How To Recognize Burnout And What To Do About It
As society, in general, becomes more interested in the concept of healthy work-life balance, the term “burnout” comes up with increasing frequency. In general, it refers to a state of exhaustion that people can feel after being spread too thin at their job. Burnout in the workplace is a common issue that can lead to decreased productivity and job satisfaction. Here’s how to recognize burnout, and what to do if you’re experiencing it.
What Is Burnout?
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines burnout as “the physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others. It results from performing at a high level until stress and tension, especially from extreme and prolonged physical or mental exertion or an overburdening workload, take their toll."
These may include nurses, emergency responders, social workers, teachers, lawyers, etc. However, burnout can occur in all different types of roles and to workers of all ages and job levels. In addition, although this term is usually applied to those in the paid workforce, parents and other caregivers may also experience it.
Symptoms Of Burnout
There are several signs that may indicate the experience of burnout. Becoming familiar with them can help you identify it in yourself or those around you, which is usually the first step toward recovering from it.
Those who routinely feel exhausted from their work may be at risk for burnout. Exhaustion can take many different forms:
- Physical exhaustion could result from someone with a job or role that involves demanding or constant physical activity like preschool teachers, nurses, laborers, or parents of small children.
- Mental exhaustion could result from doing a high volume of detailed or complex work for long periods, like someone in data entry, engineering, or law might.
- Emotional exhaustion can come from jobs where people have to consistently give of themselves and provide high levels of compassion or empathy, like healthcare workers, mental health professionals, substance use counselors, or case workers. In such roles, exhaustion can also escalate into the more serious condition of compassion fatigue.
- Creative exhaustion could happen when someone in a creative field has to complete too many projects or has too much creative energy demanded of them within a time frame, like designers, artists, journalists, and educators.
Other Physical Symptoms
Burnout is the result of a heavy workload or high stress taking its toll on the body. For this reason, a person experiencing burnout may also notice physical symptoms. According to an article in the New York Times, these symptoms may include insomnia, fatigue, changes in eating habits, headaches, and stomachaches. Those who develop mental health conditions as a result of burnout—such as anxiety or depression—may also experience some physical and/or mental symptoms commonly associated with these. A therapist can help you identify and manage these symptoms if you believe you may be experiencing a mental health condition.
Utilizing Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
Burnout is often a draining experience. Some people may start to feel cynical or hopeless, which can lead to their adoption of unhealthy coping mechanisms. A person experiencing burnout may withdraw socially due to a lack of energy to engage with friends, family, and hobbies and activities they used to enjoy. They may begin using alcohol, substances, or food in an effort to try and relax or numb themselves. They may also end up taking their work frustrations out on others in their lives due to a lack of healthy options for expressing their emotions.
A Loss Of Motivation Or Confidence At Work
The feeling of burnout can be crushing. When people experiencing burnout face a new day or a new week at work, they can feel overwhelmed at the thought of having to get through it. This can lead to a loss of motivation to do their job and possibly a temptation to avoid responsibilities. It may also lead some people to lose confidence in their skills or abilities in the workplace (or outside the workplace, such as a parent) and feel like a failure or not good enough.
How To Cope With Burnout
If you suspect you may be experiencing burnout, some of these strategies below might help you move through this difficult situation.
Evaluate Your Options
The causes of burnout are typically situational. So if your job is consistently overwhelming and causing you distress in this way, the first order of business may be to consider your other options. Can you speak to your manager or supervisor about adjusting your workload? Are there tools or strategies you could use to make your work more manageable? Is there another job function, or position, into which you could move that would decrease the pressure you feel? In some cases, you may even consider completely moving out of your role or industry for a while, or possibly even permanently. If your job is making you miserable, you'll likely need to make some adjustments to get relief.
