Time to Call Out Burnouts in Europe… Without Shame

Burnout has been identified by the World Health Organization as an “occupational phenomenon” that may warrant medical attention. This necessary first step in recognising the epidemic is long overdue. Now, how do we move forward from here? Here is what I learned conducting research for my novel Le Jour où Maya s’est relevée (The day Maya got up).

Celine Mas

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Two years ago when I started to read about burnout in the workplace, I did not measure the amplitude of the phenomenon. As a feminist and writer, I was particularly interested in decrypting the workplace factors for burnout and understanding if there were any gender-based drivers. I was also surprised by a paradox: nowadays, we have new work benefits such as remote working or personal development programs for employees, but job satisfaction is low. It seems people don’t feel valued, and they are not given space to bloom.

I realised what I might have thought about burnout in the initial phase of my curiosity was actually far from its reality; the problem was wider, multi-dimensional. Below I try to tell the story of burnout as I experienced it through my research as a novelist, complemented by existing data.

Let’s first look at some facts

The first reference to burnout is attributed to Freudenberger (1974), an American psychologist, who defines the verb ‘burn out’ as to ‘fail, wear out, or become exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources’.1Freudenberger, Herbert; Richelson Géraldine (1980). Burn Out: The High Cost of High Achievement. What it is and how to survive it. Bantam Books. Burnout was first related to human service work by Maslach et al (1997), who noted that customer or client relations  are often centred around the customer or client’s current problem (psychological, social or physical) and thus charged with feelings of anger, embarrassment, fear or despair. For the person who works continuously with people under such circumstances, the chronic stress can be emotionally draining and lead to burnout. 
 
This definition of burnout has since been extended to all occupations. “By the late 1980s, researchers and practitioners began to recognize that burnouts even occurred beyond human services, for instance, among managers, entrepreneurs, and white- and blue-collar workers.”2Schaufeli, W. B., Leiter, M. P. and Maslach, C. (2009), ‘Burnout: 35 years of research and practice’
 
Although some studies aim to capture the extent of burnouts based on the assessment of medical professionals, the most widely used methodology is respondent self-assessment. Some of the most reputed methodologies are listed below, used as a scale to measure different dimensions of burnout.
(See table below.)

 
Eurofound report: Burnout in the workplace, a review of data and policy response in the EU

Today, however, no precise and complete pan-European dataset about burnout exists. It is thus difficult to make a precise diagnosis of the number of cases and define stable work-related determinants.

This also hinders any comparative country analysis. Some European countries such as Finland, the Netherlands and Portugal have launched quantitative cross-sectoral studies, but they are limited in scope. 

My observations as I wrote the novel “Le Jour où Maya s’est relevée” (The day Maya got up) (Editions Leducs, 2019)

Cover image of Le jour ou Maya s'est relevee While more and more people around me shared their struggle with burnouts, I decided to write what I call a “social novel”— in essence a novel describing a societal phenomenon through fiction. And no, I’m not a doctor… but I am an observer. Coupled with my background in sociology, my research methodology enabled me to tell a story based on testimonials. By consolidating these testimonials into one woman’s narrative and journey, I wanted to provide a more comprehensive view of what a burnout can mean from the beginning of its apparition to the end. My main objective was to prompt helpful conversations and break taboos about this hell at work that so many people seem ashamed or embarrassed to discuss. 
 
I conducted 53 qualitative interviews with French people all over France, with a range of socio-economic backgrounds. A moving and interesting experience, here are the main lessons I gathered from those interviews…

1. Burnout is not only caused by intensive work, it also reflects sentiments of feeling out of place. You have a job, but on a deeper level you are looking for something else, something more consistent with your inner values and life motto.  

2. Burnout seems to be more common among women who are more prone to “imposter” syndrome, especially when questions of legitimacy arise as they move forward in their careers.

3. Burnout is also common amongst individuals who take their job seriously without taking time for themselves or their families. Though they are completely overloaded, they remain fully dedicated to their position without sufficient perspective or self-awareness.

4. Bad management or paradoxical injunctions often catalyse burnout.

5. It is difficult for families or friends to find the right words and attitude for the burnout sufferer. It requires a subtle middle ground, somewhere between astute sensitivity and “business as usual” .

6. Burnout is a harsh experience, but it is not the end of life. Most of the time, it will create new opportunities in the long run for individuals as they better understand themselves and their limits. Yet, when experiencing burnout, hope is thin, and the situation requires considerable patience and resilience. It takes time to recover, and relapses are always possible if the burnout sufferer does not change their work environment.

A first step in mobilising better policies

Since 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) has identified workplace burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” that may warrant medical attention.3 https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/ While not classified as a disease or a medical condition, workplace burnout is nonetheless a well-defined syndrome, according to the WHO. “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Burnout has three characteristics, according to the WHO: feelings of depleted energy or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or negativity or cynicism about one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.

I am not a politician… but I am a committed citizen. And as a writer whose creation mechanism rests on the attentive observation of  societal evolutions, I think about 3 simple and important political leverages that need exploring on an EU level.

1. Launch pan-European research on burnouts in the EU to help create initiatives founded on both qualitative and quantitative data. This is key if burnout is to be analysed with the right distance while avoiding biases based on emotions or impressions. This research should also consider the social cost of burnout on the EU’s GDP. 

2. The EU should examine the issue of burnout as one component of mental health from a pan European perspective. This movement should involve employers and various stakeholders (trade unions, associations, etc..). Scattered recognition of the problem and varying policies will never lead to systemic measures needed to design and implement effective policies on a microlevel.

3. A comprehensive European sensitisation campaign should be designed and launched to explain burnout symptoms to the general public. Without improved public awareness, burnout sufferers may remain unaware of their condition, which could cause their mental health to worsen significantly before they seek professional or medical help. Additionally, for the sake of providing moral support to burnout sufferers and avoiding alienation, society needs to become more sensitive towards this issue so individuals can provide more effective emotional support to their loved ones. 

It’s time for burnout to fully enter the limelight 

Decades have gone by since the word burnout has entered our rhetoric, so why are we still lagging behind in properly addressing this crippling epidemic? Why are people still in denial, ashamed and uninformed about its existence? As this “occupational phenomenon” continues to grow with more reported cases, have we even considered the repercussions of an increasingly disengaged population on political and economic prosperity within the EU?

Just leaving you with some food for thought.


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Celine Mas

Céline Mas is a data specialist and social impact expert. As a novelist, she wrote: “Le Jour où Maya s’est relevée" (Leducs, 2019). She is also the founder of Love for Livres and Return for Society projects. She is the President of UN Women France. Educated and trained in political science, communication and business administration, Celine has also authored and co-authored several books on communication including Communicator (Dunod, 2015) and Evaluating your communication actions (Dunod, 2012).
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