Rethinking the “Self-Care” Solution to Burnout

Burnout selfcare

There are many holistic, self-care-oriented tips and techniques that can be helpful to manage stress and maintain mental health. However, these self-care strategies may not be sufficient enough when seeking solutions for burnout. For addiction professionals who may be experiencing burnout, and healthcare professionals at large, it is essential to be aware of the symptoms, the root causes, and the best ways to address this issue.

The World Health Organization (WHO) includes burnout in the International Classification of Diseases, specifying that it is a “workplace phenomena.” Due to burnout being a type of stress unique to the workplace, suggesting that self-care is the remedy wrongly takes the focus off of the work environment and job circumstances and places the responsibility on the employee. Instead, shifting attention from the employee’s coping strategies to increased prevention strategies in the workplace by addressing the main causes of burnout can be more beneficial.


What is Burnout?

The WHO defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is characterized by three main symptoms, which include:

  1. Energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of cynicism and negativism related to their job
  3. Reduced professional efficacy

Burnout is a phenomenon specific to stress resulting in an occupational context and should therefore not be used to describe stressful experiences in other areas outside of work. Specifying it as a workplace issue brings to light that this is not a personal life issue that should be left to the employee to cope with. Instead, it changes the way professionals should look at options for prevention and treatment.


Main Causes of Burnout

Because burnout is considered a cumulative negative reaction to occupational stressors due to an ill alignment with workers and their workplace, levels of stress and anxiety can build over time and lead to chronic exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency. The main causes of burnout are all linked to work, and therefore, self-care will inevitably not solely fix the problem. The top five causes of burnout are:

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. An unmanageable workload
  3. Lack of role clarity
  4. Lack of communication and support from managers
  5. Unreasonable time pressure

The solution to burnout must be found by looking at what is causing it in the first place. Focusing attention on preventative strategies by understanding what may be the sources of the problem instead of coping strategies will help get to the root of the issue.


Paradigm Shift

This shift in thinking about how to help individuals experiencing burnout is essential. Although focusing on self-care practices such as meditation, mindfulness, healthy eating, sleeping, and exercise is vital to increasing overall wellbeing, it is not a solely effective measure to take when combating burnout. The negative consequences of burnout are too serious not to untangle from the self-care language used to prescribe solutions that can sometimes act as an ineffective catch-all remedy.

Health care professionals are healers, yet in the service of others, many may forget to care for themselves and work through their own mental health struggles. According to research, in health care, suicide rates among physicians have significantly increased to 40% higher than the national average for male physicians and 130% higher for females. These health care professionals are human, too, and need care like anyone else.

Placing the focus on self-care tools rather than preventative measures runs the risk of minimizing the problem that burnout is for employees and reduces accountability for employers to adjust any workplace factors. When we emphasize self-care as the cure for burnout, it suggests that it is not the workplace that needs to be safer for mental health but that employees need to take better precautions and develop more coping skills.

Trying to cope with burnout is not the same as preventing it. Deciding to resolve the root causes, such as unfair treatment at work or an unmanageable workload, can be the catalyst for positive change. It can help lessen the stress of those who currently experience burnout and prevent employers in the future from experiencing it.


Actionable Steps

If the solution to burnout is not more self-care, then what is it? There are many areas of work-life that are considered to be contributors to burnout. Focusing on improving these areas in the workplace to prevent burnout is an achievable aim. These areas of focus include:

  • Workload
  • Job control
  • Rewards
  • Community
  • Fairness
  • Values

In addition to focusing on improving these areas of work-life, reshaping the language used to define and talk about burnout is key. To initiate this, leaders within the healthcare and addiction professional workplaces can create a separate space for talking about burnout prevention strategies within the larger conversation of mental health and wellbeing. Self-care and healthy coping strategies should still be mental health strategies for any organization as they are linked with successful, positive, and happy cultures. However, it is critical to make these wellness tools separate and distinct from being the tool for managing burnout.

Fixing the main causes of burnout in the workplace should be prioritized over overprescribing self-care techniques. Dealing with unfair treatment at work, an unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of communication and support from managers, and unreasonable time pressure may be the source of this burnout. While making time for exercising, eating right, and getting good sleep is essential, it is not the solution to burnout. These issues must be addressed within the workplace by resolving any issues of workload, fairness, values, community, and more. Shifting the focus from self-care to preventative strategies in the workplace can help alleviate those currently experiencing burnout and stop others in the future from struggling with it. As a premier substance abuse treatment program in Los Angeles, at Alta Centers, we commit ourselves to provide the highest level of commitment to each person. We provide a community environment, a transparent voice, and a place to feel safe while healing. Call (888) 202-2583.


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