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Signs of burnout at work — and what to do about it

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.

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What is job burnout exactly?

What the research says about burnout

What are the early signs of burnout?

How do you diagnose work-related burnout?

What are the risk factors and causes of job burnout?

Causes of work burnout

6 possible consequences of job burnout

Can you get fired for feeling burnout at work?

9 ways to treat and handle feeling burnout at work

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.

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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.”

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:

  1. The compulsion to prove oneself
  2. Working harder
  3. Neglecting (personal) needs
  4. Displacement of conflict
  5. Revision of values (work to the exclusion of all else)
  6. Denial of emerging problems
  7. Withdrawal (typically accompanied by self-medicating)
  8. Odd behavioral changes
  9. Depersonalization (unable to connect with others or one’s own needs)
  10. Inner emptiness
  11. Depression
  12. 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.

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:

  1. Are you having more bad days than good days at work?
  2. Do you find yourself unusually low or irritable at the end of the weekend?
  3. Do you have stomach aches, digestive upset, or pains in your back or neck?
  4. Are you having headaches more frequently than usual?
  5. Have your sleep patterns changed (either much more or much less sleep than usual)?
  6. Have you been having trouble focusing on work or understanding what is expected of you?
  7. Are you finding yourself only able to work efficiently at the last minute or against a deadline?
  8. Are you avoiding work, conversations with colleagues, or check-ins with your manager?
  9. Do you fantasize about quitting your job almost constantly?
  10. 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.

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.

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Causes of work 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:

Personality traits:

  • 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

Lifestyle factors:

  • 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:

  • Less satisfaction in work
  • Exhaustion
  • Strained work relationships

Severe burnout may lead to:

  • Chronic illnesses, including physical and mental disorders
  • Quitting your job — or the workforce — altogether
  • Death

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.

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.

9 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):

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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. Having positive outlets can help you get through a stressful or frustrating time in your career.

4. 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.

5. Keep work at work

Try to set — and stick to — a work schedule that allows you to handle other important priorities in your 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.

6. 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.

7. Share your concerns with a manager

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.

8. Take care of your physical health

One of the stages of burnout is a lack of interest in taking care of your own needs — and in extreme cases you may lose touch with your inner compass. Be sure to take the time for basic needs, like food, water, sleep, exercise, and time with others.

9. 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.