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Burnout is a relatively new term for a relatively common experience. Coined in 1974 by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, it’s more than just feeling a little “stressed out.” Left unchecked, burnout can show up as physical, mental, and emotional illness — and can have some pretty devastating impacts down the road.
What is job burnout exactly?
In his book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement, Freudenberger describes burnout as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.” That definition certainly encapsulates the result of burnout, but it doesn’t say much about how burnout feels.
Job burnout is characterized by three main symptoms:
- Lack of motivation
- Lack of pleasure in your job
- Lack of belief in your ability to complete tasks (a sense of inefficacy)
If you find yourself struggling with the simplest of tasks, easily frustrated with your coworkers or loved ones, and feeling like you can’t do anything well, you may be experiencing burnout.
What the research says about burnout
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a “state of vital exhaustion,” which is just the tip of the burnout iceberg. In May 2020, 41 percent of employees surveyed found themselves burned out from the stress of managing work amidst the COVID-19 pandemic — up from a similar study that indicated burnout in about 23 percent of employees just a few months before.
Burnout isn’t just a “pandemic problem,” though. A Deloitte survey in 2015 found that an incredible 77 percent of professionals surveyed said that they had experienced burnout at their current workplace, and 91 percent agreed that having an unmanageable amount of stress “negatively impacts the quality of their work.” Job stress and burnout is estimated to result in nearly 120,000 deaths and almost $190 billion in healthcare costs per year.
Because of the prevalence of burnout and workplace stress, and the profound impact it can have on productivity and health, the WHO expanded their definition of burnout in the 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases. It’s now recognized as an “occupational phenomenon” that occurs when “chronic workplace stress...has not been successfully managed.”
3 types of burnout
Job burnout can be further broken down into three sub-types:
Overload is what most people think of when they imagine burnout. It’s continuing to work at an unsustainable pace in pursuit of success, financial security, or recognition.
Just as a heavy workload can lead to burnout, so can a lack of challenging work. People need to feel stimulated and engaged to be satisfied in their careers. Without passion for what they do, they lose interest and disconnect.
Without a sense of purpose and agency at work, people feel helpless. It’s hard to stay engaged when you feel like nothing you do makes a difference. If employees feel like work is too complex or there’s just too much to do, they’ll burn out.
What are the early signs of burnout?
The scientists that originally identified burnout as a condition, Freudenberger and Gail North, outlined 12 stages of work burnout:
Stages of burnout at work:
- The compulsion to prove oneself
- Working harder
- Neglecting personal needs
- Displacement of conflict
- Revision of values (work to the exclusion of all else)
- Denial of emerging problems
- Withdrawal (typically accompanied by self-medicating)
- Odd behavioral changes
- Depersonalization (unable to connect with others or one’s own needs)
- Inner emptiness
- Burnout syndrome
Like any other condition, the trick to managing burnout successfully is to catch early symptoms and begin treating them right away. Burnout is not an overnight phenomenon.
The official definition of burnout includes three main criteria. However, the early indicators of burnout can be subtle and look different for different people. Here are some easy-to-ignore early signs of job burnout:
“Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion” might look like feeling exhausted no matter how much sleep you get, inability to relax, changes in sleep patterns, body aches, getting or feeling sick more frequently, skipping meals, feeling listless, and lack of motivation in non-work areas of life.
“Increased mental distance from one’s job” can show up as avoidance, irritability, procrastination, forgetfulness, lack of concentration, arriving late or leaving work early, cynicism, and trouble following through on or completing tasks.
“Reduced professional efficacy” could manifest as unwillingness to communicate with colleagues, delays in completing important tasks, lack of interest in continuing education and improving skills, working on other projects during work time, and feeling lost or disconnected in meetings.
5 stages of burnout
In their research on workplace burnout, Winona State University further simplifies burnout into five stages:
1. Honeymoon stage
You’re thrilled with the work you do and how you do. You feel creative, energized, and enlivened. You don’t mind skipping lunch or working late because you’re so excited by your new venture.
Unfortunately, the honeymoon phase at a new job rarely lasts forever. This is where we start to develop patterns that become difficult to escape in later stages. We can prolong this phase by keeping up with healthy habits before we feel like we need to do so.
2. Balancing act
Things are fine, but the job has lost its luster. You have good days and bad days. You might notice that even if you can keep up your performance at work, it’s taking more out of you to do so. You might start forgetting things or find yourself unable to sleep due to the onset of stress.
3. Chronic stress symptoms
You feel stressed and uneasy more days than not. When people make requests of you — whether at home or otherwise — you feel resentful. You may be exhausted, apathetic, or relying on caffeine to get you through the day. You might feel depressed, cynical, or doubt that things can change.
You may start to get the Sunday scaries — and the Sunday scaries continue to get worse over time. You spend your weekends stressed about the work week to come.
You start to feel the mental, emotional, and physical symptoms of burnout. You may start skipping work, procrastinating, or missing deadlines. You think about quitting, running away — anything to get out of your situation.
The term “enmeshment” means that burnout has become your new default setting. You might not be able to remember a time before you felt like this. At this point, you may be diagnosed with anxiety or depression before you recognize burnout as the underlying cause.
