Scholars' Association News
Issue 39
July 2016


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Burnout syndrome: The organisational and business cost of burnout syndrome
by Prof. Yannis A. Pollalis

The workplace and the conditions there, extra professional and family duties and obligations for employees, exhausting schedules and competition with colleagues in businesses play a vital role in the life of most employees, and in effect create a working environment where their performance is down, and they suffer intense stress and burnout.

Burnout coupled with lack of sleep has been on the rise over recent years and has been of particular concern to psychologists, sociologists and management experts, as all have come to recognise the major negative impacts these phenomena are having on the individual, organisations, businesses and the economy in general. These conditions cause stress which in turn causes insomnia, psychosomatic disorders, and eventually loss of interest in the task or job, and are a precursor to depression. Business executives, doctors, nurses, air traffic controllers and journalists are those most at risk of stress, sleep deprivation and burnout syndrome.

Burnout means to gradually exhaust ones energy reserves until there is nothing more to give. The term ‘burnout’ was first used by Freudenberger in 1974 to describe symptoms of physical and mental exhaustion in mental health professionals, and in general in employees in settings where there were close bonds between professionals and individuals who needed their services.

Burnout presents a set of symptoms which emerge in employees when the incentive to work is destroyed; symptoms that need to be managed immediately since they have a serious impact both on work duties and the employee’s personal and social life. In other words, it’s a new psychiatric term with socio-economic repercussions, as various studies published in Europe, Australia, the USA and Canada have revealed.

Studies carried out have revealed that burnout is more common in professions such as medicine and nursing. That’s why it was initially thought that the syndrome was a result of daily contact with human pain, and the term was only used in relation to the social service professions. However, over recent years that has changed radically because of the socio-economic situation, with burnout now not drawing distinctions between professions and individuals. Professionals, no matter what sector they work in, are now at the point where they are experiencing and feeling exhaustion, meaning they can longer communicate with others in their work environment. Every day they view their occupation as a necessary evil that they cannot escape from; at the same time they cannot build closer relationships with the people who need their professional and emotional support. So they end up trying to maintain a safe distance from individuals whom they consider to be the source of their exhaustion.

The term ‘burnout’ describes a situation where the individual feels shattered, depersonalised and ineffective due to stressful conditions in their professional life. It is a psychological process akin to, but not identical to, occupational stress. It occurs when the individual’s work environment is so stressful that it no longer helps the individual find pleasure in doing his job.

Burnout has three separate aspects to it:

  • emotional exhaustion, i.e. a reduction in an individual’s emotions meaning the individual can no longer make an emotional contribution to the recipients of his services.
  • depersonalisation, resulting in the individual viewing the recipients of his services in a negative light, and often treating them as mere objects.
  • reduced sense of personal achievement, i.e. the individual’s tendency to feel general displeasure with work and to negatively evaluate both himself and those around him.

The syndrome impacts on both the mental and physical health of individuals, who frequently present irritability, depressive symptoms, insomnia, etc. However, it also has major repercussions on the individual’s interpersonal relationships in both the family and work environment, as individuals become highly dissatisfied with work, have high absenteeism rates, and generally a greater tendency to change job or occupation.

Increasing levels of ‘bad’ stress can also lead to more intense manifestations of stress and depression. The negative example of France-Telecom is illustrative of cases where unfavourable repercussions emerge when a company decides to adopt very long working hours and working conditions don’t go hand-in-hand with improvements in the employees’ quality of life. 42 members of staff took their own lives at France-Telecom between 2008 and 2010. The deaths were linked to the methods used by management of the French telecom firm to help the former state-run monopoly adapt to the new highly competitive world of telephony and internet.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from such approaches and bad practices which cause employees and business executives stress, we have Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and other innovative businesses that rely on cooperation between highly intelligent individuals and think that the ability to come up with innovative ideas need not necessarily take place at an office in the narrow sense of the term. Given that corporate culture and outlook, these companies have sports and meditation facilities in the workplace and offer all employees combinations of healthy meals, breaks for sleep and physical activity, while also running stress reduction courses.

Research from the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (3) found that:

  • More than 25% of employees experience workplace stress in EU countries.
  • 1 in 5 European employees feel exhaustion and 1 in 8 suffer from headaches.
  • 8 in 10 Belgian employees have experienced a higher psychological burden in recent years, while 4 in 10 English computer users feel that psychosocial stress has increased.
  • 9-12% of men and 9-11% of women in the EU are exposed to workplace pressure during the greater part of the day (a high percentage in Germany, Greece and Holland).

The extent of the phenomenon is primarily due to prevailing working conditions:

  • More than 1/3 of employees in the Euro Area cannot take breaks when they need them.
  • 4 in 10 people are not able to decide on their own when they will take holidays or leave.

Around half the employees in EU countries work in monotonous jobs. Monotony and repetition at work are phenomena found more in France, Greece and Spain.

It’s also important to stress that many studies have found a significant correlation between work burden, lack of sleep and various illnesses:

  • Compared to all employees, employees under ‘stressful’ pressure are 4 to 5 times at greater risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • A study in Denmark showed that 14% of early cardiovascular mortality in women was due to the impact of monotony and repetitive work, 7% to workplace pressure and 2% to passive smoking in the workplace.

The Harvard Business Review recently published the results of a 10-year long study which clearly shows how important sleep is for the success of top executives in a business. Similar studies have been carried out and published by the McKinsey Quarterly, where similarly there is a clear correlation between the success of business executives and the quality and quantity of sleep they get, and the lack of stressful factors in the workplace. Those conclusions are presented in the form of a correlation table below.

So, in conclusion, aside from the fact that the more rested business executives are the more effective leadership they can provide, a last argument about the importance of sleep is that it prevents the symptoms of burnout in business executives. A recent study by Harvard University Medical School on top business executives found that 96% of participants had experienced some form of burnout in their career and that 1/3 were in a very critical situation. Consequently, there is a large body of research findings demonstrating a correlation between sleep, workplace stress and burnout.

It has also been demonstrated that lack of sleep correlates directly to reduced performance and employee engagement with work. So it’s time for businesses to find ways to calculate lost performance, employee churn and, of course, the overall cost of healthcare for their employees, due to lack of sleep or tiredness and constant stress. In doing so, they’ll create a broader framework for managing employee energy, with immediate benefits on the quality and effectiveness of their efforts and consequently the productivity of future businesses.

(Yannis A. Pollalis is a professor at the University of Piraeus).

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