Stress – from the Latin “stringere”, to squeeze tight, touch or injure – is not bad, per se. Positive stress and adrenaline in the right circumstances can make us stronger, happier and healthier. Yet, in certain work environments, chronic stress provokes anxiety, detachment and fatigue that can lead to burnout.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly every fifth child or teenager and every fourth adult will be affected by burnout at some point in his or her active life. The situation is so widespread in developed countries that the WHO has added burnout to its list of globally recognized diseases, defining it as a syndrome of “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” which “includes feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, results in increased mental distance from one's job and reduced professional efficacy.”

A Gallup poll of 7,500 full-time employees indicates that one in four employees feel burned out at work very often or always, while nearly half report feeling it sometimes. The trend seems particularly acute amongst the young. A Deloitte study on workplace health in the US suggests that 84% of millennials have experienced burnout in their current job. Women are more likely to suffer from the disease than their male counterparts.

Although the global economic burden of burnout has not been calculated, it is estimated that the global cost of mental illness will grow to $16 trillion by 2030, in part, owing to the increase in burnout.

As we celebrate World Mental Health Day, let’s take a look at the drivers of burnout.

Burnout: a disease of the 21st century

We live in a high-speed world, where digital interconnection, sophisticated technology and social media purportedly make us smarter, faster and more effective. But greater digitization is also causing acute isolation; our connection to other humans and to nature is quietly superseded by FOMO (“fear of missing out”) and social media angst.

Medical research indicates that our connection with ourselves, other humans and with our natural world improves our sense of health and happiness. Conversely, when we lose our sense of connection, anxiety, depression and burnout are all too frequent.

As the pace of change increases, so organizations are asked to produce more with fewer resources. This is perhaps where the squeeze of burnout is most keenly felt. Year-on-year the bar gets raised, without the requisite reflection on human costs.

Gallup’s study of the primary causes of employee burnout found that the main factors have less to do with expectations for hard work and high performance, but are more closely associated with the management and treatment of an individual.

Oversized workloads, unreasonable time pressures, lack of role clarity, lack of communication and support from management and unfair treatment at work correlated most with incidents of burnout. When employees say they often or always have enough time to do all of their work, they are 70% less likely to experience high burnout. Similarly, when employees strongly agree that they are often treated unfairly at work, they are 2.3 times more likely to experience burnout.

Work environments are the least equipped of all support networks to respond constructively to burnout with just 27% of supervisors responding positively to incidents of burnout and only one in three colleagues offering the support needed.

Women are more likely to experience burnout in part because of factors outside an employer’s control such as low self-esteem and poor division of labour outside of the workplace. A significant contributor, however, is unfavourable working conditions that hit women harder than their male counterparts, including fewer professional advancement opportunities and more frequent occupation of low-authority roles.

Countering a culture of fear

Standard protocols for addressing burnout in the workplace are starkly nascent. Those affected by the disease tend not to speak out for fear of reprimand or out of shame. This culture of fear inhibits the early identification of the disease and makes reintegration into the workplace more challenging.

If you are feeling emotional, mental or physical exhaustion, or if you are demotivated, frustrated, cynical or anxious at work, it may be time to ask yourself some hard questions. If burnout goes unaddressed, it can translate into panic attacks, digestive issues, heart disease, immune disorders, migraines, depression and - in the most extreme cases - could lead to suicide.

As we move towards a fast-paced technological age, where we pride ourselves on equality of opportunity and efficiency, let us not forget the importance of being human-centred at work. Once we recognize burnout for the pandemic it is, we can begin the journey towards healthier and happier lives and work.