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What you need to know about burnout, now it’s an official medical condition

The World Health Organisation is predicting a global pandemic of burnout in the next 10 years

Welcome generation stress, generation work-as-identity, generation ‘burnout’. ‘Burnout’ is a global phenomenon, otherwise known as ‘work-specific mental and physical exhaustion’. It’s the feeling of being overworked and overstressed to the point of not being able to function, even to perform the most simple and necessary of tasks, like eating something that isn’t a sandwich+crisps+drink meal deal combo. It’s the feeling of not being able to do anything much at all. Now, with new work by the World Health Organisation (WHO), this sensation has been given legitimacy, having just been officially recognised as a genuine chronic health condition.

Workers, know that the hours you’ve lost in the toilet with your face in your hands can now be reclaimed as ‘self-care’. Next time you feel guilty about pulling some so-called bullshit at work, remember that you could be suffering from a genuine chronic condition. Set the email to OOO. Go home. Rest your weary head. Recover! But, if you regularly mix powdered soup in your mouth for dinner and sit with your head in your hands an unreasonable amount, aren’t you just depressed? Well, maybe. But it’s just as likely that you’re suffering the early symptoms of burnout. Statistics aren’t that stable right now, but 595,000 people in the UK are known to have suffered from workplace stress in 2018.

The roots of burnout as a specific health condition can be traced back to German-born psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who published a book on the phenomenon in 1980, but it was Helen Peterson who penned the recent viral article ‘How Millennials became the burnout generation’, attributing the condition specifically to the 20 somethings of today who are overworked, undervalued, and constantly connected to the internet. She writes that burnout is “the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives”.

What’s it like to suffer burnout in 2019? Sarah, 20, from Newcastle, tells Dazed that she felt the onset of the condition after juggling two hospitality jobs, in a cafe during the day and at various bars in the evening: “I’d come off a night shift at a pub and when I was opening the cafe the next day, one of the managers made a query about the quality of my coffee, it wasn’t even anything bad, but I just completely broke down in tears,” she says.

“I ended up getting fired from that job because my attitude just wasn’t there. Once you start spreading yourself so thin, you know, if you have multiple jobs you have to compartmentalise the different relationships in each one and you just end up going to your pub job and saying ‘I can’t do this’.

“It’s hard to manage social life and work life and pay rent,” Sarah says, “in hospitality you can bounce from job to job for seven days a week if you want, but constantly searching for a job, constantly searching for money, chasing that invoice here, another there, you end up fucking up and the stress of calling in sick when you feel that technically you’re not, it’s a lot.”

It’s not just time spent at work that feeds into burnout, but the fact that work often bleeds into personal time. James, 19, who works in a pub in Leeds, told Dazed that he regularly finds himself working many unpaid hours sifting through work messages on WhatsApp. “It’s constantly going off in my pocket,” he says, “there’s been about 30 messages today about the ice machine, it’s just constant.

“I’m a supervisor at the pub that I’m at and we have Slack, one of my co-workers suggested that I get in on my phone so I can work on the way home. I want a job that I go to and then fuck off. Isn’t that the point? There’s so much unpaid labour and so much worrying. There’s a lot of unpaid stuff that goes into the job.”

“I think that it’s very important to constantly remind yourself what your values are, what your passions are, and trying to make those align” – Sam 

Burnout-affected Sam, 29, who works in backroom politics and public affairs in London, concluded what was going on with him in more of an existential way, after realising that he only cared about his wellbeing in the context of how it affected his performance at work. After cutting out “activities that excite and motivate” him for job commitments, and denying himself the things that he intrinsically knew he should be doing – taking time to relax and recover – he began questioning his true purpose.

“The real issue for me is that if my mind is frazzled, my thought is that I’m missing out on opportunities or I might not be at my best if I’m in an interview scenario or if I’m meeting people. Really I should be thinking of it as my own quality of life, not letting work dilute who I am as a person down to almost nothing. Maybe it’s a bit of a cliché,” he adds, “but I think that it’s very important to constantly remind yourself what your values are, what your passions are, and trying to make those align.”

Tales like these are not uncommon. Dr Samar, a GP practising in Sheffield, says he’s signing off a growing number of young patients with symptoms of burnout, “across professions”. He tells Dazed: “Burnout as a term is often associated with higher profile types of jobs Iike solicitors or lawyers, whereas someone who’s working in a call centre might be more likely to be diagnosed with stress and work-related stress. I find it interesting that now there’s a slight change in terminology, the public are talking about it more.”

“The solutions aren’t about treatment primarily, but are more related to the organisations themselves” – The Royal College of Psychiatrists

The condition is hard to spot due to its wide-ranging symptoms – anything from apathy, insomnia, chest pains, and mood disorders – and its gradual onset means that attributing a root cause can prove difficult. Does the WHO official recognition help here? Dr Samar is conflicted: “Yes and no. I think the risk is that people who aren’t suffering from it might start to mull over things lot more,” now that there’s a name people can attribute to a wide range of symptoms, Dr Samar says that complaints which might previously have been “I don’t get on with my boss” or “I don’t like night shifts” now just become burnout.

His scepticism is echoed by a spokesperson for the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK, who told Dazed: “The WHO have listed it as a syndrome, it doesn't tell us why the condition occurs or what to do about treating it.” He adds: “100 years ago the term ‘depression’ was misunderstood, we probably talk about burnout more now, but I think the important thing is not to try and medicalise this. It’s not something that a tablet can be used for to go away. The solutions aren’t about treatment primarily, but are more related to the organisations themselves.”

The RCP rep argues that organisations and employers should try to minimise the likelihood of their employees suffering from the symptoms that make up burnout. “I’m not trying to pass the buck,” he adds, “but I mean I think it’s absolutely the wrong way around to think that a clinician can provide some counselling and therapy and someone will stop being burned-out.”

Catching symptoms of burnout in yourself amid a particularly bad episode can be tough – feelings of cynicism, like your work has little value, or unable to let go of stress and anxiety even after a task has been completed, or you’ll never be good enough. A more scientific approach to identifying burnout comes in the form of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a test that is supposed to measure burnout. The best way to approach your burnout is instilling some major life and workplace lifestyle changes – garnering support from your boss, prioritising your own mental wellbeing over an unrealistic goal. The WHO recognising burnout as a chronic condition is generally considered a positive move, but until employers recognise the need to address workplace stress, its reign of terror over today’s young workforce will continue.