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What you’re probably getting wrong about workplace burnout

Workplace burnout has gotten a lot of attention since the World Health Organization expanded its definition, but that doesn’t mean it’s now officially a diagnosable disease, says the American Psychological Association.

What you’re probably getting wrong about workplace burnout
[Photo: Rowan Jordan/Getty Images]

After nearly 30 years of working in daily journalism, Deborah Zabarenko was fried. It wasn’t just the stress of reporting for an international wire service—considerable in its own right—but the added responsibility of heading the union and fighting for her coworkers.

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“After a while, you’re just exhausted,” she recalls. Besides feeling stressed and tired, she could see she wasn’t getting good writing assignments anymore. She felt that she wasn’t performing to the best of her ability, she says. “I hated that.”

After losing so many union cases to her richer, better-lawyered employer she said she was feeling “not so much negativity as despair.” When she was offered a buyout, “it was a lifeline,” she says. “I knew it was my only way out. I was in China [when the offer came], but as soon as I got back, I talked to my husband and son, and I said we would make this work.”

Zabarenko had a classic case of workplace burnout, a phenomenon that’s gotten a lot of media attention since May, when the World Health Organization expanded its definition of the phenomenon in the 11th revision of its International Classification of Diseases. However, there’s nothing new about employee burnout, or even the WHO’s including it in the latest ICD. And despite some erroneous reporting, the ICD-11 entry does not mean that workplace burnout is now officially recognized as a diagnosable disease.

“ICD-11 moved their definition closer to the way that occupational health psychology has defined burnout for a long time,” says Dr. David Ballard, head of the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program at the American Psychological Association*. “They’re just bringing their definition in line with what we’ve known from the research for some time.”

Burnout was included in the ICD-10, Ballard notes, “but it was not directly connected to work. It was listed under ‘problems related to life management’ and was described as a state of vital exhaustion.” The new definition ties it directly to problems associated with employment and goes beyond just being tired: It now includes increased mental distance from one’s job, which is also characterized by negativity and feelings of cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy.

Workplace burnout is not just dreading going to work some days or feeling overwhelmed by the demands of your job. According to the ICD itself, burnout results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” meaning it’s more than having a bad day or even a bad week at work, and it can’t be relieved by just taking a few days off.

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The good news is that only a relatively small percentage of workers are experiencing burnout at an extreme level, according to a forthcoming survey that we at the APA conducted this spring of 1,504 adult Americans. About 8% said they frequently experience burnout, while a quarter said they are experiencing burnout at least some of the time.

The idea that people could get burned out by their jobs has been around since the mid-1970s, when psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger first used the term “burnout.” His work, based on his observations of the volunteer staff (including himself) at a free clinic for people with drug addiction, identified the hallmarks of burnout as exhaustion resulting from the excessive demands of the job and physical symptoms such as headaches, sleeplessness, and quickness to anger. The burned-out worker “looks, acts, and seems depressed,” he said.

Today, psychologist Irvin Schonfeld at the City College of New York argues that what many people call workplace burnout is actually just garden-variety depression. He and his research colleagues “reject the argument that burnout differs from depression because burnout is socially caused, it’s the result of working conditions.”

Schonfeld believes workers avoid labeling themselves as depressed because of the stigma associated with the term. Plus, he says, a diagnosis of depression could jeopardize some people’s jobs. “It’s much easier to say, ‘I’m burned out by my job’ than ‘my job depresses me,'” he says.

The World Health Organization’s expanded definition is significant in that it puts employers on notice that they bear some responsibility for the conditions that can lead to burnout. “At an organizational level, employers need to consider how they design jobs, the amount of control and autonomy they give people, and whether they create an environment that’s characterized by support and trust,” Ballard says. They also need to look at what supports they provide to employees, in the form of employee assistance programs, mental-health care, and their commitment to work-life balance, he says.

Workers also have some responsibility to guard against the conditions that can burn them out. “People need to take time off to recharge,” he says. “Not only do they need to have time when they’re not working, but they need to have time when they’re not thinking about work.”

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That doesn’t necessarily mean two weeks of vacation, either. Some people need shorter and more frequent breaks, research finds.

For former reporter Zabarenko, having experienced burnout was a valuable lesson. After leaving her wire service job, she landed her current job, with an environmental think tank, where after five years she was eligible for a sabbatical. This year, she took 10 weeks off to travel to Oslo, Svalbard, Stockholm, Toronto, and finally Montana. “I had about as much fun as any one person could have,” she says. “I returned to work a few weeks ago knowing for once that I had done the right thing. And that was informed by my past experience with burnout, so you definitely can learn from it.”

*Of which the author, Kim I. Mills, is also an employee.

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