Burnout Syndrome: The Next Pandemic?


We live in the society of immediacy. If we have doubts, Google answers us; if we want to learn something, YouTube teaches us; and if we need something, Amazon sends it to us within hours. All this means that both the level of demand and personal abilities have had to adapt to very short times, increasing our level of stress and mental load.

Technological innovations have made our daily lives easier, but they also have pernicious effects. In this sense, the burnout syndrome (also known as burnout ) is becoming one of the main causes of loss of health. Prevalence rates exceed 10% in Europe, reaching 17% in other continents.

Jobs that burn

To fully understand how it occurs, first we must define what exactly we are talking about: burnout syndrome is classified as professional burnout syndrome by the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases of the World Health Organization). In this guide it is identified as a psychological problem associated with employment .

We understand burnout syndrome, then, as a long-lasting process in which an imbalance occurs between the demands of the task and the person’s capabilities. The emotional damage it inflicts carries a series of always negative physical and psychological consequences.

Although it is associated with the workplace, there are similar phenomena in processes that occur outside of work. This is the case of school harassment ( bullying in English), with similar consequences in children and adolescents who suffer from it.

Both the individual and the organization can suffer the consequences of being burned out . Personal sequelae can be psychosomatic (fatigue, discomfort, digestive, cardiac, respiratory problems, etc.), behavioral (mood swings, depersonalization, substance abuse), emotional (emotional exhaustion, anxiety, guilt, irritability), attitude (apathy, cynicism, irony) and social (family conflicts, isolation, lack of communication).

On the organizational side, burnout syndrome can deteriorate communication and relationships between workers. Errors, complaints, accidents or work absenteeism also increase.

Good stress, bad stress

Unlike stress, which is punctual and sometimes positive (the so-called eustress ), burnout syndrome always causes damage, it is always negative. The best moments of our lives are marked by high levels of stress (a birth, a wedding, a graduation…) and yet we remember them as unique moments.

What happens if that emotional tension is prolonged, if we are not able to manage it, to control it? Well, the same as if an athlete overtrains: when he exceeds his capabilities, he can get injured. In this case, the injury is mild and with a week or two of rest (or a vacation) it is corrected.

However, if that athlete poorly plans an entire season and trains beyond his or her ability for months at a time, it is very likely that they will sustain a serious injury, not recover with rest, and require medical treatment.

Exactly the same happens with the syndrome of being burned out: putting your mental abilities to the maximum for a long time causes deep damage that a vacation or a break cannot solve. Only medical treatment can repair it.

From the mind to the rest of the body

When training is poorly managed, muscles and bones are often damaged. But when our mind is the one that has been squeezed, the consequences are much more varied. A burned person can experience cardiovascular, digestive, emotional, personal or productive problems, as we have seen previously.

The range of symptoms of burnout syndrome is very wide. We must be aware that our mind controls our entire body and psychosomatic symptoms can manifest at the muscular, bone, cardiac, digestive or respiratory level.

We just have to think about how our way of living changes when we are subjected to a specific level of stress. Something as simple and as relevant to health as our way of eating is altered by our emotions (what is known as emotional eating ).

The fact is that the prevalence of this syndrome is increasing systematically. And especially in professions with high demand, such as health , teaching or social work, it is becoming one of the main causes of loss of health .

We are talking about activities in which the people who come to request the service always expect excellent results. We are not satisfied with healing or learning at 95%: when it comes to health, education or a social problem, we demand perfection.

How to reset stress

It is in our hands to manage the demands. First of all, we must be aware of how far we can go, just as the athlete knows his limits. And once we are aware of it, demand ourselves in relation to our real capacity. If we are able to adapt demands and capacities, we will achieve more productivity and satisfaction. And therefore health.

My advice is to identify which situations in our life cause us stress (threats) and to know which activities manage to reset that stress. The gazelle has to recognize the lion (threat).

Finding an activity that allows us to enjoy ourselves, escape from our problems and, ultimately, allow our mind to rest will increase our resilience . We must look for something that allows time to pass quickly and that prevents us from thinking about anything else. Each one will have to search within.

In this sense, there are several strategies to deal with the burnout syndrome. These include cognitive restructuring (modifying the way we face problems), effective anxiety management, establishing healthy routines, enhancing self-knowledge (recognizing our limits), relaxation techniques or free time management. .

In the end, the body is not that different from the mind. If we force them, they warn us, but if we overuse them, they end up injuring themselves. Knowing our limits and recognizing what effects daily demands have on our abilities is relevant to maintaining our health.

Let’s remember that all injuries leave sequelae (more or less serious) and that our mind is always more important than our muscles.

Author Bio: Ivan Fernandez Suarez is Professor in the master’s degree in Occupational Risk Prevention at UNIR – International University of La Rioja