Ever since the World Health Organisation (WHO) redefined burnout and added it to the International Classification of Diseases, organisations and individuals have become more open to talking about burnout’s symptoms and potential causes.
It’s hard to remember when we started being ‘busy’ all the time. Yet while we take on more work and responsibilities and deal with higher levels of stress, our minds and bodies pay the price. Burnout is the rock-bottom consequence of our busy lives and it’s becoming more and more common. With studies suggesting that anywhere from 24% – 50% of workers have previously or are currently dealing with burnout, it’s an issue we all need to understand.
What is burnout?
There is a difference between the exhaustion of a long workday and the perpetual fatigue of burnout. Burnout is a reaction to prolonged or chronic job stress causing overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from your job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.
The stress that contributes to burnout can come mainly from your job, but stress from your overall lifestyle can add to it as well. Personality traits and thought patterns, such as perfectionism and pessimism can also contribute.
Most people spend the majority of their waking hours working. If you hate your job, dread going to work, and don’t gain any satisfaction out of what you’re doing it can take a serious toll on your life.
What are the symptoms?
Chronic fatigue and physical and emotional exhaustion: The first thing you might notice when you’re burnt out is being tired all the time, moving more slowly than usual and dreading what lies ahead today and tomorrow. In this way burnout and depression share many of the same symptoms. In fact, left unchecked, burnout can quickly develop into chronic depression and start to infiltrate all aspects of your life.
Cynicism and detachment: The honest truth is you won’t love your job every single day. But if you find yourself constantly preoccupied with thoughts of how to escape work, growing cynical and distancing yourself emotionally from your job, you might be experiencing symptoms of burnout.
Reduced performance: Burnout mainly affects everyday tasks at work. People with burnout feel negative about their job, have difficulty concentrating and often lack creativity. Once your burnout reaches a certain level, it’s sure to affect your work and how you perceive your own value. You may start to feel ineffective and continually ask yourself ‘What’s the point?’
Physical symptoms: Chronic stress and mental exhaustion can manifest themselves physically, with increased vulnerability to seasonal colds and flues, nausea and headaches.
What causes burnout?
You don’t just start to feel exhausted, cynical, and ineffective overnight. Burnout is the consequence of compounding issues until you reach a breaking point. These are a few of the common risk that are associated with causing burnout.
Unreasonable time pressures: Do you have enough time to do the work expected of you? Unfortunately, for many people, a lack of time is the main source of burnout. Spending a large part of the working hours in meetings, on the phone and replying to emails already limits the time we have for completing the tasks we do on our own. Unreasonable time pressure is a compounding issue. When you miss one unrealistic deadline it creates a snowball effect of stress for everyone.
Unmanageable workload: Even the best employees will suffer when too much work is tossed their way and often the most capable employees are the ones given too much work. Whether it’s your boss or your own pride taking on too much, a packed to-do list will make the most optimistic employees feel hopeless.
Demanding technology and multitasking: Do you jump to answer every text message ping? Do you shift focus as soon as an email pops up on the screen? Do you check your emails right before falling asleep? Do you believe multitasking is essential at all times? Some researchers suggest that multitaskers are 40% less productive. Not only will they need to work longer to get ‘caught up’, but, according to Stanford researcher Clifford Nass, heavy multitaskers have a hard time regaining focus and sorting out relevant information from irrelevant details.
Lack of boundaries around work: Can you disconnect at the end of the day? Our always-on culture makes it difficult to separate your work from everything else. It’s that inability to disconnect that causes the daily stressors to compound and become burnout. On the other hand, psychologically disconnecting from work has been linked to less fatigue, lower rates of burnout and a greater satisfaction in work and life.
Prevention and treatment
The busyness paradox: Burnout is the result of prolonged response to chronic stressors. The more stressors you deal with on a daily basis, the higher your risk of burnout. We often mistake being busy with validation that we are doing the right things. But it’s just as easy to be busy checking emails all day as it is to spend time on meaningful work and seeing real progress. When you start feeling busy take a step back and try to identify the root causes. Pay close attention to which ones have an effect on your emotional state and try to find solutions to mitigate them.
Take control of your time: Another key source of burnout is lack of time. When you spend the majority of your day bouncing between emails, calls, and meetings, you have little time to focus on the work that matters. This problem only compounds when you have unrealistic deadlines, time pressures, or managers with weak time management skills. To avoid burnout, you need to take control of your time by understanding where it is actually going and bringing your intentions and actions back in alignment.
Regularly revisit your priorities: Saying yes to everything and filling up your calendar is a slippery slope toward burnout. Instead, you need to be more deliberate with what you commit to. This means regularly revisiting your priorities and making sure they are realistic, valid and connected to your bigger goals. If you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed with responsibilities, take a step back and focus just on the one thing that deserves your attention.
Focus on progress, not just the end goal: Productivity and burnout have a troublesome relationship. The more work you do, the more burnt out you get, and the more work you feel like you need to do. To break this loop, we need to change how we measure our value. Instead of focusing solely on ticking items off a list, look at the progress you make each day.
Make time for self-care: Burnout recovery starts when you prioritise yourself and your health over the work and relationships that are causing it. And while taking time off to rest and relax will always be the ideal solution, there are techniques you can try during the working week, such as focused breathing techniques to help you calm down and manage stress, and taking short, frequent breaks from work. You could also take up, or spend more time on a hobby outside of work. This will allow you to decompress, de-stress, and disconnect from work. It can be anything you’d like but will be especially beneficial if it involves any form of exercise.
If you are experiencing burnout and you’re having difficulty finding your way out, or you suspect that you may also have a mental health condition such as depression, seek professional treatment.