The Normalisation of Burnout at Work - CA Financial Appointments

“I’d love to but I’ve had a chaotic day at work, maybe another time.”

“I just have no desire to actually go to work.”

“I actually couldn’t care what happens anymore.”

“It’s just a common cold. I don’t need the rest.”

“I have so much to get done but I really don’t know where to start.”

“I’m just exhausted.”

We’ve normalised it.

Our motivation, energy and desire are dancing together in a distant memory that’s just within view but requires just too much effort to join. We’re tired, we’re drained, we don’t really care and we basically just want a nap. But it’s 8 and the deadline’s at 10. 

A friend recently had a headache. She had to plan a major work function. Weeks later it was still there. She met her deadline. She went to a doctor, he did a quick assessment and couldn’t pinpoint the cause. She ended up in hospital for three weeks.    

If you work for a living, why do you kill yourself working? Eli Wallach

Another friend had a toothache. She had a big new work project. Weeks later her face was swollen and painful. She completed the project. She went to the dentist, her wisdom tooth had almost completely pushed out. She ended up having an emergency wisdom tooth removal and a serious infection. 

They both went back to work earlier than medically recommended. It didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was looking back at these events and realising how much I wasn’t surprised by them; how normal these events felt. 

Have we really idolized success and the never-ending hard work and determination that supposedly needs to go into it, to that extent? The extent where we’re actually fine with continuously compromising our own physical and mental health for it?

We do that though, don’t we? Perhaps not quite to my friends’ extent; but we wake up with a bloated feeling head, a runny nose and a sore body, and we get up. We get dressed and go to work. We struggle through the day and continue doing it until that flu finally leaves; considerably later than if we had just rested.   

We’ve normalised it. 

The term “burn-out syndrome” has been around since the 1970s when it was already being studied: Burnout Research: Emergence and Scientific Investigation of a Contested Diagnosis. Recently, The World Health Organization included Burnout as a syndrome into its International Classification of Diseases, and yet we still view its symptoms as normal. 

Will the final recognition of Burnout as a medical condition in 2020 actually make a difference to the way we, and our employers, view its symptoms and effects? Do we even really know what the symptoms and effects are? More importantly, do we actually take it seriously enough to do something about it? Or are we all still dismissing it as an (incorrectly labelled) millennial concept that’ll fade away? 

Regardless of our current views, Burnout is an epidemic flooding through the workplace and affecting employees of all ages and rank. We’re all likely to experience these symptoms at some stage through our careers but, that’s just it: it should be a stage, not a chronic experience. 

Symptoms as identified by the WHO: 

  • 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 and achievement 

Other commonly associated symptoms and/or effects: 

  • Frequent headaches and muscle pain
  • Lowered immunity – frequent illnesses
  • Sleep disruption
  • Change in appetite
  • Decreased feelings of personal satisfaction and achievement
  • Procrastinating
  • Withdrawing from responsibilities

The question really remains whether we will continue to brush off our own and our employees’ symptoms as normal. Or whether perhaps catalysed by the World Health Organization’s medical recognition, we will also start to recognize that our society has a massive problem; a problem that perhaps starts in the workplace, but leeches out and affects many other aspects of our lives.  

We need to un-normalize it. 

We all need to stop wearing exhaustion as a badge of honour and create a new norm. We need to accept the fact that hard work and determination are great concepts but that both need to have boundaries. 

We need to normalise that: Boundaries. 

Written by Maraine Basson – Research Controller at CA Financial Appointments, and Psychologist in training – maraine@ca.co.za 

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