High levels of burnout are being observed in children as young as 12 years. Image: 123RF/CONVISUM
High levels of burnout are being observed in children as young as 12 years. Image: 123RF/CONVISUM

The World Health Organisation recently categorised workplace burnout as a reportable medical condition for the first time. Two SA professionals who deal with people who have burnout have applauded the move but say the definition is too narrow, as burnout does not only occur in the workplace.

“It can affect anyone, from stay-at-home moms to artists, educators and even children. In fact, we are seeing high levels of burnout in children as young as 12 years old,” says integrated medical doctor Ela Manga who practises in Houghton.

Most definitions of burnout, whether from workplace or other stress, include a feeling of being overwhelmed and exhausted emotionally and physically. There is usually a reduction in performance and employees may be hauled over the coals at work, increasing their fear of failure. A person suffering from this condition may need three weeks to a year to recover, but burnout can have long-term negative effects on general health.

“Burnout comes from doing things that are wrong for us for too long,” says Johannesburg life coach Judy Klipin, whose book on the subject, Recover From Burnout was published in June.

Klipin says she sees students, executives, men, women, young and old, with burnout. “They come for coaching, but it is evident they have burnout. In SA we have high stress levels. I am alerted when people are weepy, emotional, grumpy, irrational, irritable, withdrawn. They say they don’t do the things they love anymore, they get sick a lot and may be resorting to substances like alcohol.”

I am alerted when people are weepy, emotional, grumpy, irrational, irritable, withdrawn. They say they don’t do the things they love anymore, they get sick a lot and may be resorting to substances like alcohol.
Judy Klipin

Both Manga and Klipin say they look for the underlying causes of illness: “I work together with my patients to create a new mind-body system in the context of the big picture of the person’s life,” says Manga. “Balance and energy are restored through lifestyle changes, natural medicines, healing therapies, mindfulness, breathwork — all activating the body’s ability to heal itself.”

She uses Western medicine with modalities such as acupuncture and greatly emphasises breathing techniques, as outlined in her book Breathe: Strategising Energy in the Age of Burnout. She may also prescribe natural supplements such as adaptogens, which nourish the adrenal glands that become depleted with exhaustion, and natural sleeping aids to help people ensure they get enough rest.

Klipin says that until you can change the underlying beliefs that caused the burnout, you will not recover fully. In contrast to the accepted image of a pressured executive or high achiever getting burnout, it seems the personality of the person most susceptible to it is the opposite. It is not your Donald Trump, she says, but your person who can’t say no, who is “other-centred” and will push themselves beyond their limits to please others, or achieve some imagined standard of excellence. Perfectionists can easily burn out, as do people who find it hard to ask for help.

She detects in many of her burnout clients the traits of the “adult child”: people who grew up in an unpredictable and chaotic environment, and developed certain beliefs and behaviours to protect themselves. These might range from “I have to do well” to “it’s wrong to stand up for myself”. Though these beliefs help a child survive, they do not serve an adult. In her coaching she tries to uncover these self-sabotaging beliefs and help the person find a more beneficial belief system that serves them.

Klipin herself experienced burnout after many years practising as a criminologist and working with the police force. She reached a stage of physical and emotional exhaustion and went to see her doctor.

“He told me to take time off and decide what I wanted to do with my life.”

She was able to stay at home for several weeks, doing very little, she says, and that was when she decided to study to become a life coach. She counsels her burnout clients to do the same: take time off, do nothing.

“If they can’t leave their jobs, they can try to negotiate long weekends.” The “busy disease” is killing, she says, and we have to find ways to relax.

“I tell everyone to find time to be quiet, to tune into yourself. In the car, for instance, spend five minutes in silence; no talking, listening to music, just be with yourself.”

Sometimes she tells prospective clients to go away and find some recovery before coming for coaching. “You need energy to take on coaching.” Seeing a clinical psychologist is advised, and medication can help too, she says.

Society can help by talking about the condition more, and giving people with burnout support. “It would be good if employers gave staff more leave, allowed them to work from home, or encouraged flexitime.”

Manga says health-care schemes should create awareness of the problem of burnout and work on methods to support more conscious and energised lives.

“We have the opportunity to cultivate a way of life that is more conscious, integrated and supportive of the whole person. Treatment has to have a multidimensional approach that addresses restoring physical health through a diet and good-quality prescribed nutritional supplements.

“We can’t always change the stressors of our work environment, but we can change the way we relate to demands.” Having “courageous conversations” around these issues is important, says Manga.

Finding ways to say no, and to have more fun and relaxation, are a major part of the solution.