Burnout: the flip side of the cult of performance

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Six years ago, everything was going well for Laurence Vanhée. She had a fantastic job, a dazzling career within her company and a lot of responsibility. She put everything into her career, working without limits, encouraged by a management that valued success and performance.

But one day her body gave up on her.

“I found myself completely immobilised at home,” she told Equal Times.

“Although it was very hard for me accept it, I had to face the facts. I’d been ignoring the signals my body had been sending me for months: I was in burnout mode.”

A long phase of self-examination followed. The result was an end to her career with the company and the start of a new life geared towards happiness and the various ways of bringing it to the world of work, where it is much needed, to say the least.

Every year, many thousands of people are hit by this strange disorder known as occupational burnout.

It is a disorder that is not recognised as such by the medical authorities, yet it affects people in all job categories and sectors.

According to estimates, almost one worker in ten is at risk of burnout. In some professions, the numbers affected are as high as 40 per cent.

This growing phenomenon is a symptom of our performance-based society.

“It is often the people most devoted to their work that suffer from burnout,” explains Dr Patrick Mesters, director of the European Institute for Intervention and Research on Burnout, EIIRBO, in Brussels.

“Burnout deprives companies of their best employees. And it’s not at all surprising.”

The symptoms of burnout are similar to those of depression: physical and emotional exhaustion, aggressive behaviour. And, above all, the inability to recover. What differentiates it, however, is the fact that all the symptoms are in fact caused by the person’s working environment – a universe that has evolved considerably in recent decades, to the extent that it promotes physical and emotional exhaustion.

“Many factors can lead to burnout,” continues Dr Mesters. “They, of course, include overwork and the imbalance between work and personal life. But many people also complain about work losing its meaning and a lack of recognition from their colleagues and superiors. The individual feels increasingly isolated in his or her work. This can lead to feelings of overload and loss of control.”

The way the working environment is organised appears to be a major factor in the development of burnout. It is an environment that is increasingly dehumanised and pressurised, an environment that is increasingly taking over people’s personal lives.

The attitude people adopt toward their careers is also a key factor. “Our lives today are dominated by a cult of performance,” explains Dr Alexis Burger, a psychiatrist in Lausanne, Switzerland specialising in burnout syndrome.

“We have to perform well at everything: in our family life, our sex life and at work. The latter carries huge expectations. We set ourselves very high career goals to give ourselves a sense of achievement through our work. And we exhaust ourselves trying to reach them.”


Awareness among employers

While the burnout phenomenon is still very rare in developing countries, in the “West” it is soaring.

It is a reality that some companies are starting to take on board. In the United States, firms such as Netflix or IBM have introduced more flexible leave, to protect their employees against occupational burnout.

Other companies, meanwhile, still tend to consider burnout as a sign of personal weakness on the part of the individual.

Before suffering from the syndrome herself, Laurence worked as a human resources director.

But when she returned to work and started her new job within a Belgian federal ministry, she decided to change her title. “I became the Chief Happiness Officer,” she explains. “It wasn’t just a play on words. It meant that I really intended to allow people be happy in their work.”

For her, greater individual freedom is the key to happiness at work.

“We have introduced more flexible working hours so that people can choose to start work earlier or later, to fit in with their family commitments.”

Greater flexibility has also been introduced in terms of the place of work, by promoting the option of working from home.

And, finally, reflection on team management has led to a change in mindset regarding the objectives and purpose of the work.

“I do not see happiness as an outcome,” she concludes. “Happiness is the path that we take. At work, that can translate as the satisfaction found in everyday life, rather than the goals to be reached in the future.

“Those working in retail have to find pleasure in satisfying their customers. Those working in the civil service have to find happiness in the satisfaction given to citizens. The bosses may have to swallow their ego a little but, at the end of the day, it’s for the good of the whole team.”

The measures introduced by the ‘Chief Happiness Officer’ have paid off.

Within five years, absenteeism in her ministry has fallen by 20 per cent and resignations have fallen by as much as 75 per cent.

The number of unsolicited job applications, meanwhile, has risen by 500 per cent.

Other public administrations in Belgium could now take inspiration from this example, as a way of fighting the burnout syndrome within their teams.

But there is still a long way to go. Burnout is a constantly growing phenomenon. And in a world of work that is constantly picking up speed, it is perhaps one of the most visible symptoms of a deeper malaise within society.

This story has been translated from French.