Had a hard day? Or a hard week? Everyone struggles sometimes at work. High pressure, deadlines, salary cuts, that colleague who gets on your nerves…all of this is normal and even to be expected.
The problem is when there are too many hard days or weeks, and work stress becomes overwhelming. Then you might be headed to the more challenging situation of job burnout.
What is job burnout exactly?
A candle burning at both ends is a good metaphor for job burnout. When there is an overload of stress at work, and when that stress is not managed properly, your energy, enthusiasm, and performance get used up very quickly, and eventually you feel ‘burnt out’, or depleted.
Job burnout is a big deal for employees and their employers. For employees, burnout leads to physical and mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, feelings of frustration and inadequacy, and difficulty with daily functioning, and it puts a strain on relationships outside of the workplace too.
For employers, job burnout is terrible for productivity and team morale. There are much higher rates of absenteeism and high turnover of staff, eating up time and resources, and making it difficult for the business to thrive. Job burnout is very real.
More than three-quarters of workers say they feel burnt out sometimes, and 21% say they get burnout often. It’s a problem that can’t be ignored.
How do you diagnose work-related burnout?
If stress overload at work is a chronic problem, then burnout is pretty much inevitable. Work-related burnout often creeps up gradually, so it can be hard to detect. You may be so involved in what’s going on at work that you don’t notice your feelings or you may not connect certain symptoms with work stress.
If you have been under prolonged or constant stress at work, here are some possible signs of job burnout (of course, it is always recommended to consult your doctor about any unusual or troubling symptoms):
Job burnout symptoms: physical
- Chronic headaches
- Digestion issues
- Difficulty sleeping
- Chronic back or neck pain
- General feeling of malaise
Job burnout symptoms: mental & emotional
- Dread of going to work
- Moodiness/emotional dysregulation
- Apathy towards work or life in general
What are the risk factors and causes of job burnout?
Job burnout can happen to anyone. As long as there is an overload of stress at work, and that stress is not managed properly or in a timely way, then burnout is a risk.
There are some factors that make the risk of burnout higher. These include the work environment, the personality traits of the employee, and lifestyle issues:
The work environment is not just the physical space, but also the way that employees are managed, compensated and treated on a daily basis. Work environment factors that can cause burnout include:
- Chronic overload of tasks or responsibilities
- Poor management styles and work processes
- Lack of attentiveness to employees’ needs or concerns
- Being underappreciated or underpaid
- Expected to perform tasks outside of one’s capabilities
- Inadequate workplace conditions (ie. improper equipment, lack of privacy)
Each individual has a unique character and personality, and some traits may make them more susceptible to job burnout. The following traits may be associated with a higher risk of burnout at work:
- Perfectionist attitude/ high expectations of oneself
- Not asking for help
- Lack of assertiveness in stating one’s needs
- Agreeableness/taking on tasks and responsibilities unnecessarily
- High sensitivity
The individual’s lifestyle at work and outside of work hours can have an impact on their risk of job burnout. Unhealthy habits such as these can make it harder for people to cope with work stress, causing them to burn out more quickly:
- Workaholic tendencies
- Not enough sleep
- Lack of physical activity
- Poor dietary habits
- Relationship difficulties
- Lack of family or social support
The difference between stress and burnout
One of the key characteristics of job burnout was identified by UCLA professor of psychology Christina Maslach. Her research noted that burnout can be measured and identified by three factors: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and personal accomplishment.
Job burnout is distinguished from regular stress by a sense of cynicism, lack of interest in the job, and emotional exhaustion at work. In other words, the individual is not just stressed and tired; they are ‘fed up’ and no longer enjoy their job.
The Maslach Burnout Inventory is the world’s first scientific method for measuring burnout accurately and is very useful to determine if one is simply overworked and stressed, or has the more serious and chronic form of job burnout.
5 ways to recover from job burnout
It might seem that the solution to job burnout is to resign and move on to a different job. In some cases, like a toxic workplace, this might be the best choice. But burnout is not always a reason to quit.
In many instances, recognizing the symptoms of burnout and making changes to your routine or expectations can help you calm down, perform better and regain a sense of joy from your job.
