BURNOUT: that evil which consumes thousands of people

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Figures range between 30,000 (Institut National de Veille Sanitaire) and 3 million (Technologia) of people at risk for a burnout, a disorder about which we hear more and more in the professional realm. Often (mistakenly) confused with depression, a burnout is an extreme exhaustion mainly linked to work which can lead to a total collapse. Burnout can be complicated by depression.

Burnouts concern only the “weak” and the “incompetent”?

Contrary to popular belief, people who may suffer from a burnout are often among those who work the most, invest themselves the most, show a great commitment. Far from the clichés of “weakness” and “incompetence”, a person at risk shows hyperactivity and perfectionism in some cases, requiring of himself more than his own resources can humanly bear. Overinvestment at work becomes a drug, so to speak, the state of the individual characterized by the release of hormones and neurotransmitters which can be essentially assimilated to drugs and which have similar addictive effects. All of this is ultimately translated into a state of extreme emotional and physical exhaustion.

Les individus à risque se trouvent souvent soumis à une pression constante pour faire plus et plus vite ! L’hyper-connexion de notre monde actuel n’aidant pas, l’individu est sollicité partout et tout le temps, brouillant ainsi les frontières entre temps professionnel et temps personnel. D’autres facteurs de risque s’ajoutent à cela : surcharge de travail, conflits, harcèlement, situations humiliantes, manque de communication, niveau d’autonomie réduit, responsabilités non clairement définies, règles du jeu floues ou inexistantes, changements incessants ou contradictoires, promesses non tenues de la part des hiérarchies, dissonance cognitive, absence de sens et d’enjeu explicite, conditions d’urgence, etc.

Individuals at risk often find themselves under constant pressure to do more and do it more quickly! The hyper-connection of our present world does not help; the individual is solicited everywhere and all the time, blurring the boundaries between professional time and personal time. Other risk factors include work overload, conflict, harassment, humiliating situations, lack of communication, reduced level of autonomy, unclear responsibilities, fuzzy or non-existent ground rules, constant or contradictory changes, unfulfilled promises on the part of hierarchies, cognitive dissonance, lack of meaning and explicit stake, emergency conditions, etc.

 What are the markers of a Burnout?

Characterized by intellectual difficulties such as difficulty concentrating, memorizing, making decisions (even the simplest ones), and so on, burnouts also leave their print on all other levels of energy.

At the physical level, the individual is exhausted, unable to sleep well, starts suffering from several ailments (permanent fatigue, frequent colds, dizziness, cramps, allergies, back pain, neck pain, and other muscular pains, migraines, headaches, etc.). Subjected to prolonged stress, the body finally refuses to follow, marking a complete and suddenly shut-down in the most severe cases (sudden death due to overwork, called “karoshi” in Japanese).

From an emotional point of view, the individual loses self-confidence and confidence in his abilities to perform his duties, experiences deep dissatisfaction at work, feels a sense of injustice, harassment and persecution by seeing that all the efforts constantly sought from him are not recognized and are not rewarded (repeatedly betraying promises made by the hierarchy). Anxiety and discouragement become omnipresent, until the person gives up and is no longer able to express or feel the slightest emotion. Severe cases have led to suicide or attempts of suicide.

The spiritual level is not spared; the individual in a burnout suffers from being unable to find meaning in his actions, his work, his life. Indeed, according to a study carried out at the universities of Zurich and Leipzig and published by the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the main cause of exhaustion and chronic emotional stress leading to burnouts would be a job that does not correspond to the individual and which does not meet his unconscious needs, particularly in terms of affiliation (interactions with other members of a system) or in terms of power (responsibilities within a system).

All this is accompanied, of course, by behavioral problems and interpersonal difficulties: by relegating to the background his private and social life for the benefit of his professional life, the individual isolates himself, distances himself from his family circle and friends, reduces his recreation and sport activities. As stress and tasks accumulate, he becomes irritable and aggressive, retreats into his own shell and adopts a pessimistic, or perhaps a cynical, attitude.

Burnout and occupational diseases?

A real suffering which can affect many people at work, burnouts are unfortunately not recognized as a disease in France, much less as an occupational disease. The new labor law could even increase the underlying risk (increase in weekly thresholds, layoffs facilitated in certain cases, etc.). In parallel, the question of burnouts was the subject of discussions in the French Senate before being rejected (for the moment?). Efforts continue, however, to recognize and include burnout as an occupational disease.

The diagnosis of a burnout remains indeed complex in view of its non-specific markers and its multifactorial aspect. Beyond recognition and awareness by the employer of the seriousness and risks of burnouts, one of the main challenges remains the silence of the victims. Indeed, if some are in denial or fail to put a name on the evil that consumes them, others prefer to simply remain silent, perhaps in fear of being stigmatized at work and at home, to be even more isolated than they already feel, or to lose their jobs due to prolonged work absence (often vital, since keeping the sources of stress at bay is crucial) or to an inability to cope with their professional obligations. Others simply do not admit being “defeated”, striving harder at work, for and against others, and especially against their own limits.

If appropriate care for victims is essential, prevention of burnouts remains a priority and the responsibility of each and every one at work. If you suspect the signs of a burnout (for you or someone in your entourage), speak with your doctor or another care professional qualified for this type of situation! Start the dialogue and put words on the events and emotions.

Do you want to know more about how to identify and control psychosocial risks within your teams and organizations? Do not hesitate to contact us!