When I presented my TEDx Talk on Burnout vs. PTSD: More similar than you think… in 2014, I never expected the incredible response that I would receive. People from around the world have reached out to me to share their own burnout experiences as well as their recovery.
So, a huge “thank you” to all of you who have watched my TEDx Talk on YouTube – we just passed 174,000 views! Woo hoo! [UPDATE: As of May 2020, we’ve now passed 423,000 views — thank you!!]
If you haven’t yet watched the video, this blog post will discuss why I believe that burnout is a form of PTSD – and what that may mean to businesses.
The Similarities Between Burnout and PTSD
My Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B-DOC) is based on my participants’ experiences of burnout resulting from transformational organizational change. Six characteristics emerged that were identical to those associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):
While workplace burnout might not be identical to PTSD resulting from the ravages of military conflict, many people emotionally and psychologically experience their workplaces as modern day battle zones. Even though the dangers are NOT immediately life-threatening in workplace burnout, the feelings of hopelessness and abuse that my research participants experienced was nonetheless traumatic for them.
What’s important to remember is that the feelings of stress are not necessarily universal. Each person reacts to a stressor in his or her own unique way – and this response can change over time. Your perception is your reality: if you perceive that the effects and impacts that the stressor is placing on you are negative, then you will be more likely to be fearful, angry, stressed out, and burned out.
In other words, the stressor is not inherently the cause of burnout – it is the individual’s perception and reaction to the stressor that can trigger the burnout cycle.
So, how did my participants experience the above characteristics of PTSD in their job-related burnout?
- Exposure to a traumatic event or extreme stressor. Although many were mentioned, their burnout was often triggered by an abusive boss, unrealistic (and unachievable) deadlines, change that is constant and unrelenting, or a culture of sabotage and mistrust.
- Response with fear, hopelessness, or horror. This was particularly evident when the worker’s expectations about the work environment were not met – leading to a belief that their workplace was unstable, aggressively combative, or lacking in moral integrity. The reality was so different from their expectations that it fundamentally challenged their basic beliefs, work ethic, or confidence in their professional ability. These workers lived in a negative state of apathy, hopelessness, and unrelenting fear about their ability to adequately perform their jobs.
- Sleep disturbances, nightmares. Stress and fear trigger the adrenal glands to release cortisol to prepare the body for fight-or-flight – your body is mobilized to take action! But highly stressful environments or situation that do not offer workers any reprieve also do not offer any time for the body to recover to its pre-stress levels. This constant state of hyper-alertness leads to persistent sleep disturbances. Over time, the lack of restful sleep significantly impairs workers’ ability to solve problems, make decisions, and develop creative solutions.
- Depression, withdrawal. Findings in a recent study published in the International Journal of Stress Management indicated that 90% of participants who identified as “burned out” also met the diagnostic criteria for depression. Additionally, the National Institute of Mental Health estimated that anxiety disorders affect 40 million Americans (that’s 18% of the population over the age of 18). In addition to feeling depressed (which may or may not have been clinically diagnosed), the vast majority of my participants only started to recover from burnout when they psychologically or physically withdrew from their stressful work situations. Can a business really afford rampant burnout-related presenteeism or turnover?
- Frequent mood changes, generalized irritability. Mercurial mood changes, generalized crankiness, and even “forgetting” how to laugh drastically changes how burned out workers interact with their coworkers, friends, and families. With such negativity and pessimism, it’s no wonder that their productivity and performance deteriorate.
- Avoid activities that promote recall of the traumatic event. Perhaps the most surprising finding that led to my Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B-DOC) was the tendency to “boomerang” back into burnout’s downward spiral if subjected to a similar stress-producing event (such as an abusive manager or mismanaged change initiative) even if it was at a different workplace. This “residual burnout” quickly brought my participants back into their previous burnout. By creating a new psychological contract with their work, they could move forward because they had determined clear boundaries relating to not only what they would give to an employer, but also what they expected (demanded?) in return.
Could the ADAAA Require a Reasonable Accommodation for Burnout?
The original Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) did not consider PTSD to be a disability because the disability could not be separated from its symptoms. Because medications mitigated the symptoms of PTSD, employers were not required to make reasonable accommodations.
However, that all changed with the 2010 amendments to the ADA (ADAAA). PTSD is now considered to be a de facto physical disability and the mitigating factor of medications to treat PTSD is no longer considered to be sufficient to absolve employers from reasonably accommodating workers suffering from it.
Some potential reasonable accommodations for PTSD include granting employees additional time to complete projects and acknowledging that behavioral outbursts are part of the disability (usually responding by removing the worker from the stress-producing situation).
Here’s my question: if the symptoms of burnout and PTSD are so similar, could burnout be a subcategory of PTSD? While current psychiatrists do not make this correlation, it is interesting to speculate on how the workplace would change if employers would be legally required to reasonably accommodate burned out workers.
The result would be a fundamental shift in company policies and practices:
- Employees would be actively encouraged to take vacation time – even to the extent of not “checking in” while away from the office.
- Leaders and managers would be expected to recognize and appreciate the efforts of their subordinates – perhaps even being evaluated on their level of support on annual performance reviews.
- Dedicated efforts would be focused on modifying (or even abandoning) policies, procedures, rules, and regulations that increase stress levels in the workplace.
- Mental and emotional space would be given so that employees could engage in serendipity – releasing their creativity (without fear of reprisal) and fostering greater innovation.
- Such an enlightened company would return humanism and humanistic ideals into the workplace.
The result is not only an enlightened corporate culture that emphasizes humanism and humanistic ideals in the workplace, but also an organization that experiences bottom line results due to enhanced productivity, performance, and overall employee job satisfaction.
Viewing burnout as the “new norm” in the American workplace is misleading and dangerous. Not only are the workers’ psychological and physical health threatened by burnout, but so is the company’s brand and financial strength. A burned out workforce will never be psychologically or physically able to produce the innovation, quality, and customer responsiveness that are demanded in today’s hypercompetitive market.
Burnout is real and is estimated to affect over 50% of U.S. employees (Families and Work Institute, 2017). It’s time to identify and treat the warning signs of burnout before they lead to PTSD-type symptoms – and before they challenge the foundation of a high performing organization.
Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model. An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube. To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com.