The World Health Organization recently added “burnout” to its official handbook of diseases. The diagnosis applies to people who feel exhausted at work and unable to do their jobs the way they’d like. But is a medical model the best way to think about burnout? In 1998, education scholar Debra E. Meyerson argued that there might be better approaches.
Meyerson studied social workers in two different types of workplaces: acute care hospitals where the workplace culture focused on medical problems; and a chronic care hospital where a psychosocial view prevailed. In the acute care hospitals, she writes, the social workers did view stress and burnout as diseases. They saw them as “undesirable aberrations from a universal definition of ‘normal.’” In their view, burnout was an individual problem involving lapses in emotional control.
In contrast, social workers at the chronic care hospital described burnout as a “normal part of the ebb and flow of work life.” In this view, using emotional control to prevent it was impossible—and perhaps actually undesirable, since emotional empathy with clients was part of the job.
Meyerson writes that the medical model of burnout demands an individual cure. For example, discussions within management circles may recognize institutional and social problems that lead to stress, but they almost always focus on ways to help individuals cope with those circumstances. Meyerson describes a friend’s paper about the stress of balancing work and family demands. The paper portrayed the woman’s strategic choices about how to spend her time. But, as her friend, Meyerson was aware that the writer’s lived experiences were “described more accurately by her emotional anguish, feelings of guilt, stress, and burnout than her clever allocation of time.”
“She routinely felt ‘out of control’ of her emotions and situation,” Meyerson writes. “Yet when she attempted to write her experience into the traditional text, she naturally relied on the familiar and seemingly neutral vocabulary of coping—and thus of retaining emotional control.”
To Meyerson, the social workers with the psychosocial view offer a more useful model of working with burnout. Rather than feeling the need to hide negative feelings or push themselves to get back to “normal,” they were able to talk about the feelings and get help from colleagues who might pick up some of their regular duties or just offer emotional support.
For them, she writes, “the capacity to experience and express feeling such as burnout, and to be cared for by others as though those feelings were a legitimate and respected part of being a social worker, may itself be an instance of resistance, a challenge to that which is deemed normal within the dominant discourse.” Perhaps, instead of thinking of burnout as a disease to be dealt with at the individual level, we might follow these social workers’ lead. That could mean viewing it as a social problem that we can address collectively with greater compassion and more honesty about our own emotions.