In 2016 I founded Thrive Global “to end the stress and burnout epidemic,” citing the Belgian philosopher Pascal Chabot’s definition of burnout as “civilization’s disease.” And this week, burnout was elevated by the World Health Organization from a built-in feature of our always-on world to a fully defined “occupational phenomenon” that stems directly from our collective crisis of workplace stress.
It’s a real milestone to have the World Health Organization for the first time include burnout in its handbook International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. Burnout, according to the entry, is “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is characterized by three key factors: “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.”
Why is this so important? Moving burnout from the “I know it when I see it” column — where it was in 2007, when I collapsed from sleep deprivation and exhaustion and broke my cheekbone — to a fleshed-out workplace problem means we are now in a position to more effectively combat it. Only when we begin to understand our biggest problems can we also begin to effectively address them. And judging by the broad media coverage generated by the World Health Organization’s news, it’s clear that not only is burnout in the zeitgeist, but that people are hungry for solutions.
There’s something almost cathartic about legitimizing burnout, as the medical world catches up with a ubiquitous condition that has long shaped our lives — especially for young people. As Anne Helen Petersen wrote in a viral BuzzFeed article earlier this year, “Burnout and the behaviors and weight that accompany it aren’t, in fact, something we can cure by going on vacation. It’s not limited to workers in acutely high-stress environments. And it’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.” According to Linda and Torsten Heinemann, authors of a study in the journal SAGE Open, burnout has become “one of the most widely discussed mental health problems in today’s society.” And that was in 2017.
So the World Health Organization’s designation is, in its way, something to celebrate. In past eras, we’ve believed wildly inaccurate things about ourselves and the world. We believed the world was flat. We watched as doctors went on television to recommend their favorite brand of cigarettes. In our time, we are still breaking free of the collective delusion that burnout is simply the price we have to pay for success. Calling burnout what it is — and just as important, ending the era in which its existence can be minimized or even denied — represents a step forward.
At Thrive Global, we’re working to end the global burnout crisis, but we are also relentlessly covering both the crisis and solutions, using all the tools at our disposal to tell stories about burnout and — just as important — give people tools to identify the signs of burnout and Microsteps to combat it. Our community of 40,000-plus contributors, our partnerships with companies around the world, and the guidance of our scientific advisory board have made it clear that burnout is one of the biggest issues of our time.
This is true not only for individuals but for businesses. The World Health Organization’s announcement represents a big opportunity for companies committed to fighting burnout within their ranks. If you’re a business leader looking to improve your employees’ health and performance, the World Health Organization just handed you a gift.
It’s clear that employee burnout is having a significant impact to the bottom line, including through attrition — and burnt out employees are over 30 percent more likely to leave their jobs. It’s why nearly a third of caregivers have had to leave their jobs to care for someone. It’s why over 75 percent of expecting mothers say they’re excited to go back to work after giving birth, but 43 percent of them will quit their jobs at some point after that. And employee attrition costs businesses an enormous amount of money, with some estimates suggesting the costs can be as high as 1.5x or 2x the departing employee’s annual salary.
Think about it: If employees are experiencing any of the symptoms in the WHO’s new definition of burnout — depletion and exhaustion, negativism and cynicism, reduced professional efficacy — are they going to put in their best performance? Or are they more likely to cut corners or to leave?
Now, with burnout in the spotlight, companies have a fresh opportunity to step up, for the sake of their people and for the health of the bottom line. Focusing on people’s actual experience at work is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have for anyone who wants to succeed in the long run. To find the cure to “civilization’s disease,” it’s going to take a commitment to getting to the root causes of burnout.
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