Burnout, the new pandemic

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, the “burnout” term has gained strength, given that stress, physical, and mental exhaustion have increased on people who are part of the workforce, which, according to researchers, could become a new pandemic that most companies in the world will have to face.

  • The term “burnout” was first coined in academic terms in 1974, when German-born American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger studied the psychological condition of medical personnel working in hospitals, a situation that was not prevalent in other companies.

    It was then that Freudenberger came up with the idea of calling this psychological condition Burnout Syndrome, which translates as "being burned out," although he used it to refer to an emotional state of deep exhaustion.

    In May 2019, after decades of study, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized burnout as a disease whose diagnosis will come into effect from 2022 and which is associated with mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion caused by work,"Not all doctors diagnose burnout and not all people are treated, however, more people are taking anxiolytics and medications. This may indicate that more people are experiencing hopelessness and emotional exhaustion,” says Mr. Jorge Llaguno, professor of Human Factor at IPADE Business School.

    The IPADE Business School's Empresas Mexicanas ante el COVID survey reports that during the pandemic, 60 percent of executives have registered high levels of stress due to the multiplication of meetings, extension of work schedules and a greater domestic load, which has generated a negative impact on people and on the productivity of companies.

    As for the impact of burnout on the various generations of the workforce, the greatest impact has been for the youngest, as 59 percent of Millennials and 58 percent of Z Generation have reported physical and mental exhaustion, according to a recent Indeed study in the United States.

    "It's terrible. Millennials are the economic trunk of the country, and the X Generation is at the top of the tree, and Boomers are retiring, literally already in the process of exiting. So today the economic support of the nation is in the Millennials and if they begin to feel hopeless the country is at risk, which is very serious. In theory, the Centennials are just beginning to enter the labor market, so they should be in college and high school, while the older ones are entering the labor market and the younger ones are still in high school, but it is the next generation, the immediate step, which is preparing to replace this economic trunk in the next 15 to 20 years," emphasizes Mr. Llaguno.

    He adds that bosses and managers must be attentive to the effects of burnout, particularly in millennials. "It is a generation that at this moment is becoming the economic pillar, they are building their patrimony, buying their first apartment, getting married, having a family, small children, hence experiencing burnout can be a terrible shock, that is why there is the alert that in this pandemic people should not label them, and people should avoid saying that they are a ‘crystal generation’, otherwise very serious symptoms could start manifesting on the companies.”

    Mrs. Yvette Mucharraz y Cano, professor, and director of IPADE's Research Center for Women in Senior Management, points out that in the workplace, women are 1. 5 times more likely than men to suffer from burnout because, in addition to the responsibilities they perform in the corporate environment, they have added domestic workloads for which the economic situation has represented a decrease in support to perform it, distance learning and combining the care of others leads them to think about reducing their role, opt for informal employment or even resign, and almost three out of four cite burnout as the main reason for doing so.

    How to detect burnout?

    The first symptom of burnout is apathy. "We must look for behavioral changes, for example, if the person was more spontaneous, talked more and suddenly we begin to notice apathy, speaks less, has less energy or gradually begins to be shorter in their interventions,” Mrs. Mucharraz y Cano reveals.

    She adds that the second symptom is a constant pointing out of negative aspects. "Everything is wrong. We can complain from time to time, that's normal, but when the person is constantly complaining, it can be a second focus of attention."

    The third symptom is sleep disturbance and the fourth is appetite disturbances. "It is serious when people begin to experience drowsiness all day and at night they cannot sleep, it may indicate that they are indeed already experiencing an altered emotional state and are beginning to manifest it; the fourth symptom has to do with eating less or eating a lot, both elements speak how suddenly people are trying to compensate for something internal through external phenomena. And, finally, it is a perception of the individual as if he/she were off, especially in a constant way," explains Mr. Jorge Llaguno.

    He points out that when people have Burnout Syndrome, crying comes very easily and sometimes for no reason, as well as explosions of anger, misplaced anger, and repetitive manic behaviors, for example, getting to the elevator and starting to push the button several times, which shows a state of anxiety, stress, and evidences a feeling of lack of control, as well as lack of energy.

    Likewise, the professor stresses that burnout and cognitive ailments in general are much stronger in people who are at the bottom of the pyramid. "The lower you are in any organization, the less control you have, the less capacity you have to define your schedule, your activities, your things, etc., the more you suffer from burnout and the pressure is a fact. And the problem sometimes is that middle managers are the ones we give the least tools to observe the pressure from lower management, which generates a kind of circle that had been observed before the pandemic and that now has probably worsened.”

    Mr. Jorge Llaguno concludes that entrepreneurs must learn to empower their employees and not only share their profits, but also give them back the ability to contribute and have control over their lives. "The bigger your collaborators are, the bigger you are, and for people to grow you must start to see them as people and care about them, about their mental and physical health, because that gives people back the vision to see the future with hope, to see the present with joy and to see the past with indulgence."

    Physical and emotional repercussions of the pandemic in the workplace

    60% of executives in Mexico have high levels of stress, according to the Empresas Mexicanas ante el COVID survey, applied by IPADE to 1,684 graduates between May and June 2020.
    ● The number of people who reported suffering from work-related mental health problems (distress, burnout, depression, etc.) grew from 5% to 18%, according to a FlexJobs survey (2020).
    52% of people report having burnout in 2021 in countries such as the U.S., reveals a statistic from Indeed.
    80% of people think the pandemic negatively affected the burnout situation.
    ● The impact has been strongest for younger people: 59% of Millennials and 58% of Z Generation.

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