Burnout; the workplace epidemic Part 1: The rise of a new disease

A timely article in the New Zealand Herald this week addresses the current epidemic of burnout; a topic that we will explore across a three-part series.

A timely article in the New Zealand Herald this week addresses the current epidemic of burnout; a topic that we will explore across a three-part series.

‘ "Burnout" is officially a disease, according to the World Health Organisation.

The agency, currently holding the World Health Assembly in Geneva, added the condition to its catalog, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), on Monday, a year after it was recommended by global health experts.

It will become globally recognised in 2022, giving healthcare providers and insurers precedent to acknowledge, treat and cover symptoms of burnout.

The WHO describes burnout as "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed," along with three defining symptoms:

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

The listing in the ICD notes that "burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life."

It is distinct, the authors say, from other types of adjustment disorder, disorders specifically associated with stress, anxiety or fear-related disorders, and mood disorders - all of which have their own classifications. “

The full NZ Herald article can be found here

So, what is stress? Is it all bad?

Stress is a subjective response to a perceived threat, but it is unique to the individual, as we all have different thresholds for what we view as a stressor.  This is why some people may cope well with a situation but others suffer an exaggerated stress response that may persist, long after the stressor has been removed.

Not all stress is bad either, as acute stress serves a very legitimate purpose in the emergency setting.

An acute stress response will cause your heart rate and blood pressure to increase, your brain to work more sharply and blood to be diverted from your digestive system and skin to your muscles, all in readiness to help you respond rapidly in a fight or flight situation.  This is critical if you need to move quickly away from eg a car coming towards you in the road as a pedestrian, or in the instance of a looming physical assault.  In times bygone, this allowed our predecessors to escape from being eaten by larger predators.  Unfortunately, these internal systems are somewhat primitive and cannot differentiate between actual and imaginary threats, like a full email inbox or deadlines. Both create the same physiological response, so that repeated work stresses have the same physical effect on us as continually running from predators.  A perfect recipe for frazzled nerves! We are designed to cope very well with repeated, short and sharp adrenaline spikes, but when these become elevated and prolonged from chronic, persistent stress, it can have a very detrimental effect on our health.  Your body should return to a natural state after the situation has passed. Your heart rate should slow, your muscles should relax, and your breathing should return to normal.

The parasympathetic nervous system, which deals with ‘rest and digest’, should be our default setting.  If we live in constant ‘fight or flight’ with the sympathetic nervous system constantly switched on, then we are diverting our bodies attention away from essential housekeeping; ie normal digestive functions and tissue growth and repair.  This can lead to symptoms like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), headaches, fatigue, aches and pains.

It is nigh on impossible to completely remove stress from our lives, but it is possible to change the lens through which we view potential stressors.  At Edison we provide employers and employees with the tools to increase their mental health and stress resilience, using mindfulness techniques to create breathing space from our often negative thoughts and get a fresh perspective on the issues that trouble us.

Why is there such a sharp rise in workplace-related stress or ‘burnout’?

As we enter an age of relentless accessibility and accountability, with technology enabling us to be on-call for our work 24/7, there is an increasing feeling of work encroaching on all aspects of our lives. No longer is there any private moment where we are at peace, and even the bedroom is now being used to check work emails and schedules.  If we prime our brains to be constantly on alert from the moment we wake to the moment we fall asleep, (indeed often even when we wake in the middle of the night), then we rapidly enter a destructive cycle of constant fight or flight.

We are generally increasing the number of hours that we work and Millenials are now being described as the ‘burnout generation’.  Millennials are having to work harder to achieve the same standard of living as their parents, have high student loan debts, and have higher performance expectations imprinted on them from earlier and earlier ages. Ethnic minorities and gender inequality add to the additional stressors that make these groups even more susceptible to burnout, while our addiction to technology has also made us all more anxious, as highlighted by a recent documentary called ‘Plugged In’. If you have a spare 30 minutes at some stage, it is well worth the watch.

But it’s not just workplace stress:

Long hours, poor work-life balance, stressful relationships at work or at home can all lead to symptoms of burnout.  ‘Stress’ is a term so commonly bandied about that to feel stressed is now the social norm, not the exception.  What’s not clear to people is the difference between everyday stress and burnout.

Stress is currently at an epidemic level and is described by the World Health Organisation as a leading cause of death and disease worldwide.  Types of stress include

  1. Work Stress
  2. Personal Stress
  3. Societal Stress

In Part two of our stress series, we take a look to see if you are at risk of Burnout and how to identify the signs and symptoms.

Where you can get help:

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.

If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:


LIFELINE: 0800 543 354

SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666

YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234

1737 NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737

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