How America Created “Burn-out Syndrome”

Steven Hopper
Jun 3 · 4 min read
Photo by Devin Avery on Unsplash

As of last week, burn-out officially became recognized as a medical condition by the World Health Organization. They define this condition as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” So basically, what happens when work-life balance is no longer balanced and stress accumulates faster than it can be relieved.

One the one hand, it is good news that burn-out now has medical recognition, because companies will take the effect of stress on employees more seriously. On the other hand, it’s bad news that the World Health Organization views burn-out as a medical condition, because that means it’s becoming a serious problem worth addressing in the first place.

Yet the concept of burn-out isn’t new. In fact, the term first came about in 1964, when psychologist Herbert Freundenberger used it to describe his observations of stress in the workplace.

Since that time, stress in the workplace continues to increase globally, but there are three specific reasons why American culture is causing its own burn-out epidemic.

According to a the a Gallup poll from 2014, most Americans work longer than the average 40 hour work week — one of the highest figures in the world. This research doesn’t even take into account how much time Americans spend working outside of actual work. Thanks to technology, Americans find themselves constantly connected to work via their phones and computers. Whether it’s checking emails, answering phone calls, or doing actual work, Americans often work into the evenings and on weekends — what used to be precious time for relaxing and unwinding the effects of burn-out.

Due to more time spent working, the American Institute of Stress has found a higher percentage of Americans say they experience negative side effects of stress such as: anger, depression, lack of sleep, illness, and body aches.

“Numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades.”

from the American Institute of Stress

No matter what kind it is, all of this stress translates into lost productivity for Americans.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research came out with a study in 2007 called “No-Vacation Nation”, which details the vacation policies of countries around the world. The researchers found that America is the only advanced economy that does not mandate paid vacation leave for its workers. This means nearly 1 in 4 Americans don’t get paid time off from work.

Graphic from made by Statista

Naturally, there is a correlation between less time off from work and increased stress. If America wants to ensure that its workers are happy, healthy and productive, then it’s time for policies to grant workers more time off.

Even when Americans do have paid vacation days, they don’t want to use them. Recent research from Kimble Applications (a U.K. based software company) discovered that 47% of Americans didn’t use all of their vacation time last year and a whopping 21% had more than five vacation days remaining. So even though Americans receive some of the shortest paid time off globally, they still don’t even use all of the time off they can.

American society has bred a culture of “work harder to get ahead”, so many Americans feel like taking vacation would mean sacrificing their future career success. It is precisely this culture of work more and vacation less that is leading to increased rates of burn-out among Americans.

It’s not just that burn-out is harmful to the people experiencing it, but it also impacts the nation as a whole. Sources from the American Institute of Stress estimate that overall the economy loses $300 billion from the effects of workplace stress — such as absenteeism, accidents and injuries on the job, turnover, and simply lower levels of productivity.

If America doesn’t do something to address this pattern now, then future generations will continue to suffer from increased rates of burn-out. To help this, employers must offer employees more time away from work to disconnect from the stress. Likewise, employees must use that all of that time to their advantage and not squander the opportunities they get to unwind. Lastly, as a society, America needs to start promoting relaxation, mental health and wellness, and more positive work-life balance instead of encouraging working overtime and staying constantly connected to work in order to succeed.

Burn-out is a real medical problem, but luckily one that is easily managed. If we all take steps toward recognizing the effect of workplace stress in our lives, we can prevent burn-out from becoming a modern health epidemic.

Steven Hopper

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Stories of a high school teacher, husband, and travel fanatic. Read, reflect, write, repeat.