Here are 5 ways to recover when you are hit by job burnout:
1. Take regular breaks
Step back and take breaks at work when you feel you need to. Just a 10 minute walk or a cup of tea in the sunshine can reduce the immediate buildup of stress. Taking a mental health day every now and again, and extended vacations a couple of times a year are also important.
2. Adjust your workload
People are not machines, but when the tasks are coming hard and fast, you may feel like one. When your workload is too much, communicate with your boss about it. If you are fortunate to be employed in a healthy workplace, your manager will want to know when their expectations are no longer realistic so they can make the necessary adjustments.
3. Consult a psychologist or counselor
For some people, getting help from mental health specialists is a vital step towards job burnout recovery. Whether you respond best to traditional ‘talk’ therapy, or if you prefer art therapy, movement therapy or any other method, don’t be shy to solicit professional support to help you identify the reasons for your burnout and what you need to do to recover.
4. Exercise regularly
There are many benefits of self-discipline, and exercising regularly is one of them. Exercise is one of the best stress relievers, and a powerful tool in healing from job burnout. The type of exercise you do is less important than simply making the time to do it as often as you can.
Some people enjoy the soothing impact of swimming laps, while others prefer the cardio burn of dance aerobics. Yoga, weight lifting, jogging or a social sport like tennis are all great choices for your exercise routine.
5. Use a biofeedback meditation device
The various techniques of meditation can be an effective tool in recovering from job burnout. Combined with biofeedback, they are even more powerful. What is biofeedback? It’s a method used to help understand the physiological symptoms of stress as they occur, and train the mind to calm the thought processes that cause those symptoms.
Many people use a biofeedback device while they meditate to track the impact of the meditation practice on their physiological response. By using a biofeedback meditation device for just a few minutes every day, individuals who are suffering from burnout can alleviate the immediate symptoms of stress, and learn how to manage stress better in the long term.
How do organizations prevent burnout?
Employees who feel they are treated unfairly at work are more than twice as likely to suffer from burnout. Besides the obvious moral and ethical issues, it is also in the business interests of employers to prevent burnout by ensuring a fair, healthy and supportive workplace.
This will increase productivity, reduce absenteeism, reduce turnover rates, and make the business more efficient and successful. Here are some ways that organizations can fulfill their obligation to employees to prevent burnout:
- Better communication: Unclear communication is a big source of stress in the workplace. Employees who don’t understand what is expected from them, don’t feel that their opinions are heard, or who receive mixed messages from different managers will feel confused and unconfident. Nip burnout in the bud by improving communication among staff. Implement communication tools and provide communication training workshops to encourage consistent effective communication,
- Improve work processes and workloads: Make sure that each employee’s workload is appropriate and realistic, and take steps to rectify work processes that are overly stressful. Another important tactic is to give employees agency in their work responsibilities – invite them to participate in structuring their workload and listen to their opinions about how to improve processes. Feeling a sense of control is critical to mental health and job satisfaction.
- Remove the stigma around mental health: Shame and isolation are too often a part of the burnout experience. Create a workplace that encourages openness and sharing around issues of mental health. When employees can communicate their feelings without stigma or shame, they are far more likely to raise the red flag before stress becomes excessive and turns into burnout. Removing the stigma around mental health in the workplace also encourages colleagues to be more authentic with one another and build stronger relationships, which is really important to preventing burnout.
- Show appreciation for staff: Everybody has a longing to be seen, valued and appreciated. It’s part of being human. Show appreciation for employees in small and big ways, such as pay raises, mental health days, healthy snacks, fun days, calling out employees for a job well done, and offering flexibility to leave early or work from home. Employers who tangibly show their appreciation will be supporting the mental health of their staff, and helping to prevent the emotional stress that can lead to burnout.
- Encourage staff to take time off: Having time off to unwind and reboot is one of the most important parts of preventing burnout. Employers should actively encourage staff to take the time they need away from the office, whether it be the occasional mental health day, a long weekend, or stress leave.
Burnout without quitting your job – it’s possible
Even if you work part-time or are working in a field that you love, job stress and burnout can and do happen. The key is to become aware of the signs and symptoms of burnout and take the necessary steps to prevent it from setting in. If you are already burnt out, don’t despair – use the tips above to recover from burnout and once again become the joyful and productive worker you want to be.