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Getting a doctor’s note for a sick day due to burnout may not fly with most employers, but one of the world’s top health organizations argues that burnout is a serious concern.

The World Health Organization has classified burnout as an occupational phenomenon in its 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases. While the WHO notes that burnout is not classified as a medical condition, it labels it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Symptoms that point to burnout include feelings of being depleted or exhausted, a worker growing mentally detached from this or her job or growing more negative or cynical about the job, and lower professional efficacy, according to the WHO. The WHO is now working on developing evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace.

The WHO did recognize burnout as a problem about 10 years ago, but had not identified it as a syndrome capable of being diagnosed and treated, Sherry Benton, founder of St. Petersburg, Fla.-based mental health consulting firm TAO Connect, told the Society for Human Resource Management. “What's different is that it now defines burnout as a syndrome only related to work, not to school or [concerns] at home,” Benton says.

Burnout has long plagued earlier generations of workers who faced far less protections and were exposed to far more frequent hazards. The emergence of unions and minimum wage/child labor laws, for example, were among the advancements that helped mitigate past burnout issues. However, the driving force for these changes did not come from the health professionals. “During the era when Teddy Roosevelt was president and we had the movement toward unionization and limiting people's work hours, that was really a sociopolitical response to burnout's being pervasive in our industrialized world,” Benton notes.

The inability of many of today’s workers to see tangible evidence of how their work makes a difference also plays a role in burnout. Where farmers from 100 years ago were far more involved in very physical, hard labor, they could point to their harvests for a sense of satisfaction. That sense of satisfaction may not be as obvious for someone working behind a desk for a giant corporation.

“Today, we have great benefits—unlimited time off, dry cleaning on site, onsite yoga,” says Courtney Bigony, director of people science at 15Five, a firm that aids companies to spot and avoid employee burnout. “But job satisfaction is so low. People don't feel valued, and they're not happy.”

While burnout is not termed a disease, “the clear definition from the WHO should increase the number of healthcare providers and insurers who acknowledge, treat, and cover the symptoms,” Jennifer Moss, workplace expert and author, writes for Harvard Business Review.

Burnout is of special importance to the American Medical Association, which “has studied, and is currently addressing issues causing and fueling physician burnout--including time constraints, technology and regulations--to better understand and reduce the challenge physicians face,” notes Sara Berg, senior news writer for the AMA website.

The optimal way to deal with burnout “is to focus on fixing the workplace rather than focusing on fixing the worker,” notes Christine Sinsky, MD, vice president of professional satisfaction at the AMA. “The ICD-11 definition of burnout is consistent with our research and our approach, which is that burnout is related to stressors within the environment rather than related to weakness on the part of susceptible individuals.”

Technology also can be a culprit. As much as our technology/digitally-driven world can make life more convenient, it also can enable burnout (think being glued to your smart phone and constantly checking email). “In our ‘always on’ culture, we struggle with digital boundaries,” Amy Blankson, founder and CEO of Positive Digital Culture, tells Harvard Business Review. “More than 50% of U.S. employees feel like they have to check their email after 11 p.m. to keep up with work. As a result, burnout is on the rise and engagement is decreasing.”

What may be less obvious is that passionate and purpose-driven employees are susceptible to burnout. Employers need to be proactive to ensure that these workers don’t put themselves at risk of burning out and combat the “always-on” mentality, Edward Ellison, a medical doctor and co-CEO of The Permanente Federation, told Harvard Business Review.  “If you are so inspired to do what you do, then you’re not necessarily good at setting boundaries,” he says. “We need to teach people that setting boundaries is OK. It’s not selfish. It’s actually selfless. It allows you to be more effective at what you do, and to better [help] those you wish to serve.”

Last modified on Saturday, 17 August 2019
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