By Elliot McKernon

We all feel like jacking in our jobs some days. We feel like we can’t handle the stress or just tired of the same old same old. But if this is a constant feeling, you could be suffering from burnout.

In case you didn’t know, burnout is the result of long-term symptoms related to tiredness and stress, usually attributed to work and other obligations.

The World Health Organisation characterises burnout as feelings of exhaustion, dissociation, and negativity or even cynicism towards work (not to mention lower productivity).

What Is Burnout?

A relatively new concept, the term was first used in a 1974 paper by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger titled “Staff burnout”. He based it on his observations of the volunteer staff at a free clinic for drug addicts. He listed symptoms, including the exhaustion from excessive work demands, as well as headaches, insomnia, and irritability. He noted that a worker experiencing burnout “looks, acts, and seems depressed” and indeed, today there is robust evidence that burnout reflects a depressive condition.

Thankfully, over the last few decades, mental health has received growing attention and support, both academically and in public. Occupational health specialists have developed screening tools, such as the Occupational Depression Inventory, to examine the severity of work-attributed symptoms, and establishing provisional diagnoses of work-induced depression. 

Is Burnout Increasing?

Burnout may be as old as civilisation itself, but, there’s no doubt that it feels like a very contemporary issue, a symptom of the demands that are placed upon us by our capitalist system. So how should we feel about burnout? 

There’s no doubt that modern society can boast numerous blessings over previous eras, with less war, less poverty, less murder, more healthcare, and so on. If burnout is the price we pay for these advantages, then should we consider it a necessary evil for everybody’s betterment? Or, should we strive to maintain these benefits without placing such extraordinary burdens on working individuals? 

Over the last 150 years, average hours worked per week has gone down from 60-70 hours in 1880, to 30-40 today. Working hours at home have gone up for men and decreased for women. As electrical appliances such as washers, fridges, driers, and dishwashers have become common over the last century, the amount of time spent on meal prep, laundry, and cleaning has gone from 58 hours a week in 1900 to just under 8 in 2015. Thank goodness for technology, eh?!

But how should we feel about our working lives? Should we be grateful for the opportunities we’re given, or should we rage against the inequities and iniquities that seem baked into our modern economy for so many? 

Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive. Gratitude is important (especially for mental health), but it doesn’t stop us from pointing out the injustices when they appear. Thankfully a larger portion of the global population now has a say in how societies are run. This gives us opportunities for large scale, systemic changes that can improve everyone’s mental and physical health

What Do We Do About Burnout?

We have more free time than we did a hundred years ago, but many still feel burnt out and deflated. It’s essential to spend our free time wisely. Many feel obliged to use their free time working in other ways, continuing to be productive in any way they can. Perhaps this is where we have the most hope of improving burnout in the short term. We can change our personal habits and allow ourselves the care and support that we need (by first admitting that we do need care and support, if necessary). 

The good news is that people do seem to be taking this kind of self-care seriously, and many organisations have arisen offering advice on the subject. In healthcare, mental health receives more attention than it used to, and treatments are improving all the time. As we recover from the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic and the global lockdowns, our attitude to work will inevitably change. Habits have changed. With many still working from home, there’s a growing movement encouraging employers to let their staff work more flexibly, and there is even a push for legislation to enforce this.

How will this affect burnout? How will workers react to new conditions? It’s impossible to say, but with the attention of both the public and mental health professionals, I’m optimistic that we’ll see improved conditions for many workers over the coming years. 

So take care of yourselves, take some time out from work and enjoy life more. That way, if burnout comes knocking, you can slam the door in its face!