An epidemic of Burnout recognized by the World Health Organization

The following post was inspired by this article:

https://edition.cnn.com/2019/05/27/health/who-burnout-disease-trnd/index.html

Archaeologists have found evidence of farming that dates as far back as 9500 BCE.  Since that time,  humans have been toiling and to ensure that they could feed themselves and care for their families.  The Industrial Revolution saw a shift whereby workers largely moved from agriculture jobs located in the country and in villages to manufacturing jobs located in the city.  The ability to measure time, according to some historians, led to the modern work day.  I wonder if early workers gave a thought to how hard they worked.  Did they complain about it or was it was simply a fact of life?  Did they suffer, and if so, how was the suffering experienced and lived?

Fast forward to 2019.  Enter quality of life and privilege.  No longer do we measure health by our ability to provide the basic necessities.  Psychologists and other disciplines currently measure health and wellness by examining factors such as engagement, connection, and overall happiness.  In the romantic relationship realm, standards for a good life have also changed;  People marry for love rather than to combine property or increase the size of their army.  Humans in developed societies have constructed a world where they have the mental energy to wax philosophical about existence and ponder the meaning and value of life.  Concerns about survival have perhaps been replaced by  ‘higher order’  affairs.

In line with this progression is overall satisfaction with one’s work. It is no longer a given that work will be hard.

This blog is about burnout and stress leave from work.  I want to add here that when I was practicing in the US, I only once heard of someone going on stress leave from work.  Sure, people around me were stressed.  Many people I knew worked long hours.  I worked long hours during parts of my career.  I experienced stress but would have never given myself an actual clinical label.  My father’s father worked during the Great Depression and ethic of hard work somehow passed down through the generations and lodged firmly into my psyche.  Work is supposed to be hard.

When I first moved to Denmark and started practicing, I started seeing my first cases of work related stress and burnout.  From my capitalist point of view, it was discombobulating.  I reasoned that work stress was more of a cultural phenomenon rather than an objective fact.  I remained open but was skeptical.

Two things happened that influenced my thinking but were in contradiction to one another.  The first is that I saw many advantages to the Danish lifestyle.  Danish people just seem more relaxed and they have won ‘the happiest people’ in the world award more than once.  I also started to relax and found myself sauntering, instead of rushing to work.  There just always seems to be more time this country.  In retrospect, USA work standards now seem malignant to me.  I personally know people who struggle to get to work on time, due to car troubles, and who have unforgiving bosses.  Most people I know work 40+ hours per week and don’t get nearly the vacation we get here in Denmark.  But the other thing that happened that affected my thinking.was the refugee crisis and the proliferation of the term ‘white privilege’.  For those of us who work in the Western world and have ‘stressful’ jobs, I am sure there are many refugees who would love to take our place.  Though I have embraced the philosophy of work/life balance as an ideal, it’s still hard for me, as a privileged white person, to grasp that it’s an ‘illness’ to have stress at work. 

The collective body of the World Health Organization has however, deemed that burnout is real and even gets the claim of being named an actual disorder.  In the realm of diagnosis, we must take everything with a grain of salt.  While it’s important to take the suffering of others seriously, the  labeling of disorders is a social phenomenon shaped by cultural values and the times.  But in my current state of mind, I am glad that this international health institution has made this shift.  I hope it extends beyond developed societies and everyone, the world round, reflects about when work is too much.

I welcome your comments.

Debbie Quackenbush, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist who has been practicing for thirty years in both the USA and Denmark.  You can find out more about her at her website, here:   debbiequackenbush.com.

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