We’ve all experienced it, but is burnout real?
Richard A. Friedman/ Gulf news
The World Health Organisation says so. But it’s in danger of medicalising everyday stress.
Burnout is everywhere. Students, workers, parents — nearly everyone seems to have suffered from it.
Recently, the World Health Organisation upgraded burnout from a “state” of exhaustion to “a syndrome” resulting from “chronic workplace stress” in its International Disease Classification, the official compendium of diseases.That sounds like such a broad definition that it could well apply to most people at some point in their working lives. A good friend told me she recently had to take a wellness survey for her job. She answered yes to just one question, about whether she ever felt irritable at work, and got the laughable result that she was at risk of burnout.Employers seem alarmed by the phenomenon. A 2017 survey by Kronos found that 95 per cent of human resource executives think that burnout is hurting efforts to retain workers.
But when a disorder is reportedly so widespread, it makes me wonder whether we are at risk of medicalising everyday distress. If almost everyone suffers from burnout, then no one does, and the concept loses all credibility.
This would be unfortunate for many reasons, not least because burnout is real — classically defined by the triad of emotional exhaustion, disconnection and a sense of inefficacy. Most people have experienced some of these symptoms, but they’re persistent and impairing for only a minority. That doesn’t make it a national epidemic.What’s also real is a shift in cultural attitudes about the workplace and school. However well intended, we have created an unrealistic and misleading expectation that students and workers are supposed to be happy and stress-free at all times, and if they aren’t, it is a problem that needs to be fixed.Medical school, for example, can be intellectually and physically gruelling. It’s impossible to get through it without experiencing stress and discomfort. In an attempt to help students manage stress and think about how to balance life and work, these schools, like many employers, are investing in wellness programmes that emphasise exercise, meditation, healthy eating and more. That’s great, of course, but by emphasising their commitment to wellness, they are at risk of making promises they can’t keep.
Of course, we must do all we can to detect and treat serious mental illness — like depression, and drug and alcohol abuse. But let’s not medicalise everyday stress and discomfort as burnout.