Just over two decades ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared burnout syndrome , or being “burned out”, as one of the occupational risk factors.
According to the WHO, burnout is a syndrome that occurs as a result of prolonged exposure to stress derived from work or complicated work environments.
The organization based in Geneva, Switzerland, explains that burnout is characterized by:
- A continuous feeling of exhaustion.
- Negative or cynical feelings about work, as well as a mental detachment from work issues.
- Reduced work efficiency.
Although the WHO assures that this syndrome is increasingly common among workers, especially those dedicated to the service sector, it is not in itself a medical condition.
On January 1, 2022, the WHO International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD -11) came into force and burnout or “burnt worker syndrome” was included in the list.
The ICD is the international standard for diagnostic classification used to notify diseases and conditions for any clinical or research purpose, and forms the basis for continuing to evaluate the evolution of health and obtain global statistics, according to the WHO website.
Origin of the term
The term burnout is relatively recent and was coined in 1974 by the psychologist of German and American origin, Herbert Freudenberger, while working in a clinic for addicts and homeless people.
The term was not born referring to the people who were treated at that clinic, but by the doctors and staff who worked in the facilities.
The psychologist observed that many of the workers and volunteers were beginning to feel exhausted – both physically and emotionally – and demotivated, resulting in patients no longer receiving quality treatment.
After passing through this clinic, Ferudenberger published the book entitled: “Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement” in 1980, which is still taken as a reference for the understanding of this syndrome. .
During a conference given at the Harvard Business Club in 1981, the psychologist explained that burnout is not “a neurosis, an illness or a mental collapse”, but a process that leads individuals to demotivation, exhaustion and cynicism .
Freudenberger lists 12 symptoms that anyone who works in highly stressful environments should pay attention to and that should be avoided in order not to fall into burnout :
- The obsession to demonstrate the value of the person: when trying to obsessively demonstrate the value of people as employees, more and more responsibilities are accepted, even beyond the capabilities of people.
- Work harder: Many times, by working harder and with more intensity, people lose the ability to take their mind off work.
- Neglecting needs: This is reflected in erratic sleep patterns, eating disorders, and lack of social interaction.
- Ignore conflicts: Problems are ignored because they can become threatening, which can lead to panic and nerves.
- Changes in values: People’s values start to get distorted, people turn away from their friends and family and start to see their hobbies as irrelevant as only work is priority.
- Denial of problems: people begin to become intolerant, perceive employees as stupid, lazy, demanding or undisciplined. It becomes more difficult to maintain social contacts, they perceive problems as caused by work pressures and lack of time and not because changes in lifestyle are required.
- Withdrawal: Social life is basically non-existent and the need to release stress can lead people to abuse drugs or alcohol.
- Behavior changes: People may begin to show behavioral changes that are concerning to their friends and family.
- Depersonalization: People stop seeing themselves and others as valuable. Personal needs are non-existent.
- Inner emptiness: Feelings of emptiness can lead people to behaviors such as overeating, compulsive sex, gambling, or alcohol and drug abuse.
- Depression: feeling of loss and exhaustion.
- Burnout syndrome: can lead to physical or mental collapse and require medical attention.
How much does burnout affect the world?
With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, cases of burnout have skyrocketed, not only because of medical personnel who have been exposed to intense and long hours to care for patients with symptoms caused by the virus, but also because of people who work from home and whose working hours have lengthened.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), although teleworking – also known as home office – has helped to avoid and reduce contagion and occupational risks, if not managed properly it can lead to an increase in mental illness.
“Psychosocial risk factors such as high work loads and rhythms, long working hours, the perception of having to be available at all times and in all places, lack of professional development, excessive fragmentation of tasks, low autonomy and control over tasks, poor organizational culture and cyberbullying behaviors can, among others, negatively affect the mental health of teleworkers, causing professional illnesses such as physical and mental exhaustion ( burnout ), work-related stress and depression. depression,” explained Carmen Bueno, Occupational Health and Safety Specialist, ILO Office for the Southern Cone of Latin America on the organization’s blog.
Although there are no statistics regarding the number of people suffering from burnout syndrome , some countries began to measure the impact on their population, even before the pandemic.
For example, in the United Kingdom, it is estimated that 595,000 people suffered from work stress in 2018, while, in the case of Spain, the Human Resources Observatory reported in September 2020 that at least 45% of workers admitted suffering from stress. labor.
According to statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Mexico is one of the member countries that works the most hours and that 8 out of 10 people live with work stress.
According to the WHO, in China, 7 out of 10 people live with work stress and in the United States the proportion is 6 out of 10.
How to combat burnout?
According to Travis Bradberry, author of the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, once diagnosed with burnout syndrome, or after detecting that we have several symptoms, we can carry out the following actions to begin reversing its effects.
- Disconnect: it is one of the most important strategies to start reversing burnout , because if the person suffering from this syndrome cannot find the time to disconnect from work, it is actually as if they were still working.
- Pay attention to the body’s signals: the author explains that most of the time burnout manifests itself in physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach upsets, so he recommends being attentive to the signals of our body.
- Schedule moments of relaxation: Bradberry explains that having moments of relaxation in the day is as important as working.
- Avoid sleeping pills: Ensuring that the body and mind can rest within a natural sleep process is important to achieve a restful sleep and avoid burnout . The author not only recommends not taking sleeping pills but also avoiding alcohol as a means of falling asleep.
- Organize: One of the main reasons behind an excessive amount of work has to do with the lack of organization. If you learn to organize your time better, you can also be more effective in achieving your work goals.
- Take breaks during the working day: Psychologically speaking, people work better in segments of between one and one and a half hours, inserting 15 minutes of rest. If you wait to feel tired to take a break, you are more prone to fatigue.
- Lean on a support system: Although it seems that it is better to get away from people when going through episodes of great stress, friends and family can help as allies against burnout.
The psychologist explains that, if none of these strategies seem to help, the problem could be in the work itself and the environment that is managed within the work environment.
The role of the Human Resources department
Given that one of the causes of burnout among employees is related to the work environment, one way to detect whether the company is causing this syndrome is to carry out a work environment survey.
Although employees could lie in the survey or not accurately demonstrate the seriousness of the problem, Human Resources experts recommend carrying it out anyway, and if possible, implementing some type of software that helps employees feel confident answering the questions.
In addition to the work environment survey, there are other instruments that can help measure whether one or more employees suffer from burnout syndrome .
One of the best known is the Maslach or Maslach Burnout Inventory scale, which, through 22 statements about feelings and attitudes, seeks to know the mental and physical state of the employee.
Another instrument is the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory which consists of 19 questions divided into three parts to measure exhaustion.
Bizneo, a company specializing in the development of Human Resources software , recommends, in addition to the work environment survey, the following actions to improve the environment.
- Encourage communication: among the recommendations for this is making a help line with mental health specialists available to employees and encouraging the creation of safe spaces where employees can express themselves freely.
- Limit the workload: establishing limits regarding the number of large projects in which an employee can be involved simultaneously, having flexibility and teleworking programs, as well as promoting technological disconnection after the end of working hours can contribute to this measure.
Legal measures against burnout
Given the massive but sudden implementation of teleworking , the ILO recommends reviewing the legislation in this regard.
For example, in Brazil, the employer must guide employees in such a way as to avoid work-related illnesses and accidents, even while at home.
In the case of Chile, the authorities designed a self-assessment instrument so that teleworkers can identify the dangers and risks associated with psychosocial, ergonomic, environmental and safety issues.