Burnout is heating up.
The World Health Organization has recently reclassified burnout from “a vital state of exhaustion” to a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
I’m glad to see WHO taking burnout seriously. For years and years, burnout culture has been building and building. Yes, in some ways it’s always been a thing, but in other ways, burnout is becoming increasingly problematic, especially in a world that’s constantly encouraging all of us to “find our bliss” and enjoy “our one wild and precious life.”
Here’s the thing: I do think life is wild and precious, and I love Mary Oliver (the brilliant poet behind those now ubiquitous words). But these days, that reference feels more like a dark Grimm fairytale warning than it does an invitation to show up and love the shit out of your life.
Reading an article about WHO’s shift on burnout, I was struck by this sentence: “workers who are burned out often feel like their ambitions, idealism, and sense of worth are slowly being strangled.”
“Strangled” is an intense word, but I think it’s spot on. When you’re in the throes of burnout, you know you need to change, and you want to, and yet, the power to change is part of what is under attack. One thing that makes burnout so dangerous is that, like depression, it lies. It tells you that you can’t change, that things won’t really be any better even if you do.
There are things I love about the way WHO defines burnout and there are places where our ideas differ. WHO states that burnout involves these three elements:
- 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.
And I agree that burnout can present that way. But I also think that burnout is sneaky and that it can hide inside of faux optimism and continued bursts of activity, among other things.
In my work as a coach, I also think burnout shows up in non-work areas of people’s lives. I’ve seen people struggle with dating burnout, and family of origin burnout, and definitely “state of the world” burnout. I think when we’re suffering from burnout in one area of our life, it impacts the other parts too.
The best news about WHO reclassifying burnout is that it will help people reach out and get the help they need. It will help people remember (or realize for the first time) that burnout is a real health concern. It can be easy, sometimes, to try to laugh off our burnout, to make jokes about it, even to wear it like a badge of honor. To tell ourselves this is just how life is, or to worry that maybe we’re the only one who’s actually struggling. Now we know for sure that we are never the only one.
And the even better news is that life doesn’t have to be this way. Burnout, while real and problematic, is also totally reversible. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to unlearn your burnout ways (spoiler alert: it’s not). It does mean that it’s possible to do so. It means that you can create real and lasting change, and that it’s worth it to try (even when your burned out brain says it’s not).
What do you think about WHO’s shift? Do you think burnout is just for work? Is it showing up in your life at all right now? If you aren’t sure about that last question, check out this quiz I made about the different ways burnout can show up. And no matter what, remind yourself, that whatever is going on in your life, you can change it, if you really want to. And it’s ok if that’s hard to believe right now.