Prioritize Activities You Enjoy
Outside of work, it may be helpful to fill your life with activities that are relaxing or bring you joy in some way. This strategy can help you remind yourself that there’s life outside of your job. Depending on the activity, it may also help you relieve stress, improve your physical health, help you form new social connections, or offer other benefits. Something involving physical activity could be a way to reap benefits like these, such as joining a gym, or a sports team, or taking up a hobby like cycling or rock climbing. It may also be worthwhile to consider a hobby that’s art-related. A 2020 study found that participation in the arts is associated with lower levels of mental distress, higher levels of life satisfaction, and better mental health functioning overall.
Burnout may cause mental and physical tension as well as difficult feelings like frustration, being overwhelmed, or fear. To recover from this experience, it may be useful to find someone with whom you can express, and work through, these emotions. Trusted family and friends may provide a listening ear and compassionate advice. Or, you might consider seeking the guidance of a trained therapist. They can help you identify, interpret, and manage your feelings, as well as develop skills for opportunities like self-care, or standing up for yourself at work.
If you’re interested in connecting with a therapist from the comfort of your own home, you may try online therapy. Since research suggests that it offers similar benefits to in-person sessions, some people choose it for its convenience and cost-effectiveness. If you’re interested in this format, a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp can match you with a licensed therapist who can help you address the challenges you may be facing.
What is the best way to handle burnout?
The first step to handling job burnout is likely to focus on basic mental and physical self-care. Self-care refers to the actions a person takes to support their overall well-being. While good self-care has many components, including coping strategies, maintaining a support network, and managing stress, the basic features are often the most important.
There are three essential components of self-care: diet, sleep, and exercise. Without eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and engaging in physical activity, a person will likely find it much harder to manage stress, stay organized, and prioritize. Regular exercise may be especially important to prevent burnout; physical activity is one of the best-supported ways to manage acute stress.
What's the cure for burnout?
Stress management is likely the best cure for burnout. Relaxation techniques, like progressive muscle relaxation, may help lower acute stress, as will regular physical activity. Other stress management strategies like mindfulness exercises or meditation may also be helpful. However, everyone likely has a limit to how much stress they can reasonably manage. It is possible that setting boundaries at work and lowering work-related stress may be necessary to overcome burnout.
How do you help someone who is burning out?
One of the best ways to help someone burning out is to help them seek out other supportive relationships besides yourself. Someone who is burnt out may need help to stay motivated, especially if all of their energy goes to a demanding job. You and others in their support network can provide encouragement and validation as they manage their stress, encouraging them to socialize with friends outside of work.
Encouragement is important because people experiencing burnout may be dumping excessive energy into their job, making it hard to keep up with the bare essentials of self-care like sleep, diet, and exercise. Friends often help out by inviting the person to exercise, and others in their family life might help with their diet and sleep habits.
What are seven ways to avoid burnout?
Unrelenting stress at work can make it feel like you have little or no control over the stressors in your life. While burnout can seem overwhelming or unending, you can take steps to reduce the burden. Seven common tips are summarized below:
- Develop a Sunday Routine. Sundays can be difficult for people who dread their jobs. Developing an enjoyable routine that supports self-care can offset the unpleasant feelings about work the next day.
- Fully Disconnect. Make sure you aren’t checking work email or receiving notifications about work-related business outside of your work hours.
- Use Microbreaks. Take a 10-minute brain break every 90 minutes or so while at work. Evidence suggests that a short break can help maintain cognitive momentum to keep you moving forward.
- Take Advantage of Hybrid Schedules. Many workplaces allow employees to work from home for a limited time each week. If that applies to you, consider using it to become more productive.
- Get Comfortable. An uncomfortable and uninviting workspace likely contributes to burnout-related stress.
- Spend Time with Others. Positive social interactions are associated with reduced stress and increased happiness overall. Make sure your job doesn’t take all of your social energy.
- Focus on Sleep. Disturbed sleep routines go hand-in-hand with stress, but a lack of sleep likely significantly worsens symptoms of stress and burnout.
How long does burnout last?
