Burnout is on the rise, but experts say there are things employees and employers can do about it.
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A few extra words might make a big difference in our acceptance of burnout as an increasing phenomenon.
The World Health Organization greatly expanded the definition of the problem afflicting many of today’s employees in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD)
The ICD provides billing codes that healthcare providers and insurance companies can use to track why patients are seeking care.
The new definition doesn’t have too many practical implications. You still can’t be diagnosed with burnout, despite reporting to the contrary, but it can be listed as a factor contributing to a health problem and a reason someone is seeking help.
Just like you can’t be diagnosed with, say, domestic violence, but it can be a reason for seeking care as well as a contributing factor to medical conditions.
What the new definition does do is list burnout specifically as a work-related issue.
The previous definition was simply “state of vital exhaustion.” The new one ties the ailment to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It goes on to list the effects it can have.
This conception of burnout brings the ICD in line with what psychologists and researchers have understood for some time, David Ballard, assistant executive director for applied psychology at the American Psychological Association, told Healthline.
So the practical implications aside, the recognition of burnout highlights both the growing understanding of burnout and what is likely a growing number of people suffering from it, experts say.
That rise was captured in a Gallup poll last summer that found nearly a quarter of employees reported feeling burned out very often or always.
An additional 44 percent reported feeling sometimes burned out, leaving less than a third of workers who don’t experience burnout.
Those feelings can lead to physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion as well as a feeling of hopelessness and dread. It can also lead to declining work performance.
Like many health problems, the ailment also has a broader economic cost. Researchers have estimated that high work demands cost $48 billion a year and contribute to 30,000 deaths per year.
But, as the WHO recognition suggests, this problem is getting increasing attention.
“One of the clear signs that burnout has increased is that employers are recognizing that it’s an issue,” said Eric Garton, a partner at Bain & Company’s Chicago office and coauthor of the book “Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power.”
Garton told Healthline he saw the WHO decision as a good first step and has seen some employers trying to do something about burnout.
There are a lot of factors that can contribute to burnout.
Experts said that today’s workers, particularly white-collar workers, face almost a perfect storm of burnout-inducing factors.
- a trend toward service industry jobs
- technology that makes it easy to collaborate and access work resources remotely
- a growing value on trying to include lots of stakeholders and to make your voice heard
- a blurred line between when most people are on and off the clock
Burnout was first seen largely in healthcare fields, where doctors and caregivers would burn out from overwork and stress.
Today, it appears to be widespread.
The shift to more service- and information-sector jobs “has created more situations that are conducive to burnout,” Ballard told Healthline.
One of the more specific ways that happens is through the demands, in most offices, for near-constant collaboration.
“Modern organizations are more complex by nature, and complex organizations create the perfect breeding ground for collaboration overload,” Garton said.
It’s not necessarily the interaction that causes burnout but the accumulated cost in terms of time and interruptions.
Garton gave an example from his book, in which they studied the workweek of what they saw as a typical white-collar middle manager.
Over a 46-hour workweek, the employee spent 23 hours in meetings, 10 hours on emails, and 13 hours on individual work. But even in that 13 hours, half of it was fragmented into increments of 20 minutes or less.
“So you’re left with about seven hours that are unfragmented to do deep work and deep thinking — and also to refresh yourself,” Garton said.
A busy week with little time for yourself to be productive and feel refreshed is one thing. But when it starts to be almost every week, the risk of burnout rises.
When that happens, it can be hard to stop it, said Beth Benatti Kennedy, a Boston-area leadership coach and author of “Career ReCharge: Five Strategies to Boost Resilience and Beat Burnout.”
“Everyone has one day a week where they’re like, ‘Ugh, this is exhausting.’ But now it’s often every day,” Kennedy told Healthline. “But because they’re so professional and successful, they don’t want to embrace it.”
She calls it “going down the burnout escalator.”
“You see the signs but don’t want to pay attention to it… And then when it hits all of a sudden, it’s chronic,” she said.
So is every early 21st-century office worker, teacher, and healthcare professional doomed for a spiral into burnout?
Not if they can take the time to take care of themselves — and not if employers can do the same for their employees, experts said.
Experts agreed that burnout is not an individual problem but a problem with organizations and society — and that reducing it starts at the top.
For Garton, a lot of it comes down to recognizing that time is a finite resource.
“We think of time as almost a free resource” because there’s always tomorrow, he said. “But it’s one of the most finite resources we have.”
So senior leaders have to make it OK to not attend a meeting and to start treating time as the scarce resource it is.
Little rules can help too, he said — no meetings on Friday, no email after a certain hour of the day — until that respect for time and boundaries is established.
Kennedy noted that mindfulness or wellness programs and emphasizing work-life balance aren’t necessarily enough.
Leaders, she said, need to emphasize that it’s OK to work from home if an employee needs to that day and to notice if their employees are working longer hours than they realize.
She also would like to see better support networks and meaningful connections in the office.
She mentioned that a few companies have programs where employees connect over lunch with a randomly assigned co-worker twice a month, to build a sense of belonging.
Employees can do things to reduce burnout, too.
“There are things they might not be able to change in the work setting,” said Lynn Bufka, associate executive director of practice research and policy at the American Psychological Association. “But if not, they can think about whether there are things they can do to change their approach to work.”
Those might include:
- asking whether you’re being too much of a perfectionist
- asking too much of yourself
- not saying “no” when you should
- not taking the time to disconnect from work
“The tricky thing is trying to figure out what are your personal demands on yourself versus what is external,” Bufka said.
If it’s within your control, you might be able to structure your workday so that you have focused, productive time when you’re at your best, like in the mornings, she suggested.
Or you might implement ways to get feedback from others so you know when you’re doing enough and don’t strive for a level of perfection that is more costly than worthwhile.
“Anything that helps you get more control over the workday can help with burnout,” Bufka said.
Ballard noted that having enough time off — and spending it wisely — is critical.
“Employees need to have time to recover,” he said. “We’re designed to handle stress in short bursts.” But many people stay up at that high-stress level.
Exercise, meditation, and taking time for friends and family can all be important for that recovery. As is eating right, getting quality sleep, and taking on new, stimulating, challenging activities, Ballard said.
Kennedy breaks burnout prevention into five categories:
- your well-being
- self-awareness of your personality and how you relate to stress
- knowing your “brand” in terms of the strengths and the impact you’re having at work
- connecting with others who can support you in your career personally
- innovating creatively and trying new things
“Even if you exercise every day, you can still get burned out if you don’t focus on the other areas,” she said.
“Everyone remembers to charge their phone, but they can forget to recharge themselves.”