How to Handle Burnout
Work burnout is a term that many of us are familiar with, but how clued up are you when it comes to recognizing burnout in yourself, or your colleagues and family? Occupational burnout, commonly just referred to as burnout, is a state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion caused by the stress, pressure, and demands of our jobs. Burnout symptoms may include chronic fatigue, insomnia, and depression, as well as decreased motivation, negativity and cynicism towards your job, and other behavioral changes.
It is important to acquaint yourself with the warning signs of occupational burnout in order to catch symptoms early and deal with them effectively. Employers and employees need to educate themselves to differentiate between the signs of simply feeling tired after a hard day at the office and the signs of work burnout. Read on to discover more about this increasingly common phenomenon, its causes, and most importantly, how to fix burnout!
Burning the candle at both ends and in the middle?
Classified by the WHO as an occupational phenomenon, “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.” Since it was first identified in the 70s, the medical community has struggled to agree on a definition of burnout. This WHO definition is helpful - it clearly identifies the failure to manage stress as the root cause of burnout.
Let’s move on to the recent spike in awareness of this debilitating condition, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, healthcare systems around the globe were stretched to their limits. Wave after wave of the virus left many medical workers suffering from burnout. A study recently published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, of over 43,000 physicians, nurses, and other clinical and non-clinical staff conducted between April and December 2020, found an overall burnout rate of 49.9%. This eyebrow raising figure was also reflected in workers in other fields subject to lockdowns, with 51% of workers reportedly experiencing burnout while working from home.
What causes burnout?
Since adjusting to the new normal, post-COVID world of work, be it hybrid, remote, or traditional office-based work, burnout has remained a serious issue affecting workers the world over. Let’s now consider what causes burnout, in order to prepare ourselves to deal with burnout.
- Work overload: Often with the best intentions, many of us take on an excessive workload, often wearing several hats at once in our careers. Heavy workloads require long hours. Occasionally working overtime displays commitment to an employer, but an overly zealous start early, work late attitude can quickly lead to burnout.
- Work-life imbalance: All work and no play leaves Jack a dull boy. If we are working all hours under the sun, and a few hours under the moon on top of this, when will we have time to play? It will be increasingly hard to manage work and personal life, something simple like spending time with loved ones may cause stress and eventual burnout.
- Lack of control: If, during the process of our daily grind, we realize that we lack influence over our own work, then this might lead to feelings of a loss of control over our tasks. Lack of control over decision-making and job processes, and the absence of independence in our work life can contribute to burnout.
- Insufficient rewards: We all want to feel valued. If employees feel that they are not being adequately rewarded for their efforts – in terms of salary, benefits, or recognition – it can lead to feelings of resentment and frustration, which can eventually lead to burnout.
- Job insecurity: No one wants to feel that the rug can be easily pulled from under their feet. Constantly worrying about job stability can lead to chronic stress and burnout.
What are the symptoms of burnout?
We’ve all woken up tired from the previous day’s work, or from the weekend’s festivities once or twice, I’m sure. If you haven’t, then good for you. Often the symptoms of burnout may be similar to other day to day feelings that come and go. There are no official diagnostic criteria for burnout, so if in doubt, refer to a burnout questionnaire. By entering your feelings of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment, you will be able to decide what course of action is best for you.
- Physical symptoms: Exhaustion is the symptom at the core of burnout. People may feel profoundly tired, burned-out, both physically, mentally, and emotionally. On top of this, although the fatigue is intense, insomnia often strikes, wearing down the immune system, and leading to frequent illness.
- Psychological symptoms: Problems of the body are joined to problems of the mind. Burnout causes people to feel drained and anxious, often leading to cynicism and depersonalization, as well as decreased self-esteem. These factors can lead to depression.
- Acting differently: Burnout often leads to a decrease in interest in responsibilities at work. This results in emotional distancing, cynicism, and a feeling that there is no point in accomplishing work-related tasks.
How can we overcome burnout?
Thankfully, there are many ways that we can address the problem of burnout. The key here is recognizing that burnout is often caused by chronic stress. When we don’t have the right support system or tools to cope, we hit burnout. Here are some practical ways to put that stress fire out and stop it from re-igniting!
- Stress management: Long gone are the days when being stressed at work was considered protocol. If possible, avoid employers who encourage and provoke stress culture at work. On top of this, try to identify and reduce your exposure to stressors at work. Don’t be afraid to set ground rules. If you are feeling stressed, try to avoid easy stress fixes such as alcohol, candy, or cake. Some people find that yoga, deep breathing, and mindfulness help to reduce stress. Give yourself room to breathe, by working at a sensible, sustainable pace, and try not to overload yourself.
- Live right: While there is nothing wrong with an occasional hamburger, or two, remember: you are what you eat. Taking care of your physical and mental health, by eating right, regularly exercising, and getting a good night’s sleep all contribute to overall health and resilience to stress.
- Get a hobby: It is important to take the time to pursue your own interests outside of the office. Whether it's fishing, flamenco, or fire eating, regularly engaging in a hobby will help you to beat stress, before it beats you.
- Balance is key: If you are in contact with your boss or coworkers at all hours of the day and night, discussing work-related issues, then how can you possibly begin to relax? Try to set professional boundaries between work and personal life. Learn to say no, and unplug when appropriate.
- Beginning of a beautiful friendship: As a species, we are arguably more stressed than our ancestors were. We are also better connected and have access to powerful resources such as the internet. We can easily connect to friends via phone, or face to face, and discuss our feelings to help manage stress and prevent burnout. Don’t be afraid to seek help from a mental health professional and check in on your friends.
We hope that this article has been helpful to you. If you are feeling burned out, remember that it won’t last forever. The burnout is a signal, telling you that now is the time to make some changes. Understand the causes and symptoms of burnout, and try to apply some of the suggestions discussed above. See if they help. By extinguishing the fires of chronic stress, you can begin to enjoy a healthier, more sustainable professional and personal life.
Edmund is an English copywriter based in New Taipei City, Taiwan. He is a widely published writer and translator with two decades of experience in the field of bridging linguistic and cultural gaps between Chinese and English.