In 2019 (when I started the original draft of this post), the World Health Organization released an updated classification for burnout as an “occupational phenomenon”:
28 MAY 2019 – Burn-out is included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. It is not classified as a medical condition.
It is described in the chapter: ‘Factors influencing health status or contact with health services’ — which includes reasons for which people contact health services but that are not classed as illnesses or health conditions.
Burn-out is defined in ICD-11 as follows:
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one?s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
Burn-out was also included in ICD-10, in the same category as in ICD-11, but the definition is now more detailed.
The World Health Organization is about to embark on the development of evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace.
This blog has looked at the issues of burnout many times before (here, here, here). On a personal as well as a professional level–across TWO career fields, no less–I am intimately familiar with what WHO somewhat blithely labels as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.
On one hand, I applaud WHO for putting their eyes on this issue as their attention can have repercussions on a global level. On the other hand, when North American culture seems hell-bent on stripping everyone but the richest of their rights, it means the workload of making things function as the entitled expect, continues to be the only kind of trickle-down effect to land on the common worker. And at the end of the day, people who fear for their jobs are increasingly UNLIKELY to raise concerns and issues about stressors in the workplace that affect their engagement and efficiency, as well as their overall mental health and safety.
This isn’t an issue I know how to solve. Especially since I left IT, this is a discussion I have had with a very great many of my clients who work in IT specifically. This runs the gamut from trench-level workers in support call centres to the content developers (programmers/testers/designers/writers) to system architects, team leads, managers and corporate braintrust-level employees, to HR agents and executives, to C-Suite bosses. Burnout is pervasive in the high-tech industry at levels I have never seen from any other field, with the possible exception of teachers. Stress-induced sick leaves are rampant in IT, judging by my own clientele in two practices, and what I know of the types of clients coming to see many of my colleagues.
Burnout, as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” means that several issues are coming to a head in the workplace:
- unrealistic performance expectations (individual or across the corporate board)
- demands and pressures that exceed regular working hours and bleed across employees’ private lives
- artificial pressure to advance and/or transfer around the company for a breadth of experience or “to avoid stagnation” (Google in particular is notoriously heinous for this practice) regardless of the individual’s preference or capacity
- lacking or insufficient support for employee mental health and balance with life outside of work
- HR solutions and EAPS that are constrained to get employees back to work as quickly as possible, which always ends up working in favour of the corporations, not the employees
- corporate practices that reward employees for making sacrifices that then normalize the culture of sacrifice
Organizations like WHO can legitimize the workplace effects of unmanaged stress, but this does nothing in truth to change the sales and management styles of businesses intent of maximizing a profit line no matter how badly they chew through human resources to do so. Looking at resources online dedicated to offering suggestions on retaining talent, I see some common themes:
1. Start with recruiting “the right people” who will “stay the course” (read: “people who won’t complain about getting hired for a 40hr work week who are then regularly asked to work 80+hr weeks).
2. Pay them well, offer bonuses and a good benefits package (read: if you give them enough money, they’ll theoretically never notice they’re missing their children’s childhoods, or their own romantic partnerships, or even sleep).
3. Offer them opportunities for advancement (read: because nothing makes people work harder than giving them goals that they can burn themselves out trying to achieve for the reward of yet more work and stress and burnout…).
4. Flexible work schedules, and a great corporate culture (read: give them all the comforts of home so they don’t miss actually going home quite so much). — edit to add: we did see an enormous shift downward in stress levels for much of the workforce who adapted to working from home during the pandemic, many of whom are not reacting well to corporate pressures to return to the office even part-time as of mid-to-late-2022.
5. Offer praise and affirmation (read: pleasant words on the way to self-sacrifice as a reward for setting oneself on fire make EVERYTHING SO MUCH BETTER, YO).
Okay, so I admit the bias here is exceptionally cynical, but I come by it honestly. These were cultures in which *I* came of age, and these are corporate practices I now watch consume my friends and clients and loved ones on a daily basis. But can anyone else spot what’s missing from these kinds of lists? When we talk about retaining good employees, can you see the glaring hole where the best answers of all should be?
Where in the conversation regarding burnout and retention are the discussions about governance responsibilities? Where is “more effective project/product management” that avoids the common practice of overselling features that cannot effectively be designed, developed, tested, documented, packaged and deployed in a realistic timeframe? Where is the discussion about mitigating the profit craving so that we reduce the factors that produce burnout in the first place, and avoid paying stress leave in favour of making it easier for employees to stay happily at their jobs? Where is the improvement in management that better controls customer-driven scope-creep under project deadlines?
In FantasyLand, for the most part. That’s where. And more and more people are “coming down with” symptoms of stress, fatigue, anhedonia; comorbid diagnoses of depression and anxiety increase exponentially in my clientele every year, even before the pandemic sent those numbers spiralling out into chaos. People take insufficient downtime through the work weeks because they feel they can’t repent of their busy-ness, and when they do take time off as vacation or stress leave, they rarely do what’s needed to recover (more on that in Part 2). Part of recovering from burnout across the board is going to require the corporate culture that engenders the stress to begin with, to take a long, hard look at its own culpability, and step up to change expectations and management styles. That isn’t going to happen in my lifetime, I suspect; stress is built into the very nature of a build-and-deploy, feast-or-famine cycle of software development.
So if we cannot remove or significantly redesign the stressORS, how then do we begin to reframe our understanding of healing from the stress itself? For that, we go to Part 2 of this discussion. Please stand by! 🙂