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Burnout: When our work makes us ill

Thanks to modern medicine, people in industrialised countries live longer than they used to. That’s partly due to improved healthcare, a better diet and more appropriate working conditions. However, now more often than ever good working conditions seem to be turning against us.

Burnout, a term used to describe emotional exhaustion, is an increasingly discussed phenomenon.

Workers in many developing countries are still fighting for legislation on working hours and for protection from toxic substances or noise in the workplace. For instance, there is still no universal healthcare for workers in Chile. While these issues are a thing of the past for industrialised countries, recent studies have shown that even if occupational health and safety standards are high, work can still make us ill – only in other ways.

Burnout through lack of appreciation

Workers make an effort to do their very best every day, but many cannot help but wonder whether their jobs will still be there in a year’s time. Can they move up to a better position that corresponds to their qualifications? Are they being paid appropriately? Are their supervisors acknowledging their good work? ‘All of these aspects relate to rewards, of which employees often do not get enough. That is one of the reasons why depression is on the rise in industrialised countries,’ explains Professor Johannes Siegrist, director of the Institute for Medical Sociology in Düsseldorf. Depression is often described as emotional exhaustion or burnout. However, there is no clear definition of what constitutes burnout, and it is not a diagnosis in itself. Burnout can also be caused by depression, which is indeed a serious illness. But what exactly causes depression in people who have safe, well-regulated jobs? A lack of appreciation, says Professor Siegrist. ‘People find it hard to deal with their job performance not being adequately rewarded.’

Burnout and education

Around the world, many people with little or no formal training work in basic jobs but under harsh conditions. Their bodies wear down and their life expectancy is lower than that of well-educated workers. Stress researchers have found that the link between poor education, short life expectancy and depression is maintained even if working conditions improve. ‘The less educated workers are, the more they suffer from an imbalance between major physical exertion and low wages,’ says the medical sociologist. That’s true for people in both developing countries and in the industrialised world. In the worst case, even employees working in a state-of-the-art environment can fall ill and suffer burnout.

What can be done? Besides improving working conditions and workers’ qualifications, the way people interact at work – notably the way managers treat their staff – has to be addressed too. ‘It’s rare to be praised. For many managers it’s normal not to praise their staff. It would be quite simple to change that,’ suggests Johannes Siegrist. Burnout can be prevented in other ways as well. Workers could be given more freedom to take their own decisions, they could be given recognition for their work, they could be paid a fair wage, and they could improve their position in society. All these changes can go a long way towards preventing emotional exhaustion.

Burnout: a luxury problem?

Is burnout only an issue for wealthy countries? Tell us how burnout is dealt with in your country. Is it even a problem? What kinds of issues are faced by workers in your country?

November 2011

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