The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently redefined the syndrome as an “occupational phenomenon” and noted that it can have serious consequences on our health and wellbeing and life satisfaction.
So, what is burnout exactly, and how do you know if you have it?
We explore some of the current research, look at a few common causes and signs and share a few simple tips that may help manage symptoms.
Burnout is now recognized as an actual medical condition by the World Health Organization.
Have you ever struggled with burnout? pic.twitter.com/aiHmq1DE0c
— QuickTake by Bloomberg (@QuickTake) August 26, 2019
What is burnout?
The WHO’s new definition officially considers “burn-out” as a syndrome caused by chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
It says burnout is characterised by three factors;
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- increased mental distance from one’s job or colleagues (detachment)
- reduced professional efficacy (work performance).
Gabriela Tavella, a PhD candidate and researcher at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), told Canstar that while burnout is listed as a factor influencing someone’s health in the WHO’s diagnostic manual, it is not itself formally considered an illness or injury in Australia. This means someone who visits their doctor with symptoms of burnout can’t medically be diagnosed as such (as they could be if they presented with symptoms of a similar mental health condition, such as depression).
Miss Tavella is working with Professor Gordon Parker of UNSW on an Australian-led study on burnout. The study, Clarifying the nature of burnout (which is being run with the help of the Black Dog Institute), follows on from an earlier study they conducted on burnout and aims to develop a diagnostic tool to accurately assess and treat the condition.
What causes burnout?
Miss Tavella explained that burnout is generally considered to be triggered by ongoing workplace stress that could be due to:
- excessive hours worked
- a lack of suitable resources
- an excessive workload
- ongoing conflict with colleagues and management
- demanding work cultures
However, she said that participants in the first burnout study had also identified other possible causes outside of the workplace.
“Many people in our research also perceived the causes of their burnout to include more than these work factors. These included home and family factors – like family conflict, domestic care and financial stress; personal factors – like loneliness, a lack of down-time and self-care; and people identifying their personality traits to include perfectionism and workaholism, appearing frequently in the feedback,” she said.
Signs you might be experiencing burnout
While ongoing exhaustion can be one sign you may be suffering from burnout, Miss Tavella said there are other telltale features.
“One of the most obvious signs that someone may be experiencing burnout is a change in outlook or alignment with their sense of purpose in their job and career.
“For example, a health professional suddenly reporting they no longer feel empathy or care for their patients, while acknowledging, ‘I never used to be like this’,” Miss Tavella said.
Based on the UNSW study, other self-reported symptoms were:
- feeling irritable and angry
- prolonged feelings of anxiety and stress
- experiencing physical symptoms like sleep disturbances, changes in appetite and a lower immunity (taking longer to recover from illness)
- withdrawing from social interaction (such as by avoiding friends, family and work colleagues)
- difficulties with focus and memory
4 tips to help manage burnout symptoms
Do you think you could be suffering from burnout, or recognise these signs in a colleague or loved one?
As burnout is still a newly recognised phenomenon outside of healthcare and human services, there’s still some debate about how or whether it is even possible to clinically diagnose it, and therefore what treatment will work best.
As part of the first study, Miss Tavella says researchers asked participants to nominate the things they found most helpful in the management and recovery of their burnout symptoms. Based on their responses, Miss Tavella suggests the following four steps could help improve symptoms:
- Reaching out for support from a family member, boss or mental health professional.
- Exercising, whether this means adding incidental exercise throughout the day such as taking the stairs or getting off the bus a few stops early, or participating in a sport or gym activity that you enjoy.
- Taking a break from work. This can include short-term breaks, like stopping for lunch or taking a short walk every few hours, as well as longer periods of recuperation such as a holiday.
- Meditating and practicing mindfulness. If you’re unsure where to get started, there are a range of apps that offer guided meditation. Alternatively, you could consider classes in meditation or yoga.
These are suggestions for individuals and don’t consider the steps your employer can take to address workplace stress (like reduced hours or workload). It could be a good idea to consider speaking with your manager or human resources department if you believe you are experiencing burnout, and consider talking to your doctor for a personalised self-care plan.
How many hours should we be working?
While working excessive hours has been linked with feelings of burnout, it’s been proven that working at least some hours could actually boost our mental health and wellbeing. The trick could be in finding your optimal number of working hours each week, ensuring you factor in your additional domestic commitments and some downtime.
The minimum working week
Researchers from Cambridge University recently found that working at least 1-8 hours per week can make a significant difference in improving mental health and wellbeing compared to not working at all.
The study explained this short amount of gainful employment could offer benefits including a structured routine, social contact, purpose and a sense of identity.
However, there is a limit to the number of working hours considered to be healthy.
The excessive working week
The American Heart Association recently shared findings from a study of almost 150,000 French workers which found that those who regularly worked long hours had a higher risk of stroke. The study defined long hours as working more than 10 hours a day for at least 50 days per year.
In Japan, the phenomenon is so well-known and widespread that they even have a term for it – ‘karoshi’, which translates to ‘death by overwork’ and refers to fatal cases of strokes, heart attacks and similar health problems brought on by overworking.
Longer working hours are also associated with poorer mental health, increased symptoms of anxiety and depression, and poor sleep quality.
The optimal working week
So, what’s just right; the Goldilocks of work hours?
Research from the Australian National University (ANU) found that on average, 39 hours is the maximum work limit for a healthy life. However, the study found the optimal working week was most likely different between men and women because of the general trend for women to have greater requirements external to work, including care (such as for children or relatives) and domestic work. When factoring this in, the healthy (paid) work limit for women was actually 34 hours per week.
Sweden was one of the first countries to officially recognise burnout as a medical diagnosis. But even in a country famous for championing shorter working weeks and balanced lifestyles, the number of people being diagnosed with chronic-stress-related illnesses is rising. Although the rise is noticeable across both genders, women are more likely than men to take time off due to exhaustion.
Certified Swedish life and career coach, Pia Webb, told the BBC she believed the increase in burnout was not necessarily due to excessive working hours, but could be attributed to increased social pressure to dedicate time to “being fit, being busy and looking perfect”.
How does Australia fare?
Australia’s Fair Work Act caps the standard work week at a maximum of 38 hours, keeping in line with research. In reality, the average hours worked per employed person (including those working part-time) in July 2019 was 137.6 hours per month, or around 31.7 hours per week, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). However, this doesn’t track time spent managing emails and to-do lists at home or unofficial (unpaid) overtime.
International Labour Organization (ILO) figures demonstrate a variation when comparing mean weekly hours across industries in Australia. For example, in 2018:
Kelly is an experienced content writer with qualifications in journalism, communication, and business (HR). She’s long been the go-to writer for accountants and financial planners who need help making complex stuff, like finance, more enjoyable and accessible for their readers using simple, punchy words with zero jargon.