Burn-out, an occupational syndrome

Half of our waking hours are spent at work and unsurprisingly, our experience in the workplace is one of the most influential factors to our well-being. Despite the fact that the impact of work alone on personal identity, self-esteem and social recognition is hard to express in numbers, it is agreed that the workplace environment has a significant effect on an individual’s mental health and well-being.

In May of 2019, the World Health Organization formally recognized burn-out as an occupational syndrome and throughout Europe an average of 10-15% of the workforce is measured as suffering from burn-out. However, burn-out is not simply work related stress; a moderate amount of stress at work can even have positive outcomes. So what’s the difference?

What is burn-out?

When working with anxious clients, one of the first things I explain is that stress does not always have to be negative. A moderate level of stress can help boost a person’s motivation and improve their mental performance in the short run. It can help alertness, focus and behavioral and cognitive performance, for instance when we need to give a speech, do a test or when we need to come up with creative solutions. 

The difference between burn-out and work related stress is the point at which the stress becomes a health issue. Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

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

How can you recognize burn-out?

Every person is unique, so stress manifests in different ways. General symptoms are as seen in the insert, but these are not exclusive.

Burn-out shares some similar symptoms of mental health conditions, such as depression, which makes it harder to recognize. Individuals with depression experience negative feelings and thoughts about all aspects of life, not just at work. Depression symptoms may also include a loss of interest in things, feelings of hopelessness, cognitive and physical symptoms and in rare cases even thoughts of suicide. Individuals experiencing burn-out may be at a higher risk of developing depression.

The effect of an employee experiencing stress in the workplace is not only decreased productivity, but increased risk of long term absenteeism and an increased risk of accidents.

Can burn-out in the workplace be prevented?

The reason why it is difficult to prevent stress in the workplace is also the problem of its evaluation. The level of stress varies with the type of job, and its perception is considerably subjective. But even though it is subjectively appraised, to the person experiencing stress it is real.

The employee themselves have a part in dealing with their stressors and work and making it known to their manager or supervisor that they are not feeling well due to experiencing high levels of stress over a longer period of time. 

Although everyone should set healthy boundaries and say ‘no’ when the workload becomes too much, it’s not just the employee’s responsibility to prevent and overcome burn-out. In order to keep  employee’s healthy and productive, companies must also put into place systems that will foster employees’ well-being (to read more about a comprehensive framework on mental well-being at work, click here).

Some factors that can (be experienced by the employee and can) build up towards a burn-out are;

  • Lack of control – An inability to influence decisions that affect the job (such as schedule, assignments or workload) and/or a lack of the resources.
  • Unclear job expectations – Uncertainty about the degree of authority or what the supervisor or others expect.
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics – Workplace bullying, being undermined by colleagues or being micromanaged by the boss can contribute to job stress.
  • Extremes of activity – When a job is monotonous or chaotic, keeping focus takes a constant supply of energy (which can lead to fatigue and job burn-out).
  • Lack of social support – Feelings of isolation at work and in personal life adds to stress by not being able to level it out via social connections.
  • Work-life imbalance – Time and effort spent at work absorbs the energy needed to spend time with family and friends, hobbies and/or sports.

Often, these factors can be influenced by management or action needs to be taken by the employee. But from my experience as a psychologist I know that, for clients suffering from burn-out, this can feel like too big of a mountain to climb. Lack of energy, feelings of helplessness and low self-esteem are already in play and hinder the road to action.

When the employee’s own efforts and support from the workplace is not sufficient, a more in-depth approach is available. 

Stress and burn-out coaching

If support from within the organization is no longer improving the burn-out symptoms, stress and burn-out coaching is available. By teaming up with a burn-out coach, we will work actively and collaboratively towards a sustainable, motivated and vital employability for the employee dealing with stress or burn-out complaints. 

Stress and burn-out coaching is not therapy, but an intensive and systematic approach for getting back to and/or staying healthy at work. It will provide insight in the employees stressors and will improve coping skills. 

Interested to learn more? Feel free to contact Nicole Buitenhuis at Crossroads Coaching and click here.

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