Burnout is a serious health condition that impacts around 23% of workers. It can destroy a person’s performance at work and their family life when left unmanaged in the long term. However, employers and individuals are becoming more aware of the signs of burnout, which gives us all the opportunity to take action against work-related burnout. In this article, we’ll discuss what is work burnout in-depth, including the symptoms, trends and solutions.
This article does not constitute medical advice. If you are experiencing a severe health condition, then you should consult a medical professional.
What is work burnout?
You may have heard of burnout as the ‘overachiever syndrome’. It’s associated with individuals who have pushed themselves beyond what can be expected or asked from any one person. But, in my experience, it is far from a badge of achievement or something to be proud of, due to the negative consequences for our health.
At its most extreme, burnout signals a complete physical and mental breakdown that can take a long time and significant treatment to recover from. It not only robs sufferers from a healthy and enjoyable life, but it can also cause a high degree of stress for loved ones, especially if the burned-out individual hides away and cuts themselves off from support.
There are few things in life as heartbreaking as watching a loved one falling apart.
The signs of burnout
According to the pioneering research led by Christina Maslach burnout is characterised by three key symptoms:
- physical and emotional exhaustion (extreme fatigue)
- cynicism and detachment
- feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.
Physical and Emotional Exhaustion
If you are approaching burnout, you will likely feel a deep sense of fatigue. The type of tiredness that a good night’s sleep, or even a holiday, does not take the edge off. You may wake up feeling like you haven’t been to sleep, and for some people, no matter how tired they get, rest just won’t come.
The more exhausted you become, the harder it is to concentrate. You might feel like you are walking around in a bit of a fog or a daze, forgetting what you were just doing, or struggling to figure out things that would typically come easily.
Stress has a significant effect on the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for our higher-level functioning – known as ‘executive function’. Executive function governs your memory, decision-making abilities, emotional control, and focus. If you notice that you’re making silly mistakes, forgetting important things, having outbursts of emotion, or making poor decisions, this may be a warning that you are on the path to burnout.
You might find it increasingly difficult to keep your emotions in check. Your patience dwindles, and those around you might find you difficult to be around. You might experience bursts of anger with a strength of feeling that scares you.
Stress makes many people more irritable and likely to get involved in unproductive arguments. Others are more inclined to withdraw and avoid people they care about.
Your appetite may start reducing. Perhaps you’ll forget a meal or two at first. Later on, it may become near impossible to get any food down, and your weight may start to plummet.
You may start picking up all the bugs and colds doing the rounds, simply because your body is exhausted and less equipped to fight them off. You might also notice physical symptoms like a racing heart, chest pains, stomach pains, sweats, lightheadedness, headaches and feeling faint. If you are experiencing these symptoms, it’s wise to seek formal medical advice.
You may start to feel on edge, worried, sad and a little hopeless. As burnout takes a greater hold, this could progress to severe anxiety and depression.
IMPORTANT NOTE: if you at any point find yourself thinking that the world would be better off without you, you must seek immediate professional support to help you through this.
Cynicism and Detachment
You may have always prided yourself on being someone who only spent their time doing what they enjoy, or perhaps love. But, somewhere along the lines, you stopped enjoying it as much.
What started out as a little of that Sunday evening blues, is now ramping up into feeling less and less like you want to be in the office. Somedays you just feel like you want to run away.
You had always looked on the bright side and never understood negative people; why would you spend time in a situation that didn’t fire you up? But somewhere along the line this positivity has started slipping, and you feel more glass half empty most of the time. Over time this is impacting your relationships, and you feel pessimistic.
You used to enjoy others’ company, but this is starting to feel less and less comfortable and desirable. You’ve started pretending not to see people you know when you are out, and you may begin isolating yourself in the office to avoid contact with others. You may start feeling inexplicable anger or resentment if people come up to you at work or call you; ‘don’t they know how busy I am?!’
Over time you may feel increasingly detached from your work and environment. You might start taking more absences and stop returning emails and phone calls.
Feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment
You might be putting all the hours into your work or other activities, but somehow you don’t seem to be getting anywhere fast. Your to-do list seems to be getting longer as demands and stress builds up. Concentration becomes more challenging, and you find yourself starting many things and finishing few. You feel like you are sinking under pressure.
As pressure mounts and you feel less capable of getting through your workload, feelings of hopelessness can set in. You start to wonder “What is the point of all of this? Even working flat out, I am not getting anywhere.’
