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 has been 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. Yet, job satisfaction is low. It seems people don’t feel valued, and they are not given the space to bloom.

Despite what I might have thought about burnout in the initial phase of my curiosity, I was actually far from its true reality. I realized the problem is much wider & multi-dimensional. Below I try to tell the story of burnout as I experienced it through my research as a novelist, but also through 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 described in relation to human service work by Maslach et al (1997). Frequently the customer or client relations is centered around the customer’s or client’s current problem (psychological, social or physical) and is therefore 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 make reference to all occupations. Schaufeli et al2Burnout: 35 years of research and practice’, 2009. “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.”
 
Although some studies aim to capture the extent of burnouts based on the assessment of medical professionals, the most widely used methodology is the self-assessment of respondents. 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 set of data about burnout exist. It is thus very difficult to make a precise diagnosis of the number of cases and define stable work-related determinants.

This also hinders any comparable analysis from one country to another. Some European countries such as Finland, the Netherlands and Portugal have launched quantitative cross-sectoral studies, however it still remains very partial.

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. Using my sociology background, the methodology used for my research enabled me to tell a story based on testimonials without giving lessons. 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 is to trigger helpful conversations and break taboos about this hell at work that so many people are ashamed to name. 
 
I conducted 53 qualitative interviews with French women and men from all over France with different socio-economic backgrounds. A moving and very interesting experience, here are the main lessons I gathered from those interviews…

1. Burnout is not only caused by intensive work, but also reflects sentiments of being 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 develop the “imposter” syndrome, especially when questions of legitimacy come up as they move forward in their careers.

3. Burnout is also common amongst individuals who take their job seriously, sometimes too seriously without taking time for themselves or their families. Though they are completely on overload, they remain fully dedicated to their position without the right dose of perspective or self awareness.

4. Bad management or paradoxical injunctions are often acceleration factors.

5. It is very difficult for families or friends to find the right words and to have the right attitude towards the burnout sufferer. It requires a subtle middle ground between sensitivity and “do as usual” type of behavior.

6. Burnout is a very 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 discover themselves and their limits. Yet, when going through a burnout, hope is weak, and the situation requires a lot of patience and resilience. It takes time to recover, and relapses are always possible if the burnout sufferer does not change his/ her 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 very simple and important political leverages that need exploring on an EU level.

1. Launch a pan-European research on burnouts in the EU to help take actions based on both qualitative and quantitive data. This is key to analyse the situation with the right distance while avoiding biases based on emotions or impressions. This research should also include 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 address the burnout symptoms toward the general public. Without greater public awareness, burnout sufferers will remain unaware of their condition, which could cause their condition to worsen significantly before seeking 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 better accompany their loved ones. 

It’s time for burnouts to fully enter the limelight 

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

Just leaving you with some food for thought.


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