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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.
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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:
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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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.”
The scientists that originally identified burnout as a condition, Freudenberger and Gail North, outlined 12 stages of work burnout:
Stages of burnout at work:
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.
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:
If you answered yes to most of these questions, you’re likely experiencing 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:
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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:
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 burnout may lead to:
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.
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.
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.