influence their environment, they usually take the necessary steps to reverse the factors which got them there in the first place.

This might include things like improving sleep habits, since this is an important way to reset when you’re stressed, or drawing clear lines between work and non-work time, which is one possible reason that working from home is so problematic. “People who have a sense of agency take steps in the workplace, make changes in their families, they take care of themselves, and they’re more aware of their own limitations,” she says.

One way to achieve this is to attend a slightly scary sounding “burnout rehabilitation programme”. These come in many different forms – such as luxury retreats and basic online courses – but broadly they involve some kind of cognitive therapy to help people re-frame their experiences in a more productive way.

Another is to gain control of another aspect of your life, such as taking up a creative hobby or exercising more. The late painting instructor Bob Ross, who has recently become a YouTube sensation, often emphasised this, advising viewers: “If you don't like it, change it. It's your world.”    

However, while Self Care and a change of mindset are important, there’s an emerging school of thought that the emphasis on employees is unhelpful and misleading, especially when the real culprits may be workplaces themselves and their unreasonable demands.

“A certain percentage of recovery needs to come from within,” says Salminen. “We need some individual changes and mental shifts if we want to recover from burnout, but this is not sufficient because burnout is not and should not be treated as a problem of the individual. It is, per se, an occupational disorder.”

Prevention and Treatment

Although the term "burnout" suggests it may be a permanent condition, it's reversible. An individual who is feeling burned out may need to make some changes to their work environment.

Approaching the human resource department about problems in the workplace or talking to a supervisor about the issues could be helpful if they are invested in creating a healthier work environment.
In some cases, a change in position or a new job altogether may be necessary to put an end to burnout.

It can also be helpful to develop clear strategies that help you manage your stress. Self-care strategies, like eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercises, and engaging in healthy sleep habits may help reduce some of the effects of a high-stress job.


A vacation may offer you some temporary relief too, but a week away from the office won't be enough to help you beat burnout. Regularly scheduled breaks from work, along with daily renewal exercises, can be key to helping you combat burnout.


If you are experiencing burnout and you're having difficulty finding your way out, or you suspect that you may also have a mental health condition such as depression, seek professional treatment.


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