It’s on the rise & can happen to anyone, but prevention is better than cure
They say that if you find a job you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.
There’s some truth to that—but it isn’t the whole story. Stress and fatigue come with virtually any position, and burnout could be just around the corner. Especially if you feel like your skills are slipping away or that your work doesn’t matter.
Burnout can happen to the best of us. Especially to the best of us – and the pandemic has put an even bigger strain on our well-being. But there are ways to fight back – here are some of the proven ways to actively prevent or overcome burnout.
What is Burnout?
Did you know that more than half of 1,500 American workers said they felt burnt out by job demands in 2021?
Well, now you know you’re not alone!
The dreaded monster is real and lurks in every organization where chronic stress, poor work culture, unreasonable or unclear expectations (coupled with insufficient resources), and lack of work-life balance reign.
You might recognize one of the following types of burnout:
- Overload burnout: It’s past the end of the day, but you’re still at your desk. You’re recklessly exhausted. Your mind spins and your fingers are tense, frantically completing the daunting assignment that should have been done four hours ago.
- Under-challenge burnout: The meeting just ended, and you’re given an intern-level project when you’ve been working in your role for five years. Your manager just doesn’t appreciate your work; you’re bored with the project already; and you feel like it’s just going to be another mindless couple of weeks doing things that aren’t worth your time. Cynical thoughts arise, and you subconsciously—or consciously—disengage from your work.
- Neglect burnout: You’re handed this huge project with a deadline you know you just couldn’t meet. Helplessness overwhelms you as you struggle to find the resources, people, and time you need to complete the work. Feelings of incompetence tempts you to become impassive and disinterested in the project.
The World Health Organization defines burnout as:
“chronic and unmitigated stress manifested as severe exhaustion, increased mental distance from work, and reduced professional efficacy.”
Burnout is described as a workplace phenomenon – it’s not the same as being exhausted from packing for a month-long vacation the night before the flight. If you’re exposed to ongoing stressful situations at work (and who isn’t), you might be suffering burnout.
Burnout vs Fatigue and Stress
You’d be wrong to think that burnout is just another form of fatigue or stress.
Stress is a physical and emotional response to changes in life. Your heart rate goes up, your pupils dilate, and your mind goes into hyperdrive—or stalls, depending on how you see it. You’re meeting a tight deadline, your boss is breathing down your neck, or you are about to give a speech in front of a thousand people. Positive stress (better known as excitement) or even short-term stress can be empowering and motivating. Too much long-term stress, however, can lead to burnout.
Fatigue comes around when you’re physically and mentally tired after working on a project, sitting in a long meeting, or solving a problem. You feel somewhat drained of energy and devoid of motivation, both physical and emotional. But it’s nothing to worry about—it’s the kind of tiredness a nap takes care of in no time.
So, what makes burnout different from short-lived stresses and simple exhaustion? It is specifically an extended period of unaddressed and unmitigated stress that feels impossible to overcome.
Stress is about having too much pressure, while burnout is about not having enough physical, mental, and emotional bandwidth to deal with that pressure. (A slight distinction there—but a crucial one.)
Being burnt out is more than tension under pressure or exhaustion due to overwork—it’s feeling completely empty, mentally exhausted, totally unmotivated, and beyond caring.
On a personal level, job burnout is a risk factor for depression, aggression, substance abuse, and even suicide. On an organizational level, it may result in low productivity, high turnover, loss of talent, and added hiring costs to replace burnt-out employees.
Signs and Symptoms of Burnout
Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. It is often a gradual process that can creep up on the best of us. Symptoms might be subtle at first; but if ignored, they may very well snowball into a major breakdown.
Physical signs of burnout may include:
- Tiredness and a sense of being drained
- Lowered immunity
- Frequent illnesses
- Frequent headaches
- Muscle pain
- Change in appetite
- Abnormal sleeping habits
Emotional symptoms of burnout may look like:
- A heavy sense of failure
- Feelings of helplessness or being trapped and defeated
- Loss of motivation
- An increasingly cynical or negative outlook
- Decreased satisfaction
- Little or no sense of accomplishment
When experiencing burnout, behavioral changes may include:
- Withdrawal from responsibilities.
- Substance abuse
- Changes in diet and sleeping habits
Keep your eyes peeled for these warning signs. More often than not, addressing these symptoms before they get worse is the most crucial step to battling burnout.
Why Does Burnout Happen?
Burnout often slips into our lives in the form of three symptoms—exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.
Exhaustion may stem from the demands of an always-on-call, 24/7 organizational culture, intense time pressure, or an overwhelming workload. You might feel like you have no control over your own work; you may have a strong personal dislike of the project, or you just don’t have the necessary skills to complete the task. All this compounds the already stressful situation, leading to fatigue.
Cynicism results from erosion of engagement with your work, the people you work with, and the meaning or purpose of your work. It’s a vague but unrelenting feeling of not being connected to your job the way you once were. An overwhelming workload may be to blame for this situation, as can conflict and unfairness within the workplace. When cynicism becomes persistent, it’s a sign that you’re experiencing burnout.