How do you diagnose work-related burnout?
It’s common to have stressful times at work, or even to feel disillusioned with your job at times. However, burnout runs deeper. If you’re wondering whether or not you’re beginning to burn out, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you having more bad days than good days at work?
- Do you find yourself unusually low or irritable at the end of the weekend?
- Do you have stomach aches, digestive upset, or pains in your back or neck?
- Are you having headaches more frequently than usual?
- Have your sleep habits changed (either much more or much less sleep than usual)?
- Have you been having trouble focusing on work or understanding what is expected of you?
- Are you finding yourself only able to work efficiently at the last minute or against a deadline?
- Are you avoiding work, conversations with colleagues, or check-ins with your manager?
- Do you fantasize about quitting or losing your job almost constantly?
- Are you too exhausted to do anything fun or interesting when you’re not at work?
If you answered yes to most of these questions, you’re likely experiencing job burnout. If you’re still unsure, there are several tests that you can take to self-diagnose burnout.
3 tests to diagnose burnout
Created by Dr. Christina Maslach and her research team, the MBI draws from her extensive research in the field. There are several specialized versions available, including variations for students, educators, and medical personnel.
The JDS isn’t quite a burnout test, but it assesses the nature of work-related tasks. Based on your responses, you can gain insight into job performance, satisfaction, and motivation. If any of these areas are lacking, it may be a warning sign that burnout isn’t far behind.
The UWES assesses engagement and satisfaction at work using a self-reporting scale. It breaks engagement into three categories: vigor, dedication, and absorption (all key components of flow). This scale also offers a specialized version for students.
If your results on any self-reported assessment indicate that you may be experiencing high levels of stress, depression, anxiety, or burnout, take action. Remember that it's okay to ask for help, but you generally do have to ask for it. Asking is a strong action on your own behalf.
A BetterUp Coach can help you devise your own strategies for managing stress and addressing burnout before they seriously impact your well-being. In some cases, if you are already experiencing anxiety and depression, a mental health professional can help you address symptoms.
What are the risk factors and causes of job burnout?
Some jobs, workplaces, and situations have a reputation for being stressful — but not every stressful job leads to burnout. Conversely, employees in less-demanding roles or those with a lot of passion for their jobs can experience burnout as well.
Noted burnout researcher Dr. Christina Maslach outlines six organizational risk factors: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. There isn’t an absolute equation for job burnout — so the same risk factor won’t necessarily cause burnout for everyone. Our own perception of these factors plays a role in what can cause burnout. Here’s a description of each and what to watch for in these potential causes of job burnout:
- Workload: The work you’re responsible for, along with access to the resources and support you need to meet those goals, contributes to your total workload. If you tend towards isolation, people-pleasing, or perfectionism, this may make a demanding workload feel impossible.
- Control: Do you feel like you have a say in the type of work you do and how you do it? If you feel like you’re constantly trying to keep up with a moving target, or you don’t feel able to change or direct any part of your work, you’re more likely to experience burnout. The ability to set and maintain effective boundaries is closely related to this risk factor, as many feel that they can’t say no to requests.
- Reward: There’s a saying: you get what you pay for. In order to sustainably produce anything of quality, you need to spend more. In business, you may need to invest more in your people to ensure that they keep performing at their best. Bonuses and promotions are nice, but opportunities for growth, new challenges, visibility, or simply positive feedback can also help fill their cups.
- Community: In the book The Burnout Fix, Dr. Jacinta Jimenez details the importance of a “psychologically safe” environment — that is, one that “empowers employees to share their selves and their ideas without fear of negative consequences.” If you feel supported, connected, and unafraid to show up authentically at work, you are far less likely to experience burnout.
- Fairness: Environments where leaders play favorites, fail to set clear expectations across the board, and reward/punish employees inconsistently are breeding grounds for burnout. Unfortunately, many people have trouble advocating for fairness, in part because they feel alone in being treated unfairly, especially when another factor (like control or community) is also lacking.
- Values: Work that doesn’t align with your values will feel draining. This could happen on a micro level (like feeling as if you can’t be honest with your colleagues or constantly having to cut corners to meet unrealistic budgets) or on a macro level (working with a company whose mission doesn’t align with your own). According to Jane Jackson, coach and author of Navigating Career Crossroads, the top reasons people leave their jobs are all linked to a conflict in values.
Causes of burnout
Usually, burnout is difficult to attribute to just one cause. A difficult work environment may be compounded by lifestyle stressors or personality traits. By definition, burnout is a workplace phenomenon. However, if any of the six risk factors above are present with the following personal circumstances, the chances of a person experiencing burnout are much higher:
- A tendency towards perfectionism or a type-A personality
- Being hyper-competitive or comparing oneself to others
- Difficulty asking for help or support
- Inability to prioritize work tasks and adjust effort accordingly
- Identifying with one’s job as the most important part of who you are
- Sudden illness in oneself or a loved one
- Serving as a primary caretaker for a family member
- Working two or more jobs
- Lack of time or involvement in activities outside of work
- Balancing work with another major life change, like moving, an addition to the family, or going back to school
6 possible consequences of job burnout
If you were raised to believe that “hard work is its own reward,” pausing to examine — and treat — your burnout may feel like laziness to you. However, addressing burnout may be the single best thing you do for yourself and your career. Left unchecked, burnout can have physical, mental, and emotional outcomes that impact every area of life.
