Burnout: what is it?

The World Health Organization (WHO) just made “Burn-out” an official diagnosis in its revision of the International Classification of Diseases.

Burnout is specifically related to work, although stress from other life areas can undoubtedly contribute. According to WHO, burnout is “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context, and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

The core symptoms of burnout are:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion

  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job

  • Reduced professional efficacy 

With technology providing non-stop access to work, work stress has become more ubiquitous. 

It used to be that one left the office - and work - at 5pm. Now anytime is work time. This has led to increased stress, as we have trained our brains to be ready for work every waking minute.

These burnout symptoms are across the board in almost all organizations and effect engagement and productivity. Doctors, lawyers, bankers, advertising executives, consultants and educators are all feeling it. This isn’t good for productivity, morale or career longevity. And, it’s estimated that replacing an employee costs business as much as 1.5 times the departing employee’s annual salary along with lost knowledge and added pressure it puts on the remaining staff.  Burnout is not good for humans or business. 

One way of addressing burnout, both individually and organizationally, is to teach people to train their brains to go from constant processing (characterized by high levels of beta wave activity) to a more relaxed and less overwhelmed state (like the alpha or theta brain wave states).  This is what meditation and mindfulness exercises do. They allow participants to ratchet down brain activity consciously to prevent becoming overwhelmed. Without such tools, workers in over-demanding environments keep going in beta processing mode until they simply crash. The brain has only so much energy and sacrificing it to stress means that we are missing out on crucial human, and professional functions like creativity, reflection, and meaningful interaction.

To change this full speed ahead or crash dichotomy, more and more organizations are turning to meditation and mindfulness exercises to strike a balance between productivity and effective recharging.

Meditation in its many forms, is more than just a pleasant escape from the chaos for a few minutes a day.  It’s a way of training your brain, so that ultimately the chaos is replaced by clarity.