Burnout symptoms likely continue until stress at work lowers, better stress management techniques are used, or a person leaves their job. A systematic review found that burnout can have a significant impact on physical and mental health. It can also have occupational consequences, such as heightened job dissatisfaction and absenteeism. Given the complex challenges that burnout presents and the fact that it tends to take energy away from good self-care, positive relationships, and enjoyable activities, it is likely that the length of time someone can stand burnout varies from person to person.
Does quiet quitting happen because of burnout?
Quiet quitting refers to doing only the tasks a person needs to do to keep their job, no more, no less. While managers may think that quiet quitting means giving the bare minimum, overworked employees likely see it as a way to manage excessive stress at work, especially if the compensation offered does not justify the amount of effort requested.
Quiet quitting isn’t really quitting. At its core, it often refers to just doing the work a person was hired to do. It is likely that creeping job scopes and an endless progression of new job duties have contributed to both burnout and the rise of quiet quitting. It is possible that the quiet quitting movement emerged in response to unsustainable work expectations and excessive stressors in the workplace.
How do you rest to avoid burnout?
Resting to avoid burnout typically means engaging in good stress management practices at work and home. At work, resting to avoid burnout might mean taking on a smaller load for a shorter period, requesting extensions on deadlines, or changing priorities. At home, resting usually means avoiding added stress and making time for preferred activities. It is also important to avoid sitting on the couch all day; be sure to dedicate time to taking good care of yourself by getting enough sleep, eating healthy food, and getting regular physical activity.
While stress management strategies at work are likely to help with burnout, truly resting likely involves taking a break from work. However, evidence suggests vacations that last a week or two aren’t particularly helpful and may even worsen burnout upon your return to work. To address this, many employers are offering long-term sabbaticals where employees can completely disconnect from work. It may be worth exploring that option with your employer.
What are the 12 stages of burnout?
While not a distinct illness that can be diagnosed, burnout often follows a distinct pattern. The 12 stages of burnout are summarized below:
- Excessive Ambition. An employee is enthusiastic about their job and takes on additional responsibilities to get more done.
- Working Harder. Excessive workloads begin to bleed into an employee’s personal life and take time away from preferred tasks.
- Neglecting Needs. As the employee falls further behind, they begin neglecting basic needs like sleep and exercise.
- Dismissing Problems. As work consumes the employee’s life, they begin to notice the toll their work stress has taken. Instead of recognizing that burnout is approaching, they dismiss the problem.
- Value Revision. The employee prioritizes work over friends, family, and hobbies. They convince themselves that work is the most important part of their life.
- Denial of New Problems. More severe problems, like attitude changes, depression, or excessive anxiety, appear and are subsequently ignored.
- Withdrawal. The employee is no longer maintaining their mental or physical health, choosing instead to complete work tasks. They begin to withdraw from their social life.
- Interpersonal Impact. The employee’s friends and family notice their increased irritability and stress, becoming concerned.
- Depersonalization. The employee feels detached from themselves. They go through the motions each day with little or no personal investment. The job enthusiasm they felt early is now depleted.
- Devaluing. The employee feels like they can’t make it in their career and that any effort they make will likely be fruitless. They may turn to unhealthy coping strategies, like substance use.
- Depression. As emotional and mental exhaustion fully sets in, the employee struggles to find hope or engage in activities they previously enjoyed.
- Full Burnout. Burnout is now complete. The employee likely has no interest in work, doesn’t want to expend energy socializing, and may be neglecting basic self-care.
What are the three R's of burnout?
A supervisor of medical residents - doctors who have graduated medical school and are now completing their training - developed the three R’s as a simple burnout help method. The three R’s are relaxation, reflection, and regrouping.
- Relax. Relaxation is an essential part of maintaining good mental and physical health. In high-stress environments, taking deliberate steps to relax is often necessary.
- Reflect. It can be easy to lose track of organization and prioritization when approaching burnout. It is important to see what tasks are essential and if they interfere with self-care. It is also important to recognize if burnout is approaching.
- Regroup. When burnout symptoms begin to emerge, many people double down on what they are already doing. Instead, it will likely be most helpful to identify new strategies to combat high work stress.
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