2 years ago 💘 for day 66, 2020 with 569 words.

The history of the burnout diagnosis (& why it fails us)

Yesterday as I was preparing for the meeting with my burnout coach I finally read through the Whitepaper the centre she's certified through. Although the introduction was a slog, it was actually quite an interesting read. They explained a lot about the effect of stress on the body and the research that has been done towards how it affects us. There are currently different types of chronic stress defined, each with their own physiological footprint. Loads of research has been done not only on how stress affects the body but how a lack of rest from said stress affects us too. Because problems don't arise until the sum adds up; Too much stress + not enough recovery. The way these physiological changes affect the body has been linked to things from depression, anxiety, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart & vascular disease, immune system disorders, obesity, sleep disorders, allergies and a whole myriad of other problems. In a weird twist of fate though, it is rarely researched or even linked to Burnout.

-Insert record scratch-

"You mean the disorder that's caused by stress isn't researched or linked to the physiological effects of stress?"
Yup and the reason for that lay within the origin story of the burnout diagnosis. You see the term burn-out was introduced in 1974 by a psychiatrist after researching complaints of stress amongst social workers in a New York centre for drug addicts. He found that these social workers gave and gave, but received too little in return and ended up exhausted and disillusioned with their work. In 1981 burnout was then defined as such:

“Burn-out is a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among people who do ‘people work’ of some kind”.

Slowly, over time, this definition became broader as they realised this also could apply to workers in jobs that weren't necessarily 'people work'. In recent times they've also begun to realize that it doesn't necessarily have to originate in a work environment but can be caused in all facets of life. However, the definition and understanding of burnout have changed very little. It is seen as a social and psychologically caused problem. That burnout could possibly (also) be the result of the physiological effects of stress and a lack of recovery from it, does not get much attention because most renowned researchers on the field of burnout still view it as a socio-psychological disorder, rather than a physical one. Some of the first specialists who are combining these two fields of study are Dutch professors and have been doing this for only a few decades.

I found it tremendously fascinating to find this out, not to mention extremely validating. As many people who have been through burnout have experienced, there are deeply physical changes while you're experiencing a burn-out. Changes that can be measured. That have been measured. They just haven't been measured under the light of burnout enough. Not yet.

It does such a huge disservice to everyone who has or might ever experience this to keep these two fields separate as they are, all because of a decades-old definition. One that desperately needs updating. Without researching the physiological differences that occur during burnout, we can't expect to improve our knowledge of it. Without it, we'll always be flying part blind when trying to recover, or trying to help others do so.

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By Leonie Jonk 💘

Artist & Spoonie I write about my life as an artist and as a person with chronic pain, the struggles, the rewards, the inspiration & the downfalls. Oh and occasionally the odd piece of fiction :)

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