In any role, at any company, it’s normal to feel a certain level of stress or anxiety about the work you’re doing from time to time. What’s not normal, though, is feeling intensely overwhelmed with this type of stress for an extended period of time.
After a while, this level of overwhelm can develop into burnout, a state of physical and emotional exhaustion that not only affects work but our personal lives and general mental health.
Burnout can be a significant issue that comes about as a result of chronic workplace stress. It’s important for any worker to understand what burnout is, recognize the signs, and avoid getting to a place where it becomes unbearable. Without this, it can lead to a major decrease in our ability to do any work at all and can have a negative impact that lasts for months, if not years.
It’s particularly necessary, though, for those operating at the C-suite level or in senior management roles to be able to spot the signs and know how to tackle burnout, for their own sake as well as that of the workforce that they lead.
If those at the top of the business are unable to mitigate the risk of burnout or act accordingly when it seems to be having an impact, not only can it negatively affect the business objectives but it can be detrimental to the mental health of a number of their employees.
In order to do our best work possible and support the productivity of others, we need to prioritize good mental health and take workplace stress seriously. No job is worth sacrificing your mental health for.
In this article, we’re going to explore:
- What is burnout?
- The symptoms of burnout
- What causes burnout?
- Burnout risk factors
- How to stop feeling so burned out
It’s time to kick burnout to the curb, so let’s dive in. ⏬
What is burnout?
Burnout is a state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion that occurs as a result of long-term stress in a job, or from working in an emotionally or physically demanding role for an extended period of time. What is key is that this comes about as a result of unsuccessful management of this stress or failure to intervene at the first signs of burning out.
The World Health Organization (WHO) characterizes the main three features of burnout as follows:
- "Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings of negativism and/or cynicism related to one's job; and
- Reduced professional efficacy."
Burnout itself is not a medical diagnosis, however, it can negatively impact one’s health, relationships, work performance, and overall quality of life. It stretches beyond just affecting our work, which is why it’s important to be able to recognize the signs and intervene early when work-related stress becomes more significant.
So, what are the symptoms of burnout?
The most common symptoms of burnout can appear much like clinical depression in that it presents an overarching feeling of defeatedness, hopelessness, and lethargy.
Common symptoms can be broken down into physical, emotional, and behavioral - as follows:
- Feeling tired and drained most of the time.
- Lowered immunity, frequent illnesses.
- Frequent headaches, muscle pain, or aches.
- Changes in appetite or sleep habits.
- Sense of failure and self-doubt.
- Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated.
- Detachment, feeling alone in the world.
- Loss of motivation.
- Increasingly cynical and negative outlook.
- Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment.
- Withdrawing from responsibilities.
- Isolating from others.
- Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done.
- Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope.
- Taking out your frustrations on others.
If any of these sound or feel familiar to you or any colleagues or employees, you or they may be experiencing burnout and it’s vital that steps are taken to mitigate the stress.
What causes burnout?
Burnout can come around as a result of numerous factors, including but not limited to the following:
Lack of control
At work, if we feel unable to take some ownership or shape certain aspects of our job, such as a schedule, projects, or workload, it can lead to burnout.
For example, if you find yourself in a position where you are being told to produce a lot of work or need to be involved in a number of projects, while not actually having the time or capacity to complete them, this can be the start of a dangerous workload. This can then be impacted by an expectation that you have to get all of it done, and an inability to deprioritize anything.
Unclear job expectations
In order to work successfully, we need to have a clear understanding of what is expected of us. This can be illustrated through Key Performance Indicators (KPI) that define deliverables on a regular basis, or any goal-setting exercises with your team or management.
Not having access to this understanding can make working life uncomfortable, uncertain, and difficult, because it’s impossible to tell if we’re doing our job correctly or heading in the wrong direction without this knowledge.
Dysfunctional workplace dynamics
In every aspect of life, we are bound to clash with certain personalities or find ourselves in chaotic situations. This becomes a problem when it’s someone you have to be around significantly more, or when they have the power to influence your working life.
This could look like an office bully, colleagues who undermine what you do, or a boss who micromanages your work. All of these examples can compound your feeling of not being good enough at work or increase your stress levels about the work you’re doing.
Extremes of activity
When a job feels monotonous or chaotic, you’ll need to keep up a constant level of energy in order to keep up and remain focused. This can lead to a feeling of fatigue or anxiety.
For example, if you find yourself constantly worrying that something unexpected is going to happen, or you don’t know what may come up for you next, work can become a source of constant stress.
Lack of social support
Loneliness, in any part of our lives, is bad for our health. Having friends at work can help to boost our job satisfaction and performance because it gives us a sense of belonging and provides an outlet for us to speak about anything work-related with someone else who gets it.
This isn’t limited to complaining to a work friend over drinks either. It can look like a friend taking over on a task for you if they know you’re busy or overwhelmed, a manager giving you a shoutout in your team meeting when you’ve been performing well, or a colleague offering some guidance on how to approach a project.
A lack of these support sources at work, and outside of it, can make you feel isolated and alone - all of which can increase the chance of burning out.
