By Brian Arola
The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.
May 31–MANKATO — It’s not an official medical condition, but millions of American workers report feeling burned out at their jobs.
The World Health Organization announced this week it would better define this stressful phenomenon in its next disease handbook, a move experts say could help the workers experiencing it.
The new definition terms burnout as a syndrome caused by chronic workplace stress, resulting in exhaustion, a mental distancing from work and reduced efficiency. The organization’s previous definition was more limited.
Dr. Robert Olson, a Mankato Clinic’s division head of psychiatry, psychology and dermatology, said the change is a good sign the medical community is taking workplace burnout more seriously.
“I applaud the World Health Organization for looking at something that is definitely an issue that hasn’t been fully addressed,” he said.
Over his 26 years in the field, Olson has heard patients report feeling burned out from their jobs. But recognition of it among medical professionals and employers, he said, seems to have taken off in the last five or so years.
Just beyond the past five years, Minnesota State University associate psychology professor Kristie Campana studied burnout in nurses. Her 2013 article in the Journal of Nursing Management found “incivility” from patients and their families is associated with more burnout.
The study also looked at what organizations can do to reduce burnout. Being transparent about workplace decisions and recognizing the individual needs of employees were deemed effective ways to manage it.
For employees, Campana said cognitive reframing is one way mental health professionals help patients manage workplace stress. The technique might look like an employee trying to view a meeting with a tough client as an opportunity to sharpen interpersonal skills rather than as a problem.
“It’s viewing something you might normally view as a threat and reframing it as an opportunity,” she said.
Andrew Archer, clinical social worker at Minnesota Mental Health Services in Mankato, sees signs of burnout in college-aged patients trying to work off student loan debt. He ties burnout to broader economic trends, where workers now aren’t achieving the American dream — owning a home and starting a family — at the same rates they once were.
“If a person is working long term at a job but their buying power is essentially staying the same or going down, you’re going to experience stress around that,” he said.
Managing the stress can start at home. Olson said getting eight hours of sleep each night, exercising every day and eating healthy can all help prevent burnout when you’re at the office.
He recommended people who feel burned out open a dialogue with their employers about workload expectations. He said at least some workplaces are starting to recognize the potential damage burnout can cause.
“I know a lot of workplaces are trying to find a work/life balance for their individuals,” he said. “At the Mankato Clinic, it’s certainly a topic that comes up so we’re always looking at the level of work versus your life balance.”
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