Time To Take ‘Burnout’ Seriously, Says Australian Mental Health Expert

Burning the candle at both ends – a hot issue.

Time To Take ‘Burnout’ Seriously, Says Australian Mental Health Expert

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Burning the candle at both ends, getting overloaded, stretched to your limit… Everyone, no matter what they do for work, has likely encountered burnout at at least one point in their life. It’s incredibly common.

Society recognises it as real – it’s why we have things like annual leave – yet burnout sits in a weird grey area when it comes to getting a professional diagnosis or treatment.

Because there are many overlaps in symptoms, it’s often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, most commonly as depression. But the treatments are not the same. A lack of clear (or up to date) scientific or diagnostic literature also impacts how burnout is treated in our society.

But one Australian academic is hoping to not only change the way burnout is defined and diagnosed but is also trying to change the way we deal with burnout – not only as individuals but as society.

Professor Gordon Parker AO is one of Australia’s leading mental health experts. Scientia Professor of Psychiatry and Head of the School of Psychiatry at the University of New South Wales; founder of the Black Dog Institute and its initial Executive Director; Director of the Division of Psychiatry at Sydney’s Prince of Wales Hospital… It’s fair to say that there are few others in the country with his level of expertise.

Prof. Parker, along with the Black Dog Institute’s Gabriela Tavella and Kerrie Eyers, has co-authored a book simply titled Burnout, which aims to be the world’s first practical diagnostic for burnout, designed to be used both by laymen and clinical professionals. Set to be published in July, it should be an absolute game-changer.

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DMARGE spoke exclusively with Prof. Parker, who relates that the book is sorely needed to fill a gap in both popular and professional knowledge:

“The topic is not in the general education of most health professionals so they either miss the diagnosis or call it stress or depression. Conversely, if you have primary anxiety, depression or stress you will still meet current syndromal definitions of burnout, leading to a false-positive diagnosis of burnout.”

“That’s why we developed the Sydney Burnout Measure (arguing why it is a better measure) and detail how clinical reasoning must be applied to exclude false-positive diagnoses of burnout due to psychological or physical states,” he says.

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Prof. Parker relates that “the 24/7 cycle of being constantly on-call” that the modern workplace often demands of us significantly contributes to the onset of burnout in our professional lives.

This is also something that’s arguably become more of an issue over the last year and a half: working from home, something many of us had or continue to have to do thanks to the pandemic, further erodes the boundaries between one’s professional and personal lives and can make burnout even worse or more likely.

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But of course, burnout isn’t just a work-related phenomenon, even if our current understandings of it might suggest so.

The World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases, for example, does recognise burnout, but as explicitly an “occupational syndrome” – that is, it does not consider it to be a medical condition or mental disorder, and says the term should relate “specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life” – which is a bizarrely narrow definition.

You can also get burned out creatively or emotionally – and work isn’t just your 9-5. Indeed, Prof. Parker shared with DMARGE that women are more likely to get burned out than men “as they often have demanding family responsibilities (older parents and kids) on top of any formal work.”

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While Prof. Parker was rather circumspect (not wanting to give too many details about what’s in his book away, naturally), he did have this to say:

“Some depressive conditions needs meds, others need psychotherapy. Burnout needs correcting work stressors, destressing strategies (e.g. mindfulness, meditation) and modulating any pre-disposing personality style.”

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This can sometimes be a particular challenge for men. Not only does our macho culture often denigrate psychotherapy as well as anti-depressants, etc., but as Luke Macleod, meditation expert and founder of Soul Alive has shared with DMARGE, men often find it hard to wrap their heads around mindfulness.

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But there’s never been a better or more important time to start taking burnout more seriously. COVID-19 might have only added to our collective stress but it’s also forced many of us to reflect upon our health in a more holistic sense. We don’t want a return to ‘the new normal’ – and that includes a return to a way of life that burns us out too quickly or frequently.

You can pick up a copy of Burnout here.

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