I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm
[ Bob Dylan, Shelter from the Storm]
In the mid-70s, Bob Dylan wrote about a man going through a storm of feelings and problems, including feeling “burned out from exhaustion”. This term represented a critical cultural moment — precisely in this decade, Burnout received scientific legitimacy and captured broad attention from the general population. These days, this term is uncomfortably familiar. In the most recent news, we see Portugal as the country in the European Union where people are at the highest risk of Burnout. What does this mean? If, on the one hand, it is true that estimations of burnout prevalence vary considerably according to the definition of Burnout that is applied, there is also another unavoidable truth: Burnout has become one of the most critical occupational psychosocial risks in today’s society, generating high costs for both individuals and organizations. But do we understand it well? Is it easy to comprehend what “storm” we are discussing and where our “shelter” can be found?
In the first definition proposed by Freudenberger, Burnout appears as a state of exhaustion, fatigue and frustration due to a professional activity that does not match expectations. Thus, already in this first definition, the mismatch between expectations and results emerges as the precursor to the exhaustion/fatigue/frustration that characterizes Burnout. Years later, Maslach and Jackson reformulated the concept and included interpersonal dimensions in the definition of this syndrome, depicting Burnout as a psychological syndrome characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a reduction in personal achievement. From this moment on, it becomes clear that this syndrome goes far beyond the fatigue/exhaustion we commonly associate with Burnout. Nowadays, it is consensual that from a psychological point of view, this syndrome has cognitive, emotional and behavioural consequences, translating into negative behaviours towards work, peers, and even users/clients and the professional role itself.
It is also important to realize that although the prevalence of this syndrome has increased over time (much due to changes in the workforce, as well as in the economy and job security), this emotional, psychological and behavioural state has been part of the human condition from an early age. Deep diving into our history, we realize that the origins of Burnout can be traced back to Ancient Greece, where the idea of melancholy and the theory of the 4 humours were first introduced — referring to a feeling of sadness and inability to enjoy the pleasures of life — as well as in the concept of Acedia — an emotion associated with a state of apathy or inertia. Burnout, as we know it today, parallels the idea of Neurasthenia (neuro = brain, asthenia = weakness), which appeared 100 years before.
Burnout is often identified as the disease of the 21st century. Why is that? Could it be a characteristic or consequence of a society focused on work and productivity? Are we living to work and not working to live? Burnout represents a real puzzle when we think about work. So let’s start by exploring the role of work in our lives.
In fact, work occupies a large part of our lives; it organizes our social role, the context we live in and even how we present ourselves (it is not by chance that when we introduce ourselves to someone, we often say our name and what we do for living). Due to this predominant role in our lives, work is commonly seen as a source of purpose and meaning. Additionally, we live in a culture in which much of our value as a person relates to how hardworking and competent we are (note that “She is a hard worker” is a compliment that often sparks a broad smile in our parents and/or caregivers )! As a result, we place too much expectation of life fulfilment on work and are unaware that work is unlikely to be the source of such purpose and satisfaction. When reflecting on this, it is important to exercise a non-judgmental and non-deterministic attitude: work can be a source of personal fulfilment, purpose and meaning in life. It just doesn’t have to be.
Looking forward to reaching our expectations about work, we frequently develop a very peculiar relationship with it. Very commonly, we live not knowing how and where to set limits. In the blink of an eye, the definition of “free time” ceases to exist, and every minute is likely to be occupied. Like a Neapolitan invasion, work takes over our territory — invading our lives and conquering our souls. Hand in hand with exhaustion, feelings of guilt start to emerge: “I fought hard to achieve this; how can I feel so miserable?; What am I doing with my life?”. In those moments, we also ask ourselves: “What is wrong with me?!”. At this exact moment, it is vital to pause: probably nothing is wrong with the person, but rather in the organizational environment and social/cultural expectations concerning work. It is imperative to mention that Burnout is not a personal problem but a consequence of specific characteristics of the work activity and the relationship that the person develops with work. This is exactly why the World Health Organization (WHO) includes Burnout in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a phenomenon exclusive to the occupational context. Reflecting on the role work plays in our lives allows us to understand better the impact that certain organizational factors (e.g., work overload, emotional work, role conflict, lack of perceived support, …) play in the development of conditions as complicated and compromising as Burnout.
Where can we find our shelter?
In a provocative article published in Harvard Business Review, Jennifer Moss asserts, “While these are all organizational issues, we still prescribe self-care as the cure for Burnout.” With this, the author does not mean that self-care strategies are not important, but to reinforce the global effort that Burnout calls for.
Being a syndrome that arises in the work context, organizational changes are imposed. These changes imply taking action on the widely known Burnout risk factors and moving towards a corporate environment that promotes purpose in the workplace, guarantees an adjusted workload and work flexibility, encourages autonomy,… Within the scope of the multiple strategies companies should apply, we emphasize the importance of creating an emotionally safe environment to address mental health topics. Calling leaders and companies to this debate is essential. It is important to talk about the role the individualistic, competitive, depersonalized and dehumanized approach has on this complex history. This approach prevents us from openly discussing Burnout and other mental health issues. The stigma of talking about mental health problems silences us, chains us to a harsh reality and sentences us to suffer alone. It is, therefore, crucial to understand that when we talk about mitigating Burnout, we are discussing cultural, organizational and collective effort. A shift focused on offering others compassion, understanding and respect.
Talking about collective changes does not remove each of us individually from the equation. From a compassionate and non-judgmental point of view, I invite you to listen to your beliefs regarding work, performance, and mental health issues. Notice which ideas are prevalent — this awareness can be very revealing and will undoubtedly promote a different attitude towards yourself and others. It is healthy (and recommended) to take a few moments to look at ourselves — to pay attention to what we have been feeling and to try, within our resources, to live a life in line with our purpose and values. Still, organizations must dedicate themselves to analyzing which working conditions may be at the roots of Burnout.
Finding shelter from Burnout will therefore require a collective change. During the transition phase, each of us must assume a confident stance in the search for a life in line with our values (with what really matters to us). No less important, starting a journey towards greater acceptance and understanding of our limits will be a significant achievement for everyone’s mental health and well-being.
Knowing there are no quick fixes to tackle this syndrome can be paralyzing. But that reality will remain even if we try to ignore it. Significant changes start with small practical steps, working towards collective change. There is no turning back, and change can start today.
Final note: It is also important to reinforce that understanding what is going on with you does not invalidate that you seek help to deal with what is happening. The long-term consequences of burnout episodes are highly significant, so if this is the case, seek professional help.