Lack of work/life balance
It’s not uncommon to have a couple of days, here and there, where you spend a little longer than usual working. Or you may need to step in to take over from a colleague and have a somewhat larger workload than normal for a few days. However, when it becomes the norm, and you are consistently working longer hours than you are meant to be, then this will quickly become a problem.
So if you find yourself spending the majority of your time working, and sacrificing your personal life or time with family and friends to continue your work - burning out becomes a lot more probable.
Risk factors for burnout
In order to beat burnout to the punch, you should look out for the following risk factors in your role:
- Heavy workload
- Regularly working very long hours
- A struggle with work/life balance
- A lack of control over your work
If you are in a situation where you recognize any of these risks in your role, you should be mindful and keep track of those feelings or situations, so you can know if things need to change from early on - rather than after you find yourself burning out.
How to stop feeling burned out
The first step when it comes to stopping feeling burned out, is to prioritize self-care. Self-care can manifest itself in a variety of ways but ultimately it boils down to making sure you’re looking after yourself as best you can.
This could include making sure you eat a balanced diet, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and doing things you enjoy or that help you relax and stay grounded.
Setting boundaries at work and establishing a clear split between your personal and work life is a key way to stop burnout.
It could look like setting yourself specific work hours and making sure to stick with them, not having your emails or work communications on your personal phone (and not checking these outside of your work hours), or making sure you take regular breaks from work throughout the day.
Boundary-setting can also mean having conversations with colleagues or management to say, “Hey, I can’t prioritize this project right now - let’s work together to find a time when I can.” or “Going forward, I need 5 working days’ notice in order to complete these tasks”.
It’s not just about creating a work-life balance, but also letting others know that your time is valuable and you can only do so much in a day.
Don’t be afraid to reach out for support when you need it. This can be to friends and family, but it can also be to colleagues and management and in some cases, a mental health professional.
While our managers are there to oversee our work and guide us professionally, they also have a duty to help us manage our workload and stress levels - so it can be incredibly useful to reach out and alert them that you are beginning to see signs of burnout.
As for friends, family, and colleagues - they can offer a listening ear, advice, and guidance on how to manage your stress.
In a broad sense, mindfulness is a process in which you focus on being acutely aware of experiences occurring in the present moment, and the feelings those experiences create - without interpretation or judgment.
Benefits of mindfulness include improved focus and concentration, reduced stress, enhanced self-awareness, increased patience, and better emotional control.
A way to use mindfulness at work could be to pay attention to the first feelings of heightened anxiety and step away from what you’re doing to conduct a breathing exercise. What you want to avoid doing is ignoring the feeling of anxiety, but instead try to acknowledge it without interrogating yourself about the feeling. Imagine that feeling of anxiety as a cloud of smoke in your mind, and use the breathing exercise to gently waft it away and clear the air before you step back into working.
Take time off
If you’re able to, taking time off from work can be very beneficial. This doesn’t have to mean you’re taking a vacation - it could be as simple as taking a day or two and just allowing yourself to spend that time doing the things you love.
If your burnout is at a point where it’s becoming impossible to deal with work and it’s causing physical or mental health conditions, it may be a good idea to talk to a medical professional and enquire about stress leave. Mental health is just as important as your physical health, so taking time off for sickness or stress is absolutely okay and can help you to take that much-needed time to recover.
Re-evaluate your priorities
If you’re feeling burned out, it can feel incredibly overwhelming to think proactively about what needs to change in order to feel better - after all, it comes with a real sense of defeatedness. Despite this, taking a step back to really consider what’s important to you can be a great way to start understanding what steps you need to take in order to get rid of burnout.
Identify what matters to you most, whether it’s advancing in your career, spending time with your family, developing a certain skill or focusing on your health. Then, look at your current situation and assess what you’re spending most of your time on.
Next, compare your ideal situation to your current one. Are you spending your time on the things that matter most to you? Does your current situation look like the ideal situation? If you answer no to both of these questions, then you can start to identify what may be contributing to those feelings of burnout.
With this re-evaluation, you can start to make changes that will bring your current situation closer to the ideal situation. This could involve delegating tasks, saying no more often, or reorganizing your schedule to better reflect your personal and professional priorities.
Seek professional help
If feelings of burnout persist, consider seeking the help of a mental health professional. They can provide strategies and techniques to help you cope with burnout and manage stress.
They can also help to unpack deeper-rooted issues that you may not have been entirely aware of, which can be contributing factors to your burnout.
Let’s sum up
Burnout is a serious issue that can result from chronic workplace stress. It's not just a state of physical exhaustion but also a state of emotional exhaustion that can significantly impact our personal lives, work performance, mental health, and overall quality of life. To ensure we’re at our best, we must understand and recognize burnout, and take proactive steps to prevent it.
Fortunately, burnout can be prevented and mitigated through various strategies. Prioritizing self-care, setting boundaries, seeking support, practicing mindfulness, taking time off when needed, and re-evaluating priorities can significantly help in managing and reducing burnout. In severe cases, professional help might be necessary to effectively address the problem.
Remember, no job is worth sacrificing your mental health for. Prioritize your well-being, and do not hesitate to seek help when you need it. By understanding and acknowledging burnout, we can all contribute to a healthier and more balanced work environment.
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