Burnout has just been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a medical condition.
According to the WHO, burnout results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
Furthermore, it is characterized by:
“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.”
Now, I personally do not like labels. I feel that once we use a label, it is very hard to get rid of that label. As well, a label is confining: It has clear boundaries around what is contained within the scope of that label. And so it can be hard to get and maintain an accurate diagnosis of something once a label has been given.
That said, I feel that this news on “burnout” is positive. Why? Because: The more that the condition is acknowledged, the easier it will be to seek and receive help. The safer it will feel for people to admit that they are in good company in the burnout community, and declare that they will be doing something positive about that.
Burnout in the Government
I remember being in my government job surrounded by others who–like me–were burned out. At the time, it was just how things worked. Being burned out. It was not a condition that required treatment–even though quite a few were miserably unhappy and wished that the workplace was better. But what could we do?
Of course, there were whispers of things that could be done. Faded posters in the bathrooms that let us know of something called the Employee Assistance Program. Which had a number we could call to get help. Which had been hung on the wall so long ago that the poster seemed to come with the place.
So we didn’t do much about our burnout. There was no real label. One label that did sort of flutter around was “stress.” But even then, we didn’t talk about it. Stress is just part of the job, isn’t it?
It wasn’t okay to talk too much about being stressed: Some people had confided that they didn’t want to admit that they were stressed and needed to take stress leave. They were afraid of being labelled–in the negative way that labels work. You’re stressed? You must be weak. Ungrateful. Lazy.
“Stress leave.” I actually never really heard the term until the day it came out of my doctor’s mouth. Directed at me. “I’m going to write you a note for stress leave. Two weeks. Then we’ll re-evaluate.”
I’d had what I can now say was a breakdown. There were many factors that contributed to it, but the bottom line is this: Everything in my life fell apart at the same time. Everything. It all collapsed.
And the final straw was when my employer, for whom I’d by then given seven years of my life and all of my spirit, told me that I was getting essentially demoted, that the level at which I’d worked for a year and a half was not going to be confirmed, and so I was being sent back two levels lower, to precisely where I’d started my career. After everything that I had done, I was being sent right back to the start. “You’ll just have to work your way back up again,” they told me.
I had driven to the doctor for an emergency appointment. I don’t even know what I said to him; I was sitting on the exam table crying so hard that words couldn’t come out properly. But he figured it out anyway. He wrote me a note.
And I went on stress leave.
Stress Leave is Necessary Leave
And it was fine. It was necessary, actually. I felt maybe a bit of shame at the start–I was the first person I know of to go on “stress leave.” But it was necessary. And, my logic said that the government had made me sick; so, they could wait while I healed myself.
Later, I heard of other colleagues taking time off. Not always stress leave per se, but other forms of leave that are available. I often heard good things from them about how they spent that time away from the office. Stories of how they spent more time with their children. One person even said that I and my journey had been the inspiration for their own period of leave. That made me happy, knowing that my difficulties paved the way for someone else to be happy.
Expanding the Definition
Burnout does not only come from the traditional workplace, though. The criteria laid out by the WHO can apply to any aspect of our lives. Chronic stress that has not been managed. Characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced efficacy.
Sounds like parenthood. Sounds like certain relationships and friendships. Sounds a lot like the average life on Earth.
So, “burnout” is everywhere. Let’s therefore allow this phenomenon the coverage it deserves.
The Bottom Line
And so, while I do not always support labels, I do support some of them–if they are used carefully and with flexibility. The label of “burnout” as a valid medical condition will hopefully make it even easier for all of us to get the help we need.
We came to these lives to be happy. Not to let our jobs drain the life out of us.
As we continue to demand a better, healthier, balanced work environment, the managers, executives, and boards of directors will eventually have little choice but to adjust to our terms.
In the meantime, if you are stressed, depleted, burned out, or on your way to those destinations, please know that it is okay to take time to heal yourself. Not only that, but it is necessary.
You are here in this life to be happy.
As is everyone who loves you.
Would you like to heal from burnout? I now blend Life Coaching and Energy Healing in order to help my clients get better–quickly and gently. Book your consult or appointment here.
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