Burnout at work has three main characteristics: decreased efficacy at work, chronic fatigue and exhaustion from work, and depersonalization and disconnection from work.1 Though career-oriented, work burnout quickly pervades other areas of life at home and in personal relationships.
What Is Work Burnout?
Burnout at work, also called job burnout or occupational burnout, is a state of chronic stress and exhaustion that leads to feelings of disconnectedness and ineffectiveness at work. This can be caused by the demands of work, as well as other stressors like caregiving or working from home. Mental health in the workplace has been a chronic concern for many, especially over the past few years.2
Work Burnout Symptoms
A person experiencing work burnout may feel irritable, apathetic, tired, grumpy, or numb and disconnected. They may be uncharacteristically easily annoyed, difficult to communicate with, or unfocused.
Symptoms and signs of burnout at work can include:3,4
- Overworking or underworking, possibly becoming a workaholic
- Depression or increased anxiety
- Emotional exhaustion
- Physical exhaustion
- Increased substance use
- Physical symptoms such as weight gain or increased blood pressure
- Irritability or overly emotional with colleagues or coworkers
Stages of Burnout at Work
Here are the potential stages of job burnout:
1. Honeymoon Stage
In this stage a future burnout sufferer feels optimism and likely expects that the solution will be finishing the next project or after a particularly busy time of year. The person may be energized and feel as though they are making a meaningful contribution to a body of work or their own career. While there may be periods of tiredness, they feel acceptable and “part of the job.”
2. Balancing Act
During the balancing act stage a worker is noticing some strain and is seeking to figure out how to address the work demands and still manage their personal life. Perhaps there are periods where focus becomes difficult as fatigue builds up and mental or physical exhaustion becomes more present. During this stage it may become hard to stop thinking about and even talking about work. Important people in the worker’s immediate orbit are typically noticing the strain.
3. Chronic Stress Symptoms
If the stress continues and becomes chronic it will become difficult to deny that work stress is affecting you. Work may become harder to focus on, procrastination and missing deadlines may become more common, and the worker may be more irritable than normal. An overall apathetic attitude is likely to become more prevalent where neither praise nor negative feedback makes much impact. Sufferers of chronic work stress may avoid work conversations in social settings.
At the burnout stage, someone will notice that even routine work is suffering and difficult to get through. They are finding it difficult to function at work and probably at home as well. They may end up feeling uncharacteristically numb and conflicted about the job and their own ability to manage it. Physical symptoms such as headache, difficulty sleeping, and gastrointestinal problems are common. Family members are likely to become more vocal about the need to take a break. Escape fantasies from work and/or home may occupy their thoughts. Overeating and alcohol or drug use may occur in this phase.
When burnout becomes habitual, it can be referred to as enmeshment. In this phase it becomes impossible to distinguish “before” and “after” feeling this way. An overall defeated emotional state of fatigue, stress, and sadness characterizes their daily experience. This is also referred to as “burnout syndrome.” At this stage mental and physical burnout can lead to severe medical issues, even hospitalization.
What Causes Job Burnout?
A study among physicians associated job burnout with commitment to work, resiliency, mentors or role models, personal expectations, one’s values or morals, and their ability to tolerate and manage stress.5 Certain professions may be more prone to burnout, such as mental health professionals, nurses, social workers, and teachers in high demand positions. External factors are also involved, such as conflict within work, a toxic workplace, or an abusive or narcissistic boss or coworkers.
Working from home has also become increasingly common, showing how work burnout can also emerge from an eroding set of work and life parameters that used to be clear.
Consequences of Unaddressed Work Burnout
Burnout can create a host of physical, emotional, and vocational consequences that can be difficult to correct, including:
- Strained work relationships
- Doubt or dislike of one’s career choice
- Career damage due to underperformance
- Marital dissatisfaction
- Fractured family or friend relationships
- Disordered sleep
- Damaged health – weight gain, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue
- Moderate to severe depression
- Suicidal thoughts
- Substance misuse
How to Deal With Burnout at Work
Avoiding burnout at work can be difficult, especially for certain personality types such as those who are prone to neuroticism or perfectionism.6 Before it begins, it’s important to learn how to deal with feeling overwhelmed and incorporate stress management strategies into your daily routines. Remember that it is possible to recover from burnout, and it’s important to prevent additional mental fatigue or emotional exhaustion.