Mild occupational burnout can result in:
Severe employee burnout may lead to:
- Chronic illnesses, including physical and mental health disorders
- Quitting your job — or the workforce — altogether
You read that correctly. Job-related stress can, in fact, lead to death. A 2016 BBC article details the phenomenon of karoshi, or “death by overwork.” While cases in Japan have made international news, there have been deaths attributed to overwork in countries around the world — and the numbers are continuing to rise.
Can you get fired for feeling burnout at work?
One of the factors that compounds work-related stress is the fear of being fired. Freudenberger and North described it as the “compulsion to prove oneself.” It creates a dangerous cycle that prevents us from engaging in precisely the kind of reflection and care that would lessen the effects of burnout in the first place.
Unfortunately, while you can’t be fired for burnout, you can be fired for poor job performance. It may feel nerve-wracking, but protecting your job may mean speaking to a manager or human resources professional. They can help you navigate what your options and rights are. This may include anything from a change in your working conditions, hours, or responsibilities, or possibly a short-term leave.
Remember, the amount of money companies lose due to employee turnover each year is staggering (around $322 billion per year), so your employer has a vested interest in making it possible for you to thrive at work.
10 ways to treat and handle feeling burnout at work
Although it may feel overwhelming, burnout doesn’t have to be a permanent state. The fact is, burnout arises as a result of multiple factors, so a multi-faceted approach is often the best way to treat it.
Most people who are experiencing signs of burnout at work daydream about just packing up and leaving it all behind. However, leaving on a permanent vacation may not be feasible — and burnout doesn’t disappear overnight.
Even if you can’t run away just yet, you can start building habits that make burnout less likely to take over. Here are some ways you can recover from burnout (without having to necessarily quit your job):
- Pay attention to your feelings
Burnout is inseparable from emotion, and emotions are powerful clues to what is important to us. Paying attention to feelings that arise and when they come up can help you manage resentment, frustration, and disillusionment before they turn into burnout.
- Examine your boundaries
Often, a too-busy workload is the result of saying “yes” to commitments without being present to the work, time, or energy they’ll take to complete. If we feel like we have control over our time and resources, we’re less likely to feel fatigued and overwhelmed.
- Cultivate interests outside of work
By definition, burnout is a work-related phenomenon — but our health in other areas of our lives contributes to our vibrancy at work. It's an important part of work-life balance. Having positive outlets can help you get through a stressful or frustrating time in your career.
- Build relationships with colleagues
One of the risk factors for burnout Dr. Maslach identified is a lack of community. Developing relationships at work gives you a sense of belonging, access to shared resources, and makes it easier to ask for help.
- Keep work at work
Try to set — and stick to — a work schedule that allows you to handle other important priorities in your personal life in a way that feels balanced to you. You might even try physical boundaries, like locking your office at the end of the day or deleting work email accounts from personal devices.
- Look for a quick win
One of the key metrics of burnout is a sense of ineffectiveness. However, you can build up your efficacy — and a win in any area of your life will make you feel more capable at work. Try finishing a book, taking a workshop, completing a shorter project, or even cleaning out a junk drawer.
- Share your concerns with a manager
The risk of burnout is often made or broken at the organizational level. Your leadership team can make a critical difference in how you experience your workplace and the support you have access to. You are likely not the only one experiencing challenges, and a cultural shift may need to take place.
- Take care of your physical health
One of the stages of burnout is a lack of interest in self-care. In extreme cases you may lose touch with your inner compass. Be sure to take the time for basic needs, like food, water, exercise, and time with others. If you're working long hours, consider using a tracker to be sure you're getting enough sleep.
- Practice mindfulness
When we put our to-do list ahead of our needs, it’s easy to slip into burnout. Make a habit of checking in with yourself. You can set a reminder on your phone or schedule a couple minutes to breathe between back-to-back meetings. Just asking “What do I need right now?” can have a powerful effect.
- Ask for help
Burnout is often the result of demanding workloads, conflicting priorities, and unfulfilled values — but just as often, it arises from unexpressed needs. Ask your family, coaches, colleagues, and leaders for help. You may find you have more support than you think.
Bottom line: Don’t push through burnout
Burnout is a workplace phenomenon, but the effects of burnout can wreak havoc on your personal and home life. If you've ever been there, you know that burnout can be serious and debilitating. Don't underestimate the impact it can have on your life.
But also don't underestimate your ability to take action on your own behalf. Burnout isn't something that just happens to you. You can choose to take a hard look at what factors are contributing to your burnout and make new choices to improve at least some of them.
Your well-being matters, and it's necessary for you to show up at your best. Choose to make your wellness a priority, understand your own role in burnout, and ask for help if you need it.
BetterUp Staff Writer