You’ve likely heard the term “burnout” more often in the last several years, but what exactly is it and what can be done about it?

Quentin Durand-Moreau is an assistant professor of occupational medicine at the University of Alberta. He’s done a lot of research on work-related burnout and mental health more generally.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress, Durand-Moreau says. The symptoms are: feelings of depleted energy or exhaustion; increased mental distance from your job, such as feelings of negativity or cynicism; and feelings of reduced personal accomplishment at work.

Burnout is not a medical diagnosis but Durand-Moreau says research shows it shares a lot of characteristics with something else.

“Most cases of burnout meet the diagnostic criteria for depression,” he explained.

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“Those with the diagnosis of burnout basically have features of depression in 90 per cent of the cases.”

The difference between burnout and depression, Durand-Moreau believes, is just the environment in which they are experienced.

“One of the arguments used usually to keep the concept of burnout is: we need this to refer to work-related conditions. In other words, we need to have burnout as a concept because we need something to reflect the work-relatedness.”

Regardless of the environment, anyone noticing symptoms should speak to their doctor, Durand-Moreau says.

“Depression can be work-related and we don’t need specifically the concept of burnout. Because depression is an entity that is absolutely precise, there are criteria to diagnose depression.”

Is burnout on the rise?

Durand-Moreau says he’s not sure if burnout is more prevalent or if society generally is becoming more comfortable talking about mental health and mental health challenges.

“Now it’s getting (to be) of increased importance since the pandemic, here in Canada,” he says. “I’m not sure whether we have a very strong increase in terms of numbers, but the overall interest is here.

“No matter what, it’s an old topic. We have data and publications from a century ago on this topic.”

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Click to play video: 'Workplace mental health and reducing burnout'

Workplace mental health and reducing burnout

What causes burnout?

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Durand-Moreau says excessive work hours are a huge issue and can be deadly.

Research from the World Health Organization and International Labour Organization show that working more than 55 hours a week increases the risk of dying from heart attack by 17 per cent and from stroke by 35 per cent.

Long work hours can also cause people to increase their alcohol consumption, which comes with its list of harmful effects on health.

Click to play video: 'The rising epidemic of burnout at work'

The rising epidemic of burnout at work

Is remote work connected to burnout?

Working from home has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic but Durand-Moreau says it’s still too early to draw any connections between mental health and remote work.

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He says different studies on working from home have shown conflicting results so far.

“Some say working from home is very bad, and some say it is very good. Age appears to be a big factor. Older workers seem to not do so well working from home compared with younger ones. Different levels of comfort with technology may be part of that. Someone in a supervisory role may also have more difficulty working from home.”

The impact of working from home could depend on several factors, he says, including what health effects you’re tracking, the kinds of workers you’re looking at, the type of work you’re looking at, as well as the geography.

“People in Edmonton are more likely to have an extra room to put the office, as opposed to someone in Vancouver on the same salary. They have one bedroom and they have no space to make it separate. It might be much more crowded, much more difficult. This is also a dimension to have in mind,” Durand-Moreau says.

But there are upsides too.

“A lot of people are concerned with the lack of connection but being connected to a collective of workers is still putting workers at risk of task interruption, which is very costly from a cognitive standpoint. When you do something, you focus on your task, and someone pops in the door, interrupting you.”

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Click to play video: 'Worker rights in the face of workplace burnout'

Worker rights in the face of workplace burnout

How can burnout be addressed?

While people tend to blame themselves, Durand-Moreau says employers can do more to create healthy work environments.

“The first thing is to make sure the organization is mindful of the fact that psychosocial risks are things that need to be addressed. And it’s not about saying to employees that you have to exercise, you have to do mindfulness training, you have to do this or that,” he says.

“The problem is that workers’ occupational health cannot be just a topping, an add-on in a business. It should be core to the business to promote the health of workers.

Burnout can be serious and professional medical support should be sought if someone is struggling with their mental health, Durand-Moreau stresses.

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“There is no job where it is a normal requirement to have it affect a worker’s mental health.”

Durand-Moreau says people should seek medical help to screen for diagnosable health issues like depression, anxiety or PTSD.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

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Free UCalgary seminar offers tips to prevent and address workplace burnout

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