Burnout has become a serious problem that plagues our society. Research shows that during and following the pandemic we’re working more than ever. But this has serious health consequences and the indicators are that we’re reaching our limits.
Research shows that people that work more than 55 hours per week have a 35 per cent higher risk of stroke, and a 17 per cent higher risk of heart disease. According to other studies, around nine per cent of the global population are doing this.
The number of people dying from long working hours is closing in on a million, putting additional and preventable strain on our heath systems and, ironically, reducing productivity (since dead people aren’t productive.
There are “softer” impacts of overwork than strokes and death, however, and these affect even more people and so affect a massive number of lives and impact on more businesses: burnout.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a condition that the WHO is taking increasingly seriously. Historically, it had defined burnout as a relatively simple stress syndrome. Now, however, it has upgraded that definition. Burnout is now a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” and there are three symptoms of the condition:
1) A person has feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
2) An increased mental distance from a person’s job or feelings that are negative towards their career.
3) Signs of reduced professional productivity within their work.
If it is left untreated, burnout’s mental health impacts can be extreme. It can cause depression, anxiety, panic attacks, anger outbursts, reduced sleep, and result in substance abuse.
Unfortunately, it’s also something that is severely misunderstood, and this tends to exasperate impacts.
People who experience burnout symptoms are often told to simply take a day or two, “rest and recover”, and generally treat it like a mild cold. Having a weekend off work is considered sufficient to come back “fresh and ready” at the start of a new week.
Further compounding the problem is that burnout disproportionately affects those that suffer conditions like ADHD, and already struggle to have their needs understood in the working environment.
In reality, though, burnout is a much more serious problem than can be fixed by throwing your feet up for a weekend, and needs a more focused response.
Firstly, recognise the five stages of burnout
There are five recognised stages of burnout, and recovery times and strategies will differ depending on the stage that you’re in:
1) Honeymoon phase: This generally occurs at the start of a new job, or when you’re participating in a new venture. Enthusiasm will cause you to work harder, which will establish expectations of work, and without putting in place the right coping mechanisms, this initial rush can prove to be unsustainable.
2) Onset of stress: At this point, the initial rush has gone, and you’ll find yourself starting to feel tired with the job, struggling to focus, and losing interest in the project (or simply not getting as much done). This is the first “real” stage of burnout, and if detected early is relatively easy to address.
3) Chronic stress: At this point, you’ll start to see your interest in hobbies outside of work wane, you’ll begin feeling general anger, your sexual desire will drop, you’ll experience social withdrawal, and at work or home procrastination will cause you to get less done. This is where burnout starts to become really serious and can have long-term consequences to your health and lifestyle.
4) Burnout: This is the point that is recognised as “burnout” as a medical symptom. At this point you’re no longer able to function in what you’re doing, and you’ll need medical intervention. Burnout will come with chronic headaches and bowel problems, complete social isolation, depression, and a complete neglect of personal needs.
5) Habitual Burnout: If burnout is untreated, then it becomes habitual and ingrained within your life, which then makes it incredibly difficult to uncouple and recover from. At this stage you’ll go through wave after wave of burnout, causing chronic mental and physical fatigue and a general inability to function in social settings.
Everyone goes through periods of stressful work or times where they need to commit to overtime. There’s nothing inherently concerning about stages 1) and 2), unless there is the expectation that the conditions that led to them will continue indefinitely. If the conditions that led to stages 1) and 2) are not temporary and a person moves into stages 3) and beyond, recovery from burnout takes at least 11 weeks to recover from.
Extreme cases can take a year – or even multiple years. That process involves a sharp reduction in work, the development of healthy habits (like exercise and a new diet), and a renewed focus on hobbies and social interactions.
Burnout is preventable, but it requires employers and employees to be frank and honest about work expectations, and a commitment to not allowing people to overwork unless absolutely necessary. A good workplace culture will help minimise the risk of burnout and, in preventing people from burning out, will actually be a more productive and effective working environment, too.