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SUFFERING IN SILENCE

Feeling tired, bored with work, stressed? It could be burnout

Lethargy at work is not necessarily a sign of laziness. You can now claim a sick leave by getting a doctor's writ diagnosing you with ‘burnout'

In Summary

• WHO has added burnout to its list of International Classification of Diseases.

• It could thus be listed as a globally recognised medical condition by next year.

A woman at work. Many Kenyans are feeling disengaged at work without realising they are burnt out.
A woman at work. Many Kenyans are feeling disengaged at work without realising they are burnt out.
Image: COURTESY

Are you feeling like every day is a bad day at your workplace? Or physically or emotionally drained all the time? What about increasingly mentally distanced from your job, or less efficient? You could be battling burnout. 

The World Health Organisation last month added burnout to its list of International Classification of Diseases. This effectively gives it the possibility of being listed as a globally recognised medical condition by next year.

Well, for bosses who dismiss employees complaining of this feeling as indolent and slothful, beware! 

The global organisation defines burnout as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Such feelings are linked to the condition in the context of work environments.

Symptoms include frequent headaches or muscle pain, lowered immunity, frequent illnesses, and change in appetite or sleep habits. So what does this mean? You can now claim a sick leave by getting a doctor's writ diagnosing you with ‘burnout'.

Xavier Lang'at* (not his real name), a subeditor at one of the newsrooms in Nairobi, says he frequently experiences these symptoms, sometimes blacking out right as he edits an article. 

"I even experienced this last week. I tend to feel deeply exhausted and even disenchanted with my work," he said, explaining that his work shift sometimes sees him work Monday to Sunday and full working hours.

Because of staff shortage in his department, Lang'at rarely gets permission to go on leave.

I feel exhausted like all the time. Headache is part of me. Sometimes I black out right in front of my computer as I serve a customer
Banker *Lazaro Ratemo

PAINKILLERS EVERY DAY

Lazaro Ratemo* has been a banker for 10 years now. He says his work comes with immense pressure and long working hours, especially since he got promoted to a senior role three years ago.

 

He works over 10 hours a day and reaches his Eastlands house at around 11pm on average. 

"I have to be at work by 7.30am, and so I have to leave my house by 4.30am or thereabouts," he says. This means that Ratemo has very little time to rest, given he also works on Saturdays half day. 

This has taken a toll on him, making him carry painkillers in his bag every day. 

"I feel exhausted like all the time. Headache is part of me. Sometimes I black out right in front of my computer as I serve a customer," he told this writer.

But this is not all. Ratemo also experiences emotional exhaustion, occasionally feeling sad, an experience that has driven him to drunkenness and reckless sexual behaviour.

 
 

"I sometimes feel wasted, even after working so hard, because a big chunk of the good monies I receive ends up in pubs and different ladies, some at Koinange street," he said. 

Maselina Adhiambo, a house help working and living with a family of six — two parents and six children in Kawangware's Satellite area — laments how she has to be active close to 20 hours a day.

"Doing house chores is my means of livelihood, but it takes a toll on me sometimes. I have to be up by 4am every morning and get to bed earliest by 11.30 in the night, after all the kids are asleep and their school materials prepared. I have to feed them, help them do assignments and retire them," Adhiambo, known in her plot area as Adhis, said. 

"I feel sleepy mostly and of late, I have become really forgetful, even on minute things," she added. 

Asked why she has not considered quitting the job or looking for an employer who is less demanding, Adhiambo said she is sentimentally attached to her present employer because the family was the first to receive her in Nairobi five years ago from her Lifunga village rural home, Siaya county. 

Lang'at, Ratemo and Adhiambo are among a growing number of Kenyans suffering burnout and taking it for granted.

SYMPTOMS

These include frequent headaches or muscle pain, lowered immunity, frequent illnesses and change in appetite or sleep habits.

LEFT FEELING SUICIDAL

It is easy to dismiss the symptoms of burnout until you understand that, if not well attended to and left to recur, it has a thin line between it and mental health. Extreme burnout leads to depression, with its attendant risks to the extreme. 

Alex Njuguna, a pastor in one of Nairobi's evangelical churches, recognises burnout as a common risk in his work of ministry, and so takes care of himself. 

Njuguna, a father of three, told the Star ministry work is more demanding than people think, with one having to devote all days of the week to counselling couples and young people, besides outreach activities, preaching to households in his neighbourhood. This sucks up energy, he says. 

"It is easy for one to think that pastors are lazy chaps with no work to do. Ministry work is as hard and involving," he said.

"The good thing is that I love it."

Njuguna said he has been in ministry for over 10 years and, in the early years, would be involved all days of the week without rest. This cumulatively took a toll on him.

"I would be very angry with a very short proclivity to be mad, intolerant to people with divergent views or approaches to situations, and lacked motivation in what I did. I was working under another senior pastor," he said. 

Njuguna would be stressed, even turning suicidal. 

"I initially thought that what I was going through was just normal stress until I decided to take some sabbatical and cool off," he said.

The man of God has understood his work patterns, frequently taking rests to give his family time and also for self-reflection.

MANAGING THE CONDITION

• Listen to your body and take a break when it is strained.

• Don't take leave days in bulk; spread them evenly across the working months. 

• See a psychotherapist and get medication if sleep and appetite are affected.

PREVENTION BETTER THAN CURE

Psychologist Liz Gichinu told the Star burnout and stress "could actually be two sides of the same coin". This means burnout has a confluence with elements of stress, only that stress involves too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and mentally, she said.

Gichinu said instead of waiting to find remedies, it is better to prevent the condition. 

"The first line of defence against burnout is listening to yourself. The moment you realise that you easily become irritable and have to struggle to drag yourself to do a task that you otherwise feel excited and psyched doing, take a break," she said.

Gichinu says understanding the patterns of your system is a part of self-care, something she says no one else will do for you.

"We have to take responsibility of ourselves and love our bodies, listen to them and respond to every change you see," she said.

"Take a week off when you feel the symptoms and rest, keep off from work," she said, adding that with the thin line between burnout and stress, aggravated psychological exhaustion can easily slip into mental health territory, engendering depression. 

Some organisations have limited paid leave days, say 21, and most employees would want to let the days accumulate and take them early or later in the year. 

However, Gichinu advises otherwise. "Let people distribute the paid leave days evenly across the working months for effective rest as part of preventing burnout."

Failure to do this, she says, would push burnout victims into negative remedies, which often include alcoholism and hook-up kind of relationships. 

Dr Catherine Syengo, a psychiatrist, backed up the advice, saying there is an overarching need to "listen to yourself and seek rest whenever you suspect the symptoms of burnout".

But Syengo adds that taking a week off won’t be enough, recommending a therapeutic response to the condition. 

"The emotional bit of burnout will need one to talk to a psychotherapist, and if sleep and appetite are affected, then seeking medication is a suitable step," she said. 

Syengo said the casual attitude with which people have treated burnout is the same manner the society has dismissed mental health issues, yet many people are suffering in silence. 

"Mental health issues are about the questions: are you able to reach your potential in what you are doing? Do you feel motivated anymore in a task that you have been thrilled in doing before? Are you on track to attain your ambitions?" she said.

If narrowed down this way, she said, people may take burnout, which is essentially a mental health issue, seriously. 

Let the discussion not drift to mental health illness, she said, explaining that the condition's gradual growth may actually get out of hands.

To bosses, you stand to gain if you invest in the welfare of your employees. Caring about their emotional health is as important as investing in their emotional health. A properly rested employee is more productive and effective in their work.