News from the scientific world

What is the occupational burn-out syndrome?

Even though in my previous post I said I wanted to put aside the sad topic of PhD and anxiety and depression, in this week’s post I will talk about a recent news in the scientific world and I will write about the occupational burn-out.

Modified from Getty Images

On the 28th of May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) included the occupational burn-out in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon, upgrading it from a state of exhaustion to a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace distress, however specifying that it is not a medical condition. Maslach and Jackson defined the burn-out syndrome in 1976 as a three dimensional syndrome characterized by exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy. More and more studies show that the most exposed occupations are the helping professions (such as health care workers, social workers and so on) and teachers and high touch jobs such as customer services. Aside from specific occupations, workload and communication difficulties with other workers seem to represent the most significant risk factors for developing work-related mental health problems.

Indeed, a negative working environment may lead to physical and mental health problems, as I was already mentioning in my previous posts for PhD studies, thus leading sometimes to harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity. An example of unhealthy working environment might be the case of a person that may have the skills to complete tasks, but its workplace may have too few resources to do what is required, or there may be unsupportive managerial or organizational practices. On the other hand, a psychologically safe working environment, such as a workplace that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders, contributes to good patient care and at the same time works as a protective factor against burn-out of the staff, reducing absenteeism, increasing productivity and benefiting from the associated economic gains.

Up until the 28th of May 2019, the recognition of burn-out syndrome was problematic, since there was an international disagreement on the aetiology and diagnostic criteria of this syndrome. However, the inclusion of occupational burn-out in the ICD-11 eventually defines diagnostic criteria for diagnosing this disabling syndrome as a specific nosographic entity to guide policymakers. Most people have experienced some of the symptoms of occupational burn-out, but these symptoms are persistent and impairing for only a minority. However, the inclusion in the ICD-11 could bring a preventive effect by increasing both employers attention and employees caution, leading to a very much needed implementation of more preventive measures.

What I believe made this syndrome so widespread that it required an inclusion in the ICD-11 is a shift in cultural attitudes about the workplace and school: we, students and workers, have unrealistic and misleading expectation of being happy and stress-free at all times, and if we aren’t, it is a problem that needs to be fixed. We feel angry, detached and less invested in our work when our institution or company that promotes happiness and work-life balance inevitably turns around and stresses the hell out of us. We all know it is natural to feel anxious, overwhelmed at times and exhausted, it is an evidence we are alive and engaged in our work. However, we need to know that our institution or company cares about us and that it has every confidence that together can handle adversity.

To sum up, I believe, and I seriously can not stress this enough, that our employees must do all they can to detect and treat serious mental illness -like depression or drug and alcohol abuse- and the inclusion of occupational burn-out in the ICD-11 will help both employers and employees to create a better and more supportive working environment that will treat and eventually prevent the appearance of the now well defined burn-out symptoms.

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