Why Exhaustion and Burnout Are So Common

July 23, 2016

A few years ago, Anna Katharina Schaffner became the latest victim of the exhaustion ‘epidemic’. It began with a kind of mental and physical inertia – as she put it, a “sense of heaviness” in all that she did. Even the most mundane tasks would sap her of all her energy, and concentrating on her work became increasingly difficult.

Yet when she tried to relax, she would find herself obsessively checking her emails at all hours, as if relief for her ennui would suddenly ping into her inbox. Alongside the weariness came feelings of emotional despondency: “I was disenchanted, disillusioned and hopeless.”

These feelings will be familiar to countless others, from Pope Benedict XVI to Mariah Carey, who have been diagnosed with exhaustion. If the media are to be believed, it is a purely modern ailment; almost every time Schaffner turned on the TV, she would see a debate on the trials we face in our 24/7 culture. “All the commentators represented our age as the most terrible one out there – that it’s the absolute apocalypse for our energy reserves,” she says.

But can that really be true? Or are periods of lethargy and detachment as inevitable a part of human life as head colds and broken limbs?

A literary critic and medical historian at the University of Kent in the UK, Schaffner decided to investigate further. The result is her new book Exhaustion: A History, a fascinating study of the ways in which doctors and philosophers have understood the limits of the human mind, body – and energy.

There is no doubt that exhaustion is a pressing concern today, with some particularly startling figures emerging from emotionally draining sectors such as healthcare. A study of German doctors found that nearly 50% of physicians appeared to be suffering ‘burnout’, reporting, for instance, that they feel tired during every single hour of the day and that the mere thought of work in the morning left them feeling exhausted. Interestingly, men and women seem to deal with burnout in different ways: one recent Finnish survey found that male employees reporting exhaustion were far more likely to take extended sick leave than burned out women, for instance.

Given that depression also tends to involve lethargy and detachment, some have argued that burnout is just a stigma-free label for the same condition. In her book, Schaffner quotes one German newspaper article that claimed burnout is just a “luxury version” of depression for high-flying professionals. “Only losers become depressive,” the article continued. “Burnout is a diagnosis for winners, or, more specifically, for former winners.”

In general, however, the two conditions are generally considered to be distinct. “Theorists generally agree that depression entails a loss of self-confidence, or even self-hatred or self-contempt, which is not the case for burnout, where the image of the self often remains intact,” Schaffner says.

“Anger in burnout is generally not turned against the self but rather against the organisation for which one works, or the clients with whom one works, or the wider socio-political or economic system.” Nor should burnout be confused with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), which involves prolonged periods of excruciating physical and mental exhaustion for at least six months, with many patients reporting physical pain at the slightest activity.

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