Work-related stress has increased continuously over the last several decades. Many Americans now face a disorder called “burnout,” which includes physical and emotional exhaustion and detachment due to chronic workplace stress. How do you know if you’re at risk?
“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” as stated by the World Health Organization (WHO) on May 28, and also reported by ScienceAlert. The WHO has expanded its definition of burnout in the 11th Revision of its manual, International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). Workers in all industries report varying levels of work-related stress, with specific occupations considered more stressful than others.
Occupational Stress: Symptoms and Solutions
In order to understand the ins and outs of occupational stress, we should start with defining it. “Occupational stress is simply defined as the experience of stress caused by work and/or occupational demands,” said Dr. Jason M. Satterfield, Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “Stress includes things such as biological symptoms, emotional changes, behavioral changes, and cognitive consequences.” Dr. Satterfield also said that the related term “stressor” can apply to any factor, whether real or imagined, that sets off a chain reaction resulting in stress.
When discussing work-related stress, Dr. Satterfield said general risk factors are a combination of a perceived lack of control, high demand, a greater disparity between effort and reward, greater perceptions of being exposed to threats, and fewer opportunities to grow and develop within a role. More specifically, he cited minimal control over how a job is done, lack of support from management or colleagues, and conflicting demands or lack of role clarity.
“We know that occupational stress is related to up to three times the rate of back pain,” Dr. Satterfield said. “There are also strong findings linking cardiovascular disease to occupational stress.” He explained that spikes in cardiovascular disease may be due to the poor dietary and recreational habits we develop when we’re stressed—eating less healthily, drinking, smoking, and performing less exercise.
To combat occupational stress, Dr. Satterfield recommended that employers clarify employees’ roles and expectations, reward good behavior, promote social relationships, institute shared decision-making, and keep open and clear lines of communication. Workers can do positive emotion exercises, keep a “daily gratitude journal,” and consider ways their day surprised them and how they should respond. Failure to combat occupational stress may lead to burnout.
What Burnout Is and How to Counteract It
“In brief, burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment,” Dr. Satterfield said. He cited a theory by psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North that divides the burnout process into 12 steps, which may or may not be followed in order. “First is the compulsion to prove yourself, followed by working harder, neglecting personal needs, and displacing conflicts,” he said. “[Next is] revisions of values; denial of emerging problems; withdrawing from others; obvious behavioral changes; moving into depersonalization, inner emptiness, depression, and finally burnout.”
In order to alleviate burnout symptoms, Dr. Satterfield first recommended spending time away from work if at all possible. “Second is a change in job description—change of environment, change of context, change in job demands,” he said. It could also help to remind yourself why you chose this career in the first place and then try to accentuate that. Finally, find a healthier work-life balance.
With record levels of job-related stress, education on the subject is more important than ever. Identifying symptoms of occupational stress and burnout—and preventing or fixing them—can lead to a better and more productive time on the job, a happier day and even a longer lifespan.
Professor Jason M. Satterfield contributed to this article. Professor Satterfield is Professor of Clinical Medicine, Director of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Director of Behavioral Medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).