Inefficacy means feeling incompetent, unmotivated, and unproductive. You probably know what this feels like already. You worry that your skills are slipping away. You’re afraid you won’t succeed in certain areas. You have a sinking feeling that you just can’t accomplish particular tasks. Lack of clear expectations, insufficient information, absence of feedback or recognition, and low levels of autonomy are common culprits leading to inefficacy.
Burnout almost always never comes as a direct result of an emergency at work. More often than not, it’s due to many stressful, tiring, and unsatisfactory factors that accumulate over time.
How To Prevent Burnout as an Individual
With all that said, here are four things to start doing today to keep that inner tank of energy, positivity, and enthusiasm full.
- Unplug Regularly: Being always “on the job” may seem like you’re being productive. But when you’re starting to feel emotionally or mentally drained, it’s time to step away from your devices. A carefully planned long weekend, or even a new habit of turning off your phone after 8 pm, would be extremely beneficial.
- Set Clear Boundaries: Keep personal time and work hours separate. Take breaks to recharge yourself throughout the day—arrange a social lunch date, do a workout, or call family and friends.
- Keep To-Do lists Minimal: Overstuffing your daily list of to-dos adds to a sense of failure and may become overwhelming. Rewrite that list to emphasize only the most important priorities. Then take those tasks one by one, and don’t try to do everything at once.
- Keep It Positive: Since energy is contagious, why not spread some positivity wherever you are? Praise coworkers when they do an amazing job. Show others that you’re listening, that you care, and that you’re emphatic about their contribution. Be a “positive gossipper”!
It’s obviously important to always stay many steps ahead of burnout and its debilitating symptoms. However, burnout is more than just an individual issue—it’s something that should be addressed at the organizational level as well.
How Companies Can Help Prevent Burnout
Burnout isn’t just about the individual worker. Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It puts it this way, “Burnout is about the organization, not the people.”
Employers may want to check in with their employees to understand their needs and follow through with healthy changes to the work environment. Warning signs of burnout to look for in an organization include lowered productivity levels, missed meetings, loss of enthusiasm, or dejected body language.
Organizational leaders may consider doing the following to ensure job burnout doesn’t seep into their company:
- Make employees feel valued
- Set clear boundaries that separate work and personal life
- Create reasonable expectations for work hours
- Setting fair policies with regards to parental leave,
- Addressing systemic discrimination
- Creating an environment of collaboration and openness
Maintaining balance is also crucial, says Dr. Christina Maslach. When organizational leaders add new things to their employees’ plates, other things should be taken off.
Clear work-life boundaries and reasonable expectations go a long way toward ensuring workers experience minimal physical, mental, and emotional turmoil as they do their job.
How To Recover From Burnout if It Happens
If you feel like you’re ticking all the boxes so far when it comes to burnout, don’t ignore them and power ahead. On the flip side, don’t quit your job just yet either.
Why? Because you can recover from burnout. The following steps will show you how. And yes, that includes overcoming work-from-home burnout (we all know that’s a thing).
- Take Regular Breaks: Ever have way too much to do, not enough resources, and impossible deadlines? That’s a recipe for job burnout. Our minds and bodies just aren’t meant to work that hard that long, psychiatrist and well-being coach Dr. Gaurava Agarwal says. Don’t fall into the trap of becoming a “work martyr”. Take five minutes in an hour or one day a week to do something that makes you feel rested.
- Have Something to Look Forward To: Psychiatrist and professor Kali Cyrus says that meaningful goal-setting can help shift our relationship with time to a more positive and healthy perspective. Plan a trip, a night out with your significant other, or even a long walk with your dog to get your mind off work.
- Meditate: There’s a reason why meditation has been around for centuries. It’s a reliable way to reset your mind, calm your body, and improve your focus. Meditating for just 10 minutes a day can be enough to get you back on track mentally and emotionally.
- Reach Out to Others: Don’t be afraid to open up to people around you about the struggles you’re experiencing at work. Reach out to loved ones and let them know how they can best support you when you’re exhausted and stressed—even if it’s just lending a caring, non-judgemental ear.
How Companies Can Better Support Burned-Out Employees
This might make you jealous: A June 2021 article in The Washington Post reported that PepsiCo and Mozilla responded to job burnout among employees with company-wide shutdowns, increased child-care benefits, and customizable work schedules, among other things. Workers achieve a much more healthy work-life balance, making them effective and happy employees.
Other companies would do well to consider following their footsteps by shaking things up in the workplace to minimize burnout potential.
Things to try out might include:
- Increased paid time off for nurturing activities
- Child- and elder-care benefits
- Flexible work schedules
- Fully remote work options
- Customized workdays
- Increased autonomy in how work gets done
- Open discussions on mental health
- Listening to employees
One more thing: Burnout may be socially contagious, so supportive teams and managers would be a huge plus.
Small Changes Add Up to a Long Term Solution
Conclusion of the matter? It all starts with you. If you change nothing, nothing will change. (Of course, you already knew that.)
But even after implementing our advice, it’s important to stay aware of any tell-tale signs of burnout. Even a digital nomad rocking out with a laptop on the beach can suffer burnout. Take stock of even the smallest changes in your work routine or schedule, and monitor how they affect you and your team. Are there things you could be doing to shield yourself and your coworkers from potential burnout?
The key to preventing a long-term issue like burnout lies in tackling the smaller symptoms in the short term before they have the chance to become part of a bigger problem.