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Burnout: epidemic or overdiagnosis?

At this point most of us are familiar with the term burnout. In 2019 the World Health Organisation added it to their International Classification of Diseases as an occupational illness due to chronic, un-managed stress, and more recent news articles state that rates of burnout are projected to increase this year due to continued pandemic-related stressors.

In its current, most widely used role, ‘burnout’ encompasses feelings of stress, emotional exhaustion, lack of energy or interest, and depression. It’s become a trendy term and has cemented itself into the COVID social zeitgeist, and its scope has widened to include many symptoms and general feelings of malaise. However, its true scientific definition is specific; the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), developed eponymously in 1981 by the psychologist studying it, considers 3 main areas:

  1. Overextended – exhaustion or total lack of energy
  2. Ineffective – reduced efficacy or success at work
  3. Disengaged – feelings of cynicism or negativity towards work

A true burnout diagnosis requires scores across all three of these categories. Undoubtedly, feelings of stress and being overworked have risen of late, which has prompted new research by Christina Maslach together with fellow psychologist Michael Leiter who says that “people use burnout as a synonym for tired, and they’re missing the point that there’s a world of difference between those two states”.

“The biggest misconception about burnout is that it’s the same as exhaustion” Michael Leiter

Having a measure like the MBI is invaluable because in being able to define what you are feeling is not true burnout, it allows evaluation of the real issue at hand, why this is occurring and what steps can be taken. Avoiding, or not mistakenly self-diagnosing, burnout to a vast degree is essential as this could result in a mass exodus of skilled workers from certain professions. Leiter uses obstetricians as an example; “they’re delivering babies at all hours of the night, and they’re totally exhausted, but they’re bringing new life into the world, and making people’s lives better, and they care about that work. That’s overextended and exhausted, but it’s not burnout”.

If people aren’t burned out when they think they are, does that mean all these conversations and articles are false alarms? The fact is, even if true burnout is vastly overestimated, qualities of burnout have very much increased, and therefore more employees are heading towards this than ever. Furthermore, burnout is typically irrevocable – most sufferers cannot face going back to their workplace or even their profession in many cases.

Despite the fact that the term burnout is likely used erroneously in many cases, the fact that it is being used at all is symptomatic of other issues. Obviously, there are new challenges that have occurred during the pandemic that have contributed (such as blurring the lines between work-life and homelife, see our blog post on the right to flexible working and the right to disconnect), but in many instances the pandemic has simply exacerbated issues that were already there.

positivity amidst stress

And so-called burnout is not created equal: academics at the University of Montreal established that women are more vulnerable than men as they are less likely to be promoted, and therefore are more likely to be in positions with less authority leading to increased stress and frustration. They are also more likely to be single parents and have child-related stress, as well as having lower self-esteem. Other research has shown that working mothers are 23% more likely to experience “burnout” than fathers in paid employment.

One opinion, from Brian Kropp who is head of HR at Gartner research, is that in order to prevent mass exodus of female talent, businesses must realise that out-dated workplace practices need restructuring to promote equal opportunity. Mental Health UK has also advised employers to consider using a Wellbeing Plan or Stress Risk Assessments to help stretched staff.

Whether employees are truly burned out or experiencing similar symptoms, employers should investigate the issues around this, and it warrants introspection by individuals who are struggling. As Maslach so wonderfully puts it; “there’s that old saying, ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’. The thrust of our argument is, why don’t you change the heat? How about redesigning the kitchen?”




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