Here are 14 tips for dealing with work burnout:
1. Set Your Intention Each Day
When we operate predominantly from a place of response, we become easily overwhelmed and stressed. Create an intention for each day to keep you focused and intentional. Setting an intention can also be a motivating factor that offers a sense of control.
2. Create a Morning Routine That Includes Exercise
Along with setting a daily intention, having a specific morning routine that includes exercise will begin the cycle of de-stressing and help ward off high-functioning anxiety. Create morning rituals and consistent practices that support your mood and decrease your stress levels.
3. Create a Community
Rather than complaining about work stress with your colleagues, create a community with people whom you can genuinely connect with. Having like-minded connections can help you stay grounded. Talk openly with colleagues who engage in either too much negativity or toxic positivity.
4. Develop Your Identity Outside of Work
In modern society, our identities are often too focused on our work. Job burnout can happen when we fail to develop other parts of our personality that have nothing to do with the skills we are paid for. Join a team, a fitness group, or take a class or workshop that encourages you to explore an interest outside of your professional life.
5. Change Physical Spaces Throughout the Day
Especially when we’re working from home or remotely, take breaks to go to a different room or office rather than spending hours on end in one space on a singular task. Changing it up will force you to move your body and experience new scenery, both of which are rejuvenating activities.
6. Practice Self-compassion
A hallmark phrase in self-compassion is, “What do I need right now?” Every several hours, ask yourself this simple question to see how you’re doing. Perhaps you need to use the restroom, to eat a snack, or to step outside for fresh air. This small inquiry gives you space to see what you might need to keep you motivated and refreshed.
7. Arrange a Wellness Group
Chances are, if you’re experiencing work burnout, you’re not alone. Create a group of colleagues who meet at least once a week to discuss wellness and stress management. This will keep you all accountable and focused on creating a healthier work-life balance.
Engaging your Human Resources department in this initiative can also provide additional support and show initiative to your supervisors that you truly care about creating a healthy workplace culture.
8. Normalize Rest
The more that you model that it’s OK to disconnect from work in order to take care of yourself and your emotional well-being, the more this will become a part of your work culture. Normalizing rest means not responding to or writing emails at night or early in the morning and being unavailable at certain hours for work questions or concerns.
9. Share the Caregiving Load
At home, take an inventory of who is doing what to manage the housework and the “invisible work” of running a home. Do an honest assessment and engage in a family-wide conversation of how to better delegate responsibilities so that all family members are active contributors to household management.
We can feel burned out when we go from task to task in a responsive manner rather than adhering to an organized plan. At the start of each week, time-block your work so your time management style is deliberate rather than responsive.
11. Check Your Boundaries
Are you giving energy away in a way that drains rather than energizes you? If you look further into those areas, these may be realms where setting more firm boundaries at work might help you conserve your emotional well-being.
12. Use Your Mental Health Days or Time Off
If you are fortunate enough to be offered wellness or mental health days at work, do not let them go to waste. The trick to preventing burnout is to consistently take these days before you feel like you need them, rather than waiting until you’re desperate for a break.
13. Do an Inventory of Values
It’s possible that work burnout is caused by not working in a career, field, or organization that aligns with your values. For example, if you value social change and justice, yet are working for a company that is unethical or gives no attention to social change, this may create inner conflict. Engage in a values assessment to clarify what is really creating stress at work.
14. Consider Changing Jobs
Sometimes work burnout is there to tell us that it’s time for a career change or that we’ve outgrown something that no longer works for us. If you’ve tried different approaches to work burnout and have been unsuccessful, it may be time to consider a job or career change.
When to Seek Professional Help
Job burnout for an extended period of time can transition into high functioning anxiety or high function depression, and continue to increase in severity from there. If work burnout is not alleviated by implementing some of the aforementioned tips or if your symptoms of burnout last for more than one month, it may be time to seek professional help to explore whether something deeper is going on. Basically, if you’re wondering if it’s time to see a therapist, you probably should.
Job burnout can bring on existential issues such as whether or not you’re living in a way that is purposeful and aligned with your life values. Exploring questions around the existential anxiety or depression you may feel is work to be done in therapy. Use an online therapist directory to find the right kind of therapist for you.
Job burnout can be tough to deal with and it’s especially prevalent nowadays. Help yourself by taking action to prevent and deal with burnout before you’re too overtaken by it. And remember, you’re not alone.