By now we are all into the swing of 2020. But this is a tough month, more to be survived than relished, and with only February to anticipate. We’re back at work, under pressure to give Dry January or Veganuary a go (ideally not both), overweight and feebly dieting, re-joining the gym, wrestling with personal and professional goals while anxiously awaiting the credit card bills.

Also, in wishing family, friends and clients a healthy New Year, something else caught my eye this time. After much debate, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has now listed burnout among its International Classification of Diseases, meaning that it will be a clinically diagnosable medical condition from 2020.

I raise this now because, as we stand on the threshold of a new decade, recognising and resolving burnout will, in my view, be one of the significant workplace challenges of the next 10 years.

It doesn’t help that burnout sounds made-up, aspirational almost, something to boast about over a few drinks on a Friday evening. The reality is very different. A large 2018 Gallup survey revealed that, in the US, 23% of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always and 63% of the participants stated they experience it sometimes.

In truth, burnout is everywhere. As businesses downsize, reducing staff numbers and resources, workloads increase for those who remain. Add a hefty measure of uncertainty about job security/career prospects and the ideal conditions for burnout are in place. Covering now familiar ground, the digital age has also brought a new kind of 24/7 pressure through a constantly connected work culture.

What is burnout? It occurs when pressure exceeds the ability to cope, acknowledging that a certain amount of stress at work can help with engagement and productivity.

Burnout is characterised by three main symptoms – feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased negativity, dissonance or mental distance from one’s job; reduced professional efficacy.

The costs of burnout are enormous, financial and human. WHO estimates the annual hit to the global economy at a staggering $323 billion. Stress-induced absenteeism (and ‘presenteeism’) have escalated in recent years with half of the working days lost in the US being stress-related. And statistics of this kind have now been correlated with an associated increase in rates of heart attack, hypertension and other physiological disorders.

There are some surprising factors too. For example, burnout afflicts people who love their jobs. In fact, passionate, purposeful members of the workforce are more rather than less susceptible to this threat to their wellbeing.

Also, while the trend in some countries towards an ever-increasing number of hours worked does contribute to the problem, burnout is on the march in places like Sweden where a balanced lifestyle has been championed for a long time. Indeed, stress-related illness was the most common reason for Swedes to be off work in 2018, according to the Swedish Social Insurance Agency.

The reason? Some commentators have suggested that Sweden’s generous welfare system plays a role here (making sick leave a viable economic option) but, even so, the prevalence of chronic stress levels in the working population does not sit well with the nation’s relatively short working hours.

And here lies another key driver of burnout, namely the wider social pressure to achieve, because, of course, there are elements outside the workplace that can contribute to what manifests itself most markedly at work. Modern mantras encourage us to live out our dreams, seeking to persuade us that, if we try hard enough, we can be anything we want to be.

This belief system delivers for a small minority and can, when applied across the board, generate a proneness to turn essential recreation into yet another trigger for exhaustion.

For Professor Marie Åsberg, a psychiatrist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, the brain cannot differentiate between employment and other work-like tasks, such as a competitive hobby or an obsessive Instagram habit. In her words: “I guess the brain doesn’t care if you get paid for it, or not”.

Is there any good news? Fortunately, yes. The common view is that burnout can both be prevented and reversed.

This requires shared endeavour. Company bosses must eschew a culture that rewards longer hours and treat everyone fairly, based on merit. They need to stay in touch with the day-to-day reality, in order to help individual team members be clear about what is expected of them and manage their workload. Unmanageable stress is less likely burden employees who feel able to work at their natural best with the control, time and resources they need.

For their part, employees can also help prevent burnout by being alive to the danger signs. They must regularly interrogate their expectations against what is achievable and raise a flag if the workload is starting to overwhelm them.

Burnout results from chronic stress, not from external stressors. Getting on top of the to-do list won’t solve the problem and being busy is a sure-fire way of not dealing with it. On the other hand, a healthy diet, sensible exercise regime, fresh air and a daily smartphone/social media curfew will certainly help. And, failing this, group or individual therapy can be hugely beneficial.

In combatting burnout, therefore, organisations need to support (not blame) their employees and workers need to support (not evade) themselves.

Whether we like it or not, 21st century work environments and lifestyles are becoming more and more conducive to burnout risk. There’s nothing fancy about how we turn this around. Given that stress is part of everyday life, we need to respect it and address it head-on, allowing our bodies to complete what authors and twin sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski refer to, in their groundbreaking book on burnout, as “the stress response cycle”.

In a nutshell, whatever 2020 brings, take time to unwind completely. Happy New Year.