Updated: Jan 18, 2021
On Monday, June 3rd, the New York Times offered an opinion piece by Dr. Richard Friedman (doctor of psychiatry at Cornell) that asked the question, “Is Burnout Real?”
The article was inspired by the World Health Organization’s decision to upgrade burnout from a “state” of exhaustion to a “syndrome” related to chronic workplace stress.
The author challenged the "broad definition," arguing that "it could well apply to most people at some point in their working lives."
Indeed, in reality, life, school, work and family all entail stress -- enduring stress. It's to be expected, which makes Dr. Friedman's question of whether we are in danger of “medicalizing” a normal every-day human experience a good one.
On the one hand, stress is to be expected. Additionally, the symptoms of stress are "persistent and impairing for only a minority." Not to mention:
On the other hand, nearly half of HR leaders (46 percent) say employee burnout is responsible for up to half (20 to 50 percent, specifically) of their annual workforce turnover, according to a 2017 survey by Kronos.
His point is not necessarily to ignore it, but to consider the reality that simple that broad medicalizations such as this one such however well intended, can create "unrealistic and misleading expectation that students and workers are supposed to be happy and stress-free at all times."
As a company who has been helping organizations build reality-based cultures for the past 20 years, we have a slightly different answer.
Sure, the WHO categorization is perhaps a bit alarmist. And why not?
The definition of medicalization is "the process by which human conditions and problems come to be defined and treated as medical conditions, and thus become the subject of medical study, diagnosis, prevention, or treatment."
Perhaps WHO's upgrade to "syndrome" will call greater attention to a human condition that leads to suffering like so many others already categorized as such, including depression, erectile dysfunction, inability to pay attention, 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 inability to focus, contend with conflict, work with others, or any of the other symptoms of burnout would be less worthy of the attention.
A better question might be, "Is WHO's decision an alarmist medicalization, or is ti an opportunity?"
Regardless 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 toolset we haven’t put in our messenger bag or briefcase. We move from a sophomoric attitude of burnout -- whatevs to humanity -- towards 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.
The reality is, employees are tired of being sick and tired -- and their suffering comes at the expense of their employers' bottom line.
Thoughtful observers and advocates of healthy work environments, like ourselves, are also 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. Opportunity for solvability, that is the answer.