Avoiding burnout | Sunday Observer

Avoiding burnout

Workplace stress is a condition that many people try to hide even from themselves
Workplace stress is a condition that many people try to hide even from themselves

A few years ago, I saw a wire service news item in the Daily News, our sister newspaper. ‘Japanese man lay dead in office for three days’ was the headline. Startled, I read through the copy, to find that the office worker (a typical ‘salaryman’ in Japan) had a habit of working late into the night on most days and then coming in early morning the next day. He was apparently always in the office, so no one bothered to check whether he was dead or alive – literally. Yes, working too hard can sometimes be fatal.

Indeed, if you work in an office or even in the field, it can sometimes be very stressful. I have often heard people say they are ‘killing themselves’ in the office (as the above example shows, it can happen for real). Have to finish a report before a given deadline? Missed an appointment? Boss in a bad mood? All these can affect your outlook in the office, but simply overworking can also burn you out. Of course, the word for this is ‘burnout’.

Burnout as a psychological term was first described in the mid-1970s, when psychologist Herbert Freudenberger used it to describe cases of “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” The World Health Organization (WHO) is now bringing attention to the problem of work-related stress. It is updating its definition of burnout in the new version of its handbook of diseases, the International Classification of Diseases — ICD-11 — which will go into effect in January 2022.

The new definition calls it a ‘syndrome’ and specifically ties burnout to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” We all know people who experience this regularly, I myself have experienced it. Burnout is a regular occurrence in the newsroom for most journalists.

However, the WHO has fallen short of classifying the problem as a medical condition. It calls burnout an “occupational phenomenon” and includes it in a chapter on “factors influencing health status or contact with health services.”

According to the WHO, burnout is characterized by “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.” The WHO had earlier defined work-related burnout as a “state of vital exhaustion”.

According to the WHO, doctors can issue a ‘diagnosis’ of burnout if a worker exhibits these three symptoms which may however not be visible from the outside. The WHO stresses that burnout is to be used specifically “in the occupational context” and that it “should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life” since it is possible to experience similar mental conditions in some other aspects of life (see below). The new WHO definition also requires that to diagnose burnout, mental health doctors and professionals have to rule out anxiety, mood disorders and other stress-related disorders.

Workplace stress or burnout is a condition that many people try to hide even from themselves. Many bosses too do not have a sympathetic attitude towards those who may wittingly or unwittingly suffer from this condition. But with the new definition, people who feel burnout are finally fully recognized as having a severe issue. The new definition may also be a step towards making it easier for people to get medical and/or psychological help.

Yes, there are many things that workplaces and employers can do to reduce stress, such as giving workers adequate downtime, a better working environment, more flexibility and even better pay (but as always, money alone does not bring happiness). But workers themselves should know their limits and discuss with their superiors if they experience any symptoms associated with burnout. For example, if you think that writing a long report is too much to handle, ask the boss whether he or she can delegate another person to help you.

But as mentioned earlier, burnout can occur in other areas of life. It is rather common in sport – there are many stories of players or teams ‘burning out’ as they cannot physically and mentally take the strain of competing in too many matches and tournaments at a stretch. A player should be at the peak of mental and physical fitness before a match and burnout can bring devastating results. Many teams competing in the Cricket World Cup, currently underway in England, have mentioned this aspect as the international cricket calendar is a non-stop roller-coaster of One Day, Test and Twenty20 matches.

If you do too much of anything, it can lead to burnout. Moderate exercise is good for the body and soul, but if you overdo it the results can sometimes be fatal. If you study too much for an examination, you will not have the energy to actually sit the exam. Well, even watching the TV too much can make you overweight and stressed out, as the term Couch Potato suggests.

Most people play video games on the phone, tablet or on a dedicated games console such as Xbox One or PS4 to take stress out of their hectic lives. But now, medical professionals say this in itself could lead to mental, if not physical, stress. In fact, on May 25, the World Health Organization officially voted to adopt the latest edition of its International Classification of Diseases, or ICD, to include an entry on “gaming disorder” as a behavioural addiction.

But in order to be classified as having a disease, being a video game fan is not enough. According to WHO, the criteria does not include a certain amount of hours spent playing. Instead, the description is of someone with an inability to stop playing even though it interferes with other areas of one’s life, such as family relationships, school, work, and sleep. These problems would typically continue for at least one year. Some others have suggested that not only video games, but any kind of screen addiction (tablets, smartphones, e-readers) should be considered as a mental disorder. Screen-addicted children could be the most severely affected segment of the population.

Moderation is the key to a happy life – religious leaders gave this advice thousands of years ago. There is no need to go to extremes in any sphere of life, including religion. Too much of anything creates a lot of problems for oneself and society. There is no need to get down a doctor to diagnose addiction as being bad for health. This is a known fact. It would be best if we could all learn to ‘chill’ a little without modern distractions, to add a much-needed respite to our busy lives.