Burnout: A Symptom or Medical Condition?

Having spent most of the last 365 days hankering down in our homes, it would be easy to assume we’ve had time to rest...yet the combination of pandemic-related stress and work being our primary social outlet has led to an increase in an already growing phenomenon: burnout.

For years, burnout has been addressed primarily as a symptom of chronic stress. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) upgraded its definition of burnout in the most recent revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). Though it’s not yet considered an official medical diagnosis, this modification demonstrates the growing concern surrounding burnout in the health industry.

Previously defined as a “state of vital exhaustion,” the ICD-11 lists burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Burnout can also be the trigger for other medical conditions, including heightened blood pressure, insomnia, type 2 diabetes and addiction.

What causes burnout?

According to a 2018 Gallup poll, the five primary causes of employee burnout are:

  • Poor treatment at work.
  • A heavy workload.
  • Lack of clarity surrounding your role.
  • Little communication or support from management.
  • Unreasonable deadlines or pressure.

Just one of these factors, let alone multiple, could lead to burnout at work. However, it’s also important to note that burnout doesn’t always stem from the workplace. Parental burnout is another common concern, both in the U.S. and abroad. This form of burnout is particularly common amongst mothers, as they’re often responsible for caregiving, preparing meals, making family health decisions and – in many cases – working a traditional job as well.

With schools closed for months and few resources available to many families, this problem was only exacerbated during the pandemic. In a recent study by the American Psychological Association, nearly half of all parents reported high stress levels, referencing distance learning and disrupted schedules as a couple of primary sources.

How do you know if you’re experiencing burnout?

As suggested in the ICD-11, burnout is characterized by these three dimensions:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  2. Increased mental distance from (or feelings of cynicism toward) one’s occupation.
  3. A sense of ineffectiveness and/or lack of accomplishment.

Though these characteristics primarily relate to the WHO’s definition, which only acknowledges burnout as it relates to the workplace, these criteria can also be applied to other types of burnout. Exhaustion, a sense of inadequacy and an increasingly negative outlook are all relatively universal signs of burnout.

Lastly, it’s important to note that burnout can show itself in different ways. For example, while some people may experience an “overload” type of burnout from trying to climb the ladder at work, others might be overwhelmed by feelings of boredom or helplessness that eventually push them over the edge.

How can you prevent it?

Though it might be relatively easy to diagnose once you’re familiar with the criteria, preventing burnout isn’t as clear-cut. While a lot depends on your employer and work culture, there are a few steps you can take to reduce your chances of experiencing burnout. This includes:

  • Break a sweat. Exercise continues to be one of the most effective and straightforward ways to prevent burnout. Numerous studies have shown that there’s a direct, negative correlation between increased exercise and feelings of burnout or depression. Adopting a regular workout regimen or finding the time to exercise when you're stressed may be key in preventing those feelings from becoming something more serious.
  • Delegate (or ask for help). This might be one of the hardest to implement, as those who experience burnout are generally hardworking, self-sufficient individuals who like taking (and maintaining) responsibility. However, learning to recognize when you have too much on your plate and delegate tasks is an essential tool for preventing burnout.
  • Adopt self-care or stress-management techniques. While bubble baths and weekly massages are great, don't be fooled into thinking they’re the paragon of self-care. Breathing exercises, practicing yoga and even writing in a journal or “stress diary” are all valid techniques as well. What's most important is to find what works best for you. This could mean meditating before bed to ease your mind before you sleep or simply chatting with a therapist on a regular basis.

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