By Gabriella Rodrigues
In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized workplace burnout as an occupational phenomenon. Though not deemed as a medical condition, it has been defined as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Previously, burnout was defined as a “state of vital exhaustion.”
While it has been a few years since the classification has changed, the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) containing burnout and various other diagnoses, came into effect in 2022.
“The main change within this new definition is regarding workers’ rights, since, from now on, the responsibility for burnout is directly linked to companies”, points out psychologist Carolina Barbosa Gobetti. Therefore, the expectation is that companies will be called to action in order to build a healthier and less stressful work environment.
The Burnout Expanse
The good news in finding a more precise definition for burnout is that it usually helps to address the condition more accurately, but with the current scenario of the COVID-19 pandemic, more weight is added to the issue and some solutions may not be readily available or accessible. According to a study by Limeade, burnout has been identified as the main cause of mass employee resignation known in the UK and the US as the Great Resignation.
Another survey, from McKinsey & Company, interviewed over 5000 employees working in corporate and government settings to understand, among other things, their level of burnout. The results showed that 49% reported feeling some symptoms of being burned out at work, and a lack of organizational communication is considered a trigger to the feeling.
However, as researchers emphasize, “that may be an underestimate, since employees experiencing burnout are less likely to respond to survey requests, and the most burnt out individuals may have already left the workforce – as have many women, who’ve been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis.”
In addition, the employment website Indeed surveyed 1500 US workers of different ages, experience levels and industries to understand the current state of burnout. The report shows that 67% of workers think burnout has worsened throughout the pandemic. Moreover, 52% of the respondents said they had been experiencing burnout in 2021 compared to the same pre-COVID survey with 43% reporting feelings of burnout.
The findings of the Indeed survey also highlight that virtual or work-from-home employees have a different perception from those who work on-site. The former is more likely to say that burnout has worsened during the pandemic (38%), against the same sentiment of 28% from the latter.
The main reason behind this difference is related to the struggle to find work-life balance throughout the pandemic “due to an inability to take time off or a lack of clear boundaries between the workplace and home.” In addition to blurred work-life boundaries, finances (33%) and health (25%) were also major concerns and triggers to burnout symptoms.
In the latest WHO document on burnout, the condition refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and is characterized by three major effects:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- Reduced professional efficacy
According to Gobetti, these effects encompass numerous symptoms on a physical and mental level as well as a decreased sense of value in the workplace. A feeling of lack of energy and exhaustion can be experienced through “difficulty in concentration, muscle pain, blood pressure changes, rapid heartbeat and lack of energy in general.”
From a mental health perspective, burnout consists of a process of depersonalization and is connected to changes in behaviour towards work and people, extreme mood swings, greater insensitivity, isolation, and nervousness. Finally the most common sign, the feeling of failure in the workplace, is brought on by insecurity, negativity, and the feeling that a person is not capable of accomplishing a task or able to develop new skills.
For individuals who have been experiencing these symptoms, the most important thing to do is to seek professional help. Gobetti advises, “It is highly recommended that a person who is experiencing burnout talk to a psychologist, so this professional will be able to assess the situation and identify if it’s really burnout or another mental disorder, such as depression or anxiety.” Alongside treatment, it is also helpful to engage in regular physical activities, establish a bedtime and wake time to guarantee sufficient sleep, and have access to enjoyable activities.
While the pandemic has been unpredictable for everyone, companies must also be aware of the effects it has had on their workforce and how they can alleviate some of the contributing stressors. Since this burnout phenomenon existed pre-pandemic but has now become more prevalent during this time, updating existing procedures and protocols or establishing new ones is a step companies can take to ensure the well-being of their employees. Some suggestions are to make periodic assessments of the work environment to measure the level of employees’ stress, mitigate overwhelming workloads, offer lectures on mental health, flexible schedules, and mental breaks. Last but not least, employers must pay attention to their employees in order to perceive behavioural changes, establish a dialogue, and above all, give them support.