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Burn-Out, Bore-Out and Brown-Out – Demystifying Modern Work Afflictions

The last decades have seen workers overwhelmed by all kinds of mental health issues, disconcerting afflictions that slowly consumed them engulfing them in a state of suffering and distress resulting in exhaustion.Burn-out, Bore-out or Brown-out are forms of professional exhaustion, each deriving from different factors. However, the symptoms are often similar and presenting themselves deviously in many ways— absenteeism, presenteeism, depression, a loss of self-esteem, anxiety, fatigue, trouble sleeping, irritability, aggression, lack of concentration, memory loss, emotional exhaustion, emotional detachment, loss of self-efficacy, demotivation, sadness, etc… These are all symptoms of a malaise that can have serious consequences in all areas of your life, not just the professional sphere.These conditions are becoming increasingly prevalent at an alarming rate. According to the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association, it is the number one reason for extended leaves of absence from work and it continues to be on the rise. Work is becoming something that must be endured rather than a form of fulfillment.

Burnout: The work-exhaustion syndrome

The phenomenon of occupational pathologies began in industrialized countries with the "burn-out", which is a manifestation of a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion resulting from overly demanding work situations.Stress can be triggered by a new or unforeseen circumstance, feeling a lack of control or a threatening or destabilizing situation. Stress is a physical reaction that puts the body on alert when in danger. The modern work experience is constantly changing and demands are incessant. This generates an elevated level of stress that can become chronic. While you are in a continued state of urgency, your defence mechanisms are functioning without respite and your body ends up exhausted. This fatigue will have an impact on your morale and emotional exhaustion will add to physical exhaustion. To burn out, actually means “to burn internally, to consume oneself”.This phenomenon falls into the category of adjustment disorders, regardless of the sources of stress at work. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared in May 2019 that burn-out is now an “occupational phenomenon” describing it as “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It is characterised by three elements: “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion”, “feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job” and “reduced professional efficacy”. Tasks, situations, or people through excessive responsibility, a lack of autonomy, loss of memory or poor communication can create a sense of helplessness or fatigue. It creates an imbalance between the mounting pressure and the depleting resources (interior and exterior, perceived or real) that are needed to confront it. It is the manifestation of your vulnerability and difficulty to adapt to situations. Even in identical working conditions, we all react differently depending on the resources and tools available to us. 

Bore-out: The work-boredom syndrome

Bore-out, also known as occupational exhaustion syndrome caused by boredom at work, seems to be the opposite of burn-out, yet it also leads to psychological suffering. It affects people experiencing dissatisfaction with their professional path who do not have enough tasks to perform or challenges to overcome.It is a psychological condition that is found among employees with a certain level of education and skill-set but who perform a job devaluing their knowledge and experience. The minutes and the hours seem like an eternity in these situations. You ask for more work to avoid twiddling your thumbs, you start to work slower or stretch out tasks to avoid being paid for doing nothing. You invent work, which reinforces the feeling that your presence at work is not essential. It’s a situation that does not provide any intellectual stimulation, it is very demoralising and paradoxically, very stressful. It is “bore-out”.Several causes can explain this phenomenon, sometimes it is due to a restructuring of jobs, an inadequate delegation of tasks, or entry-level jobs consisting of easy or elementary duties. It results in an insufficient number of tasks to fill the work week and work days without challenge or interest to the employee. Every day becomes unbearable and it can lead to a sense of self-devaluation which could carry heavy psychological consequences.For some, work doesn’t necessarily need to be a source of fulfillment and they can accept this type of professional situation without it being too harmful. However, for others, doing a job where there is nothing to do can be tortuous. Their work becomes a golden cage. Sometimes working conditions are really good or financial security is so attractive that they wouldn’t dare leave for other challenges.

Brownout: The withdrawal-from-work syndrome

Although it is lesser known than “burn-out” or “bore-out”, “brown-out” is no less a danger to workers. It is the manifestation of professional exhaustion caused by a lack of motivation where you do not understand the point or use of your work.“Brown-out” literally means “a decrease in current” – the discomfort felt as a result of the loss of meaning in the objectives of one’s work. It is a condition that describes a decrease in a worker’s commitment resulting from a loss of meaning at work, a lack of understanding of the “why” in their mission and a lack of perspective regarding their duties.Without a purpose and a common thread, work becomes useless, futile and discouraging, driving a sort of disillusionment or disenchantment. People suffering from “brown-out” mentally resign from their job and work without really worrying about the quality they produce. These people are looking for work with meaning. In a context where everyday tasks lose meaning, one is alert and capable but completely unmotivated and disengaged.Therefore, a loss of motivation is the number one symptom of “brown-out”. You drag your feet, you divest yourself, meetings are mundane, there is a loss of attention, you have no interest in what you are doing, you lose your sense of humour, you cave into yourself. Even your family and social life can be affected by professional disinterest.The French sociologist and philosopher Edgar Morin explains this feeling well by saying, “meaning at work is often never as essential as when it is missing”.

How do we fix it?

With the growing prevalence and the important impact of mental health problems in the workplace, we cannot merely continue to suffer. To fight against this nuisance, you must take a step back and identify the causes of these conditions. You must go back to the source and make sure you do not solely react to the symptoms. Difficult times at work are opportunities to analyse your professional goals. Every individual has a responsibility to be conscious of their discomfort and to question themselves honestly, without shame, and without denial:
  • What defines my problems at work?
  • What bothers me and creates a feeling of discomfort?
  • To what (or to whom) do I attribute this discomfort?
  • Is this discomfort related to the nature of the task? To the workload? To the business sector? To the mission?
  • What does this situation reveal about my needs, my interests, my values and my professional ideals?
However, workplace stress is not solely the responsibility of the individual. Organizations cannot remain mere observers and point their finger in judgement. It is necessary that organizations empathize, engage in dialogue and create better wellness conditions. Once the correct diagnosis is made, one must question the criteria allowing to improve the situation:
  • Different divisions of tasks?
  • Proper tooling?
  • Professional development and training?
  • A new role or function?
  • Support?
  • Skills assessment?
  • Recognition?
  • More autonomy?
  • New challenges?
  • A career change?
  • Share the vision with conviction? The mission? The values? The culture?
Organizations have everything to gain by finding solutions. It is desirable that these solutions can be found within the organization, otherwise, the risk is that some workers will find another job elsewhere, change their profession, start their own business or worse, suffer through their current job.
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