On Monday, June 3rd the New York Times offered an opinion piece by Dr. Richard Friedman (doctor of psychiatry at Cornell) which asked, “Is Burnout Real?”. Taking on the World Health Organization’s decision to upgrade burnout from a “state” of exhaustion to a “syndrome” related to chronic workplace stress, the author juxtaposed the alarmist outcomes of a friend’s workplace wellness survey with the reality that life, school, work, family – all entail stress. Indeed, all entail enduring stress. We should EXPECT it.
As lovers of realism in our attitudes towards life, our team concurs. Where Dr. Friedman wonders if we are in danger of “medicalizing” an everyday, normal human experience, it’s a good question. But it’s also where we differ in answer.
Dr. Friedman opines , “…when a disorder is reportedly so widespread, it makes me wonder whether we are at risk of medicalizing everyday distress. If almost everyone suffers from burnout, then no one does, and the concept loses all credibility.”
He continues, “Employers seem alarmed by the phenomenon. A 2017 survey by Kronos found that 95 percent of human resource executives think that burnout is hurting efforts to retain workers.”
The points being:
1. WHO now treats burnout as a medical syndrome.
2. A whole lot of people are experiencing it.
3. Maybe we shouldn’t take it so seriously.
It’s a head scratcher. So a lot of people are experiencing burnout. Does that mean we ignore it, as Friedman suggests? Or is it’s prevalence an even a greater call to action against the temptation to normalize yet another sub-optimal human condition. After all, to use his term “medicalized”, we’ve medicalized depression. We’ve medicalized erectile dysfunction. We’ve medicalized inability to pay attention. We’ve medicalized substance abuse and sleep deprivation. We’ve medicalized so many human behavioral cognitive physiological and immune responses to everyday human experience that it’s hard to see why declines in productivity through inability to focus, contend with conflict, work with others, or any of the other symptoms of burnout would be less worthy of categorizing as serious than any other maladaptation of our species.
Whether we dismiss burnout as a syndrome as being alarmist medicalization or pivot and think of it as a culturization (where we consider the issue as a cultural syndrome) with negative medical, wellbeing and performance outcomes is more the question. The answers to the question then become, “do we try to solve this with a pill or other allopathic approach, or do we step up to the plate and examine the locus of this condition, the specific social community where the behaviors leading to burnout can be addressed, i.e. work?”. Irrespective of whether viewed through a medical or cultural lens, there is merit in organizations proactively addressing the drivers of burnout.
Beyond the battery of allopathic treatments available for the symptoms of burnout, by taking a cultural approach we embrace the reality that humans under sustained stress travel a trajectory from eustress (positive stress associated with confronting challenges and triggering creative problem solving) to distress (triggering the human stress response associated with overwhelm, a sense of obstacles being beyond our ability to cope). We acknowledge that our collective response to getting things done collectively in a complex world requires a skillfulness in social interaction that perhaps our lives did not prepare us for, a tool set we haven’t put in our messenger bag or briefcase. We move from a sophomoric attitude of burnout=whatevs to humanity=adaptability, and working with all our human intelligence and creativity to foster positive adaptations both by employees and by the leaders who most directly influence them.
Borrowing from both the Red Hot Chili Peppers and AA in naming this post “sick and tired of being sick and tired”, we nod to the reality that employees are sick and tired. But thoughtful observers and advocates of healthy work environments are also sick and tired. We are sick and tired of the “put up or shut up” paternalism that assumes that holding a greater vision for collective productivity is indicative of unrealistic expectations. We assert our conviction that pro-adaptive efforts are worth pursuing, both as individuals as well as in the collective. By fostering resilience-centric behaviors for the individuals within the culture (leadership included), as well as resilience-centric norms as the model for the culture overall, we’ve seen that not only can the work experience become more generative, but both the endogenic and exogenic drivers of burnout can be addressed, mitigated, and with repetition and diligence, eradicated.
Medicalized? Meh. Really that’s not the question. Validity and solvability, that is the answer.