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Healing the Newest Diagnosable Syndrome: Occupational-Related Burnout

Cedars-Sinai Expert Discusses "On-the-Job Burnout" and Outlines How Patients Can Move Past the Symptoms

Feeling exhausted at work and experiencing a steady increase in cynicism and disconnection at the office? It's possible that you may be suffering from burnout, a condition now classified as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organization (WHO). Here, Cedars-Sinai expert Itai Danovitch, MD, weighs in on burnout and suggests ways individuals can address this common problem.

What is burnout? WHO conceptualized burnout as a triad of symptoms that people experience as a result of workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. According to WHO, symptoms may include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased negativity or mental distance from one's job and reduced professional efficacy.

"This new classification should improve recognition of burnout, as well as foster research into causes, consequences, prevention and interventions," said Danovitch, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai. "At the same time, it is important to recognize that burnout is not defined as a medical disease. It is a condition that specifically results from an interaction between a person and their work environment."

Why is it important to classify burnout as a series of symptoms, not as a condition? The difference between an occupational syndrome and a medical condition, Danovitch says, is that an occupational syndrome "doesn't just originate with one's self." While personal factors are relevant, external contributors play a fundamental role.

"Office culture, social expectations, business pressures and workplace environment have a significant impact on an individual's sense of wellbeing," says Danovitch. "These external factors interact with a person's intrinsic resilience, skills, spirit and health. When people talk about balance, it's a balance between many moving, interdependent demands. As external demands exceed internal resources, the consequence is stress, and sustained stress contributes to burnout.

"Burnout is a personal manifestation of a multifaceted workplace problem. Once that is recognized, it allows us to consider interventions that not only support the individual, but also address fundamental problems in the work environment."

What do doctors do when a patient is expressing feelings of burnout? When talking to a patient about burnout, Danovitch says, "It's important to conduct a general assessment of their physical and psychosocial health."

If the patient is generally healthy but suffering burnout out at work, the conversation can then be sub-divided into things that may be within the domain of a patient's control—things like their stress management, work-life balance, resilience, adaptability, emotional intelligence, etc.—as well as the factors they cannot control. It is equally important, Danovitch says, to provide education on potential environmental and workplace factors.

"A conversation formatted in this manner may shed light on tangible solutions a person can change without leaving their job," says Danovitch. "While it's certainly possible for someone to be in the wrong job, there may well be opportunities to improve the workplace. And as awareness of burnout and its impact grows, managers may be more receptive to constructive solutions."

What can patients do to empower and support themselves when facing burnout? First, Danovitch suggests seeking care from a primary care physician to have a proper evaluation. Some treatable medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism or depression, can masquerade as burnout. Assuming that burnout is the correct diagnosis, it is important for the individual to get educated about burnout.

Danovitch suggests patients turn to information online, where there is lots of information about burnout prevention (including resources that are oriented to specific professions, such as healthcare, education, retail, etc.) to help individuals get a handle on the problem and work together to address it.

With respect to personal factors, Danovitch also says, "It's important to look holistically at ways mood and energy may be improved, including things like nutrition, exercise, time outdoors, time with family, meditation and counseling for persisting difficulties."

Seeing a good therapist, he suggests, can be a wonderful way to gain insight, learn effective coping strategies and find a pathway towards professional thriving and personal wellbeing.

"By recognizing burnout, our hope is for patients to feel empowered to talk to their doctor and make the changes they can make to better cope with the stressors they face."

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai blog: Is Stress Making You Sicker?