September 17, 2019
Everyone is familiar with the idea of burnout, yet for decades it has taken a back seat when it comes to mental health in the workplace. This is because there have been more than four decades of academic debate on whether or not burnout is actually a real thing. Well the jury finally came in with a unanimous decision in the 11th edition of the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases, concluding that burnout is a chronic workplace stress syndrome that can be clinically diagnosed. Here we’ll run through facts on what burnout is, how much it is affecting 21st century work lives, and also why it’s on the rise.
For a long time even the idea of “burnout” was wrongly chided, as if it was some type of condition that’s been made-up by hippies and millennials who want more work-life balance. This couldn’t be further from the truth, for example when it comes to everyday full-time workers, a large US survey revealed that 23% of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, and 63% of the participants stated they experience it sometimes. The reality is, it is becoming surprisingly common, so let’s dig into what it actually is.
Recognized for the first time as an official medical diagnosis, this career driven syndrome is characterized by three main symptoms, all specific to occupational contexts.
1) Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion – essentially chronic fatigue which does not go away until the issues causing burnout are resolved.
2) Increased negativity, dissonance or mental distance from one’s job – this could be a lack of meaning, questioning of purpose or general narkiness with work life on a daily basis.
3) Reduced professional efficacy – stress, fatigue and a growing sense of isolation can make it very difficult to focus on work, or to trigger a perpetual state of being overloaded by daily or weekly tasks and projects.
The key thing is that none of these symptom’s happen overnight, rather they are effects that accumulate over time, which stem from imbalanced work lives.
Past these symptoms, the types of people most likely to succumb to burnout fall into two categories. The first group are people who work in service centered jobs, such as nurses, social workers, firefighters etc. These workers can experience burnout syndrome due to empathizing with the struggles of the people they serve, but in a way that feels like an on-going emotional overload – they are caring for others, yet tend to get left out for the support they need.
The second group are people who are in constantly demanding or high-pressure jobs, without enough time for proper physical or mental recovery.
This might sound like people who dislike their jobs simply because of hard work, however ‘purpose-driven work’ — that is work which people love and feel passionately about — is actually one of main causes of burnout.
According to a recent study, this type of labor can breed a form of obsessive passion, which leads to work and personal life conflicts. A Canadian study found that employees driven by purpose are actually more stressed and score lower for well-being and resilience than the rest of us. Professor in organizational behavior, David Whiteside, explained that “despite the clear benefits of feeling meaningfully connected to your work, our data suggests that there are often real and undisclosed complications of purpose-driven work on employees’ health that can be related to the experience of burnout long-term.”
This notion, that the type of people who confess to loving their jobs, are actually more susceptible to burnout, is a surprising one. And because we tend to believe the opposite to be true, people typically find it difficult to recognize who is really at risk of burnout, even when that person is oneself.
In all of the above cases, the key underlying factor causing burnout for pretty much everyone, is some level of gravity towards prolonged stress. Unfortunately, work stress in the 21st century has been going through a considerable increase – one factor why burnout is on the rise.
Numerous studies show that job stress in North America is easily the major source of stress in adults’ lives. More importantly, they further show that occupational stress has been increasing progressively over the past few decades. One factor is simply the trend towards an ever-increasing number of hours worked - according to an International Labor Organization study, today Americans put in the equivalent of an extra three months more work per year than Germans do!
While job security has also steadily waned, the digital age has brought a new kind of 24/7 pressure through a constantly connected work culture. Amy Blankson, founder and CEO of Positive Digital Culture explained this effect, “In our ‘always on’ culture, we struggle with digital boundaries. More than 50% of U.S. employees feel like they have to check their email after 11 pm to keep up with work. As a result, burnout is on the rise and engagement is decreasing.”
These following statistics provide a general representation of how significant the factors of stress are in the modern work environment.
It’s not just surveys either – these statistics have been correlated with an associated increase in rates of heart attack, hypertension, and other physiological disorders. In testament to this, states like New York and Los Angeles now acknowledge that any police officer who suffers a coronary (at any time), is automatically assumed to have a work-related injury, and is compensated as so.
Whether we like it or not, the bottom line is that 21st century work environments and lifestyles are becoming more and more conducive to burnout risk.
Due to increasing pressure in the modern workplace, stress-induced absenteeism has escalated at remarkable rates over the last two to three decades. For example, one study of 300 companies found that the number of workers calling in sick tripled from 1996 to 2000. Over half of the working days lost annually in the U.S. from absenteeism are stress related. The net effect is that an estimated 1 million workers are absent every day due to stress, causing losses for larger companies in excess of $3.5 million per company, per year.
A critical factor here is that when key employees are absent, it places stresses and strains on workers who struggle to fill their roles, either due to lack of skills or knowledge, or simply from the extra workload. This risks what is known as a domino effect, where burnout can have consequential knock-on effects throughout a company’s workforce over time.
That said, the main costs of staff suffering from burnout is undoubtedly their reduced effectiveness at their jobs. This is an effect which is very difficult to estimate, but a growing number of corporate wellness companies refer to this problem as ''presenteeism'' – the employee is at work, but their productivity is low, their risk of making errors is high, and they can be a morale drain on their fellow employees. It's a stealth-based cost, but one which can be huge, and accordingly, is feared by most large corporations.
Forbes summarized the net costs for US companies as follows.
For a problem that’s on the rise, there’s no doubt that facing the challenge of managing and preventing burnout needs to be a major concern for any modern-day company.
If you believe you are personally experiencing career related stress, then you can take the American Institute of Stress ‘Workplace Stress Survey’ by clicking here. This was developed to provide a simple screening measure to determine further investigation with more comprehensive assessments is needed.
If you’d like to learn about how a new culture of employee wellness is stepping up to meet the challenges of burnout, then read this blog.
How Do You Improve Employee Wellness?
Or, if you’re simply looking to understand general stress and how to manage it, then also check out this recent Expert’s Corner blog,
Stress. What Is It and What Can We Do About It?
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