You can feel your confidence and resilience slipping. You may lash out irritably at others through the sheer frustration of the situation. At the extreme, this can permanently damage the relationships that you have invested yourself in over many years.
Why is work-related burnout increasing?
Search data from Google showed that online searches for content about burnout increased by 24% in 2020. The impacts of COVID-19 certainly have a role in this as companies are under increasing financial pressure. Staff may be covering more than one role. Individuals are spending most of their time in one space where they work and live, perhaps also juggling homeschooling.
However, even without the effects of the pandemic, burnout has been rising steadily. There are now fewer boundaries between work and home life as we have devices and technology that enable us to work on the go and be contactable from all locations. The devices were welcomed for their possibilities to free us from fixed locations, but our addiction to checking emails and texts, makes it very difficult to draw the line on when the working day starts and finishes, especially if we work in an environment where fast response times are expected.
In some companies, weekend working and working from holidays is commonplace, leaving employees with very little time to mentally switch off and take care of themselves. Over time, long hours and intense pressure can take a significant physical and mental health toll.
The more tired and burned out we become, the more it impacts our performance and means we have to work for longer to get the same amount done.
What can employers do about job burnout?
There are many things that employers can do to reduce the impacts of burnout.
- Talk about burnout in the workplace – once individuals know the signs of burnout on their physical and mental health, then it’s much easier to take action before it’s too late, especially if they work in a supportive workplace.
- Support those experiencing burnout – if an employee raises concerns about workplace stress and lets you know they are experiencing burnout, then it’s important to take immediate action to support them. This support may come in the form of helping them with time off for professional medical support, or some time out to rest and practice good self-care. Others may need support with their to-do list for a period.
- Track absence data – employers can track patterns in absence data to pinpoint issues in particular areas of the organisation, or trends across all workers.
- Look for factors contributing to work stress – employers have a responsibility to provide a safe workplace. They can regularly review how the culture and any workplace policies are impacting employee morale and absence data.
- Encourage practices that protect mental health – a healthy work environment is one in which employees eat well, sleep well, exercise and learn other coping mechanisms for stress. Employers can encourage these positive practices through workplace wellbeing programmes and education.
How can individuals avoid job burnout?
At the same time, individuals can also take proactive action to avoid burnout:
- Building some self-care into every day – many of us live busy lives and have to juggle job stress, parent stress, home stress and health conditions. It’s essential to take some every day to ensure we are eating well, drinking enough water, taking some breaks away from the screen, switching off from work and getting some exercise. When we feel we are too busy for these things, we are likely to experience the most benefits from forcing ourselves to do them.
- Find a way to keep work-related issues in perspective – when in the work environment, it can feel like the end of the world when something goes wrong. One practice that helps my mental health in these circumstances is to imagine I am looking at the Earth from space. From that perspective, my issue is too small to notice. The reality is that you won’t remember most work issues in a few days’ time.
- Ask for help – if you notice signs of chronic stress in yourself and suspect you are about to experience burnout, reach out for help in the workplace and from a medical professional. Though this can be incredibly hard to do – we all like to think we can cope with anything thrown at us – if we don’t let people know we are experiencing high levels of stress, we are not allowing them to support us. This support could come in the form of some time off, or additional support with our tasks.
- Developing coping strategies – most jobs and home lives have the potential to expose us to high stress levels. It’s, therefore important to develop strategies to protect your health and energy levels. For example, you can test how a change in your sleep habits impacts your health. If you find you have much higher energy with seven hours, make that a non-negotiable – everything else has to wait. If a morning run helps you be a better parent, boss or colleague, do all you can to build this into your schedule. Don’t wait for permission.
- Find a role that provides job satisfaction – we are less likely to experience stress and burnout when doing what we love at work.
Conclusion: we do not have to accept work-related burnout
Burnout should not be an accepted part of the job. Through proper education and awareness about burnout and its signs, employers can reduce its occurrence in the work environment long term.
Individuals can take action to reduce their stress levels by doing the basics of sleeping and eating well, taking breaks to keep their productivity levels high, and spending quality time away from their job role with family members. Self-care takes motivation and consistency, but as you develop a routine, the results will show, and you’ll notice your energy returning.
Remember, you are enough. You deserve to look after yourself and enjoy good health. Burnout is not a necessary part of the job or the price we pay for success.
We can defeat burnout.
If you have any questions about this article, or thoughts you’d like to share, feel free to leave a comment below.