Can we finally talk about burnout syndrome?

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Burnout is not just exhaustion. It’s a syndrome. Here’s why.

Was Solange singing about burnout in “Cranes in the Sky”? “I tried to keep myself busy/ I ran around circles/ Think I made myself dizzy/ I slept it away/ I sexed it away/ I read it away,” the lyrics read.

She’s singing about a pain that’s hard to escape and burnout can feel just like that. Hard to outrun with no real clear way out. And if this sounds like you, you’re not alone. 

According to this 2021 U.S teacher survey, nearly one in four teachers said that they were likely to leave their jobs by the end of the 2020–2021 school year, compared with one in six teachers who were likely to leave, on average, prior to the pandemic. Black or African American teachers were particularly likely to plan to leave.

Tired black woman with headache migraine. Stress and health.

Burnout is also being seen in the healthcare sector. The World Health Organization is calling for “immediate and concrete action” because another crisis is headed our way (some would argue it’s here now) with a shortage of nurses only made worse by the pandemic.

The point is, choose any one industry and I’ll show you the burnout. In order to create significant change in the workplace, I think the decision makers, the CEOs and organization leaders need to understand one simple thing: burnout is a response to the work environment, as defined by WHO, and it’s more than being tired. PTO days alone can’t fix this. 

Burnout is a signal that parts of the workplace culture need to change. Employees didn’t show up burned up and tired. They likely came to work, in the beginning, hopeful, with energy and ready to contribute. Look at them now. Really look at them. What kind of energy are you getting everyday? It’s not the same.

The pioneer of burnout research,Dr. Christina Maslach, says coping techniques to deal with burnout are helpful but they don’t change the job. 

“They don’t make it less toxic,” she explained. “What we need to be thinking about is more how do you fit the job to people. What are the work conditions that actually are causing an unhealthy workplace and that are having negative effects on people? How could those be changed in some way?”

](Credit: Adobe Stock)

WHO gave burnout legitimacy when it updated its definition in 2019 to say “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Burnout isn’t a medical condition but it is a syndrome, or a group of symptoms, that’s multi-dimensional and lives in the context of our workplace. This puts the responsibility to address this phenomenon squarely on the shoulders of the bosses, managers and general managers.

Take this as a warning. Your people will go heal themselves and find a place to nurture their skills if they keep hitting that burned out brick wall. Start listening, ask questions, figure out the pain points and change the way you lead and do work. Lives depend on it.

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