Half Moon Bay, California, a beach town 30 miles south of San Francisco, is where dozens of medical leaders and health care administrators travel every year to learn how to help their doctors combat burnout. The WellMD Center is an initiative designed to keep doctors mentally and physically healthy by promoting evidence-based practices like exercise and meditation.
The meaning of burnout has changed since then. It now applies to more professions than just health care workers, and includes more symptoms, such as errand paralysis, as writer Anne Helen Petersen describes her inability to complete mundane tasks. In her article, she argues that a culture that demands people go on working even when their internal resources are low can lead to burn out. The term “burnout” was first used by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s to describe the consequences of extreme stress in helping professions.
A Gallup study found that 23% of American workers feel burned out often or always, while a study found that 28% of the general U.S. workforce experiences “overall burnout.” burnout is more than just work stress. A negative self- image can be caused by being burned out, as it can lead to a decline in the quality of one’s work. According to a recent study of burned-out resident doctors, burnout can contribute to a higher risk for depression, along with suicide and substance abuse.
There is a link between depression and burnout. The contemporary condition is the hallmark of American culture, especially among the younger generation. The World Health Organization recently recognized burnout as an occupational phenomenon due to chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
Dattilo says that the symptoms look the same. Depression is going to show up when someone describes the symptoms of burnout. The WHO does not believe that depression and other mental health diagnoses are related to burnout. Some experts think that burnout is a risk factor for developing depression for people who have already been diagnosed with major depressive disorder. They don’t agree that the two describe the same condition.
Depression and burnout symptoms can be very similar. Natalie Dattilo, PhD, a psychologist at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says they are usually both driven by a sense of helplessness. Both burned-out and depressed people feel like they can’t gain traction, no matter how hard they try, because nothing seems to be working. Some researchers think we are misunderstanding burnout altogether, and that it is just another name for depression.
Schonfeld is a professor of psychology at The City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. He says the emotional exhaustion is the core component of burnout and it mirrors depression. Dattilo says that the symptoms look the same. There isn’t much distinction. Depression is going to show up when someone describes the symptoms of burnout.
He has done a number of studies on the correlation between depression and burnout symptoms. His research focuses on comparing the continuums of emotional exhaustion and depression, using symptoms from depression screening surveys like the Patient Health Questionnaire. Schonfeld says that depression and emotional exhaustion symptoms correlate with each other and seem to be measuring the same thing. The core of burnout is the emotional exhaustion component.
In a study of 6,351 Austrian physicians, researchers found that doctors who had symptoms of burnout were more likely to suffer from depression, and that the three components of burnout symptoms tended to correlate more highly with depression than with each other. In a study of 1,386 teachers, Schonfeld and his colleagues found that their scores on depression symptom scales and emotional exhaustion scales were correlated very highly. The high correlations between emotional exhaustion and other depression scales were found in further studies.
Is it just depression at work that causes burnout? Both Schonfeld and Bianchi found a correlation between depression and burnout.
Schonfeld says the difference between work and home life is not black and white. Someone’s work environment can contribute to their depression. He says there is a lot of evidence that indicates people who work in adverse conditions have higher levels of depression. People who have jobs with a lot of work are more likely to develop elevated levels of depression. The majority of burnout research is related to occupational burnout, so it’s not a medical condition. Depression is seen as a medical condition that can affect all aspects of a patient’s life.
Dattilo says that if work-based burnout begins to strain other areas of a person’s life, it’s a sign that stress is a problem. If you feel like nothing you do makes a difference in your relationships, your health, or both, that is going to feel and look a lot more like depression. Schonfeld suggests that when teachers get jobs where they are exposed to violence or disrespect, their symptoms of depression increase.
Depression is often pushed aside to an entirely separate category since there is scientific evidence that they are not separate conditions. It is easier to label emotional exhaustion and its symptoms as burnout than it is to call yourself depressed. It might be a less stigmatizing way to talk about depression.
If a doctor labels their symptoms as a mental illness like depression, they could lose their jobs. People who recognize their depression as a symptom of burnout will find it harder to access medical care. There is less stigma attached to the word burnout than there is to depression. Some people may prefer to call it burnout.
Changing how it is treated isRedefining burnout. Schonfeld says it is important for people to recognize the symptoms of burnout, a kind of depression that occurs in reaction to terrible working conditions. People can be helped by evidence-based treatments for depression. He says that they have to help these people.
A few personal days isn’t the right way to manage depression if it’s recognized as burnout. How psychologists and organizations understand burnout is the basis for how it is treated. It might be a good idea to take some extra time off for someone who is burned out in the traditional work context.
The priority should be getting people the help they need to deal with emotional exhaustion. In research, it is important to have clearly defined criteria so you know exactly what you are trying to study, but in clinical practice, I am more interested in helping people find relief from their symptoms. It is important to deal with your mental health in work and life. There is no reason to suffer.
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