WHO Recognizes Burnout As A New Syndrome

WHO Recognizes Burnout As A New Syndrome

Major news this past week in the talent management space — and no, no, it’s not some new technology or methodology around hiring and retaining your best people. (Well, it is, but in a roundabout way.) Rather, the World Health Organization officially recognized “burnout” as a new syndrome, defining it as follows:

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; and 3) 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.

This is the first time burnout has been classified as a medical condition by any official health body. The decision takes burnout from being a common buzzword to a being a measurable concept negatively impacting public health. So what does this new definition mean for the world of work?

Work stress is on the rise

Well to start with, the WHO’s decision shines a light on one key truth we’ve all known for a while. Workplace stress is on the rise at an alarming rate and is beginning to have a real impact on talent management. While we tend to discuss hiring and onboarding and the employee lifecycle as the core terms involved in talent management, making sure your people are not excessively stressed is critical as well. Think about it in terms of productivity. Who really works super effectively when they’re exhausted and on edge? When workplace stress is present, productivity declines. When it’s rampant, you can imagine the impact it has on teams, deadlines, production, interpersonal relationships, communication, and more.

So where is this stress coming from?

Groupon (oddly enough) actually commissioned a study a few years ago on work stress, with some notable results:

  • 20% of the respondents said they worked 10 hours/day
  • 60% of the respondents said there wasn’t enough time in the day to do everything
  • 50% said workload was preventing them from work-life balance
  • 53% said they still had significant financial concerns
  • On a 1-10 scale, stress at home averaged a 5; at work, it averaged a 6.4

Trello blogged about work burnout in 2017, and one comment, while a bit snarky, hits home at the core issue:

The problem is that our economy and its rewards are dependent on the maximization of labor efforts. With employees taking sabbaticals and getting paid maternity leave and mental health days and not answering Friday 8PM emails, Mr. CEO is not going to see the kinds of returns that will make the board award him a bonus juicy enough to bail and take a trip around the world. In a word, “burnout” is just the normal effect of capitalist production on knowledge workers.

“Capitalist production on knowledge workers” is certainly one issue here, as is a general overachiever/perfectionist attitude around work. So … what can organizations do to make sure their people aren’t burning out?

Read more: What’s the link between employee engagement and turnover?

What are the signs of burnout?

If you manage or lead others, then you need to take the time to notice any symptoms of burnout in order to stop the decline before it starts. Some common symptoms include:

  • Exhaustion or insomnia
  • Heightened anxiety or mood changes 
  • Trouble with concentration and decision-making activities
  • Physical manifestations (rapid weight loss or gain, headaches, chest pain)
  • Increased cynicism and negative attitudes
  • Disengagement at work or reduced performance

What can you do to reduce burnout?

Once you notice the signs, you have a small window to take action. Burnout is incredibly hard to stop once an employee starts down that path and the end result of burnout is usually the loss of that employee or the reduced effectiveness of their work, to say nothing of the damage that’s done to their mental health. In order to combat employee burnout, think about your approach to well-being at work. Some strategies you can try include:

  • Don’t heap work on those you perceive as “A-Players”: This creates kind of a “top performer curse,” where the only reward for doing good work seems to be the addition of more work.
  • Embrace flexibility: If people have children and need to leave earlier, or need to take care of their parents, or whatever the case may be … let them be flexible in their hours in-office, assuming the work is getting done. If the work is not getting done, have a conversation with them. But what needs to matter is the work getting done; too often what matters in organizations is visibility or seat time, and that attitude can drive burnout.
  • Model at the top: If executives and leaders in the business are sending emails at 11pm, that bolsters the idea that everyone needs to be doing the same to be successful at that particular business. Log off and conduct most communication within standard business hours, aside from truly urgent matters.
  • Let vacation be vacation: Much like modeling from the top, when employees or managers take a vacation, insist on an unplug policy that is actually enforced. When staff is on a break, let them be on a break. No one can recharge if they are checking their email ten times a day when they should be relaxing.
  • Give work-from-home and random Fridays off periodically: Convey the idea that an employee’s time is valuable … and valued by the organization. Giving extra time off now and then both allows your team to decompress and it increases employee engagement and job satisfaction since it is viewed as a reward or perk. 
  • Check in with your people: Ask them what is stressing them out right now, and how you can help. You can do that as their manager or just their colleague. Sometimes problems are too big to make accommodations for but if you never ask, you’ll never know if there’s something easy or simple you could do that would have a big impact on your team.

Read more: Looking for more strategies to fight burnout? Try these 5.

The role of assessments in reducing burnout

One thing to remember is while burnout is prevalent in every industry, not all employees react to it in the same way. Look at a culture like Amazon. It’s a very successful company, but all signs would indicate it’s a harsher, demand-driven work culture. But see, that works for a lot of people. If your goal is to work hard and long hours to achieve something (like buying a house or paying for college) you’re less likely to burnout because you are actively seeking the environment you’re in. Someone who wants a slower career and is forced to take over a fast paced or highly competitive position, however, will be more vulnerable to burnout because they are not a match for the situation they find themselves in. Part of the trick in guarding against burnout is to ensure that the right peole who match your culture are brought onboard. Will this protect you against all burnout dangers? Absolutely not. But it will give you a stronger foundation to build a workforce and a better chance at finding likely minded people who will be comfortable in the work environment you’re providing.

When you assess people for culture fit, you have a better idea if that specific type of person will work well with your specific type of environment. Over time, you can use assessments — as well as info about the performance of employees over time — to figure out what type of person, traits and personality-wise, would be most likely to excel in your unique culture. That’s one major value of assessments. If you bring in someone who’s totally not a fit for the way you work, well, that person is likely to feel disengaged and stressed, which will lead to burnout. Knowing who “fits” is a huge aspect of talent management and a key piece of fighting burnout. As the WHO points out, chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed leads nowhere good. So take steps to both manage burnout once it starts and protect yourself as best you can from letting it get a foothold in your company.


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