Singapore

Seeking help for burnout is ‘not weak’

As work stress can exact a toll on workers and employers, sufferers should not be ashamed to ask for help, says IMH psychologist

In 2012, work stress coupled with inadequate sleep caused a lawyer in private practice to have debilitating migraines every other day.

Mr Wong Yi not only suffered intense pain, but his vision was also affected, rendering him unable to read off his computer screen or review documents.

He told The New Paper recently: "I went to see a doctor. But when medication did not stop the pain, I had no choice but to take medical leave."

During this period, Mr Wong was working 11-hour days and sleeping only four to five hours. He became increasingly exhausted, demoralised and disillusioned.

When he realised that he was experiencing burnout, he took steps to help himself and left private practice to become an in-house lawyer in August 2014.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies burnout as an "occupational phenomenon", not a medical condition.

According to WHO, burnout occurs due to chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

It is characterised by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job, and reduced professional efficacy - all of which Mr Wong experienced.

Burnout among workers can exact an economic toll on employers in terms of medical expenses, lost productivity and employee morale.

A recent study found that physician burnout in the United States costs US$4.6 billion (S$6.2 billion) a year.

Though there has been no national study on burnout in general, the Singapore Medical Journal released a study on physician burnout in 2017, which found a much higher prevalence of burnout among medical graduates here than in the US.

Dr Jacob Rajesh, senior consultant psychiatrist at Promises Healthcare, chalks it up to differences in culture.

"We are a competitive society and long working hours are part of our work ethos," he said.

"Also, in Asian societies, there is higher societal and parental pressure for children to enter professional courses."

PHONE

Tech advancements could also increase the prevalence of burnout. For instance, always having a phone by one's side can sometimes be a bane.

Dr Eric Hong, consultant cardiologist at EH Heart Specialist, told TNP: "There are days when I am exhausted, but I have patients texting me at 2am wanting a second opinion on their medical reports. These add to the fatigue."

Not many working adults, especially in the medical field, are willing to talk about burnout.

Dr Lim Ing Haan, a senior consultant cardiologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, said: "No one wants to talk about burnout. Junior doctors don't speak to their seniors about it as they are expected to manage in high-stress environments.

"Admitting to burnout may mean showing vulnerability, and this could work against them. Ironically, it is not part of medical culture to ask for help."

Psychologists urge workers not to clam up or be ashamed to seek help.

Ms Denise Lim, a clinical psychologist in the Institute of Mental Health's Department of Psychology, said: "Asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a strength to be proud of."

She offers these tips:

  •  take time off from work responsibilities to relax;
  •  allow yourself to feel useful in other aspects of your life, such as doing charity work;
  •  reflect on what attracted you initially to your profession; and
  •  let yourself ask for help.

Mr Wong said his career move in 2014 could not have happened at a better time, because his wife gave birth to their first child a month later.

"I wasn't happy (in private practice). I could see I would be burned-out again if I did not make the switch. And I wanted to be there when my daughter was growing up," he said.

The couple now have two daughters, aged two and five.

Said Mr Wong: "I am much happier now. My mood is lighter, my migraines are less frequent and I feel less pressured."

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