Work burnout, or chronic work-related stress, is something that can happen to anyone. In a time of 24/7 connectivity, establishing healthy boundaries around work and switching off from our jobs is becoming increasingly difficult.
Like the fable of the frog who is unable to perceive the danger as the water it’s sitting in is slowly heated, burnout is a gradual process that can be hard to recognise when you’re in the thick of it.
3 telltale signs of work burnout
One minute, you’re zipping along. The next, you’re comatose. Here are the signs that it’s time to slow down and recharge:
- Exhaustion and emotional depletion.
- Negativity, cynicism or a sense of alienation.
- Reduced performance and efficacy at work.
Before we get into the signs, let’s touch on what burnout is exactly and who’s most at risk. Then keep reading to learn 7 simple things you can do right now to combat it.
What is burnout?
First coined in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, the term ‘burnout’ was first used primarily in reference to those in helping or caring professions.
Burnout is defined as a loss of motivation with a growing sense of emotional depletion and cynicism.
Burnout is now officially recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a ‘chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’ If left unchecked, work burnout can have serious repercussions on your physical and mental health and well-being.
Who is most at risk?
Traditionally, those in high-stress occupations such as emergency department staff or workers in emotionally draining roles were considered most prone to burnout.
But today’s modern pace of life means the scope has broadened dramatically.
With overwhelming workloads and increasing competition in the workplace, longer working hours are often not only expected but demanded. Many people fall into the trap of working harder and harder to keep up.
What are the signs of burnout?
Burnout is a cumulative process that builds over time. We gradually take on more responsibilities until we stop prioritising our own needs and well-being, and start neglecting our health.
All the balls we’re juggling soon become impossible to keep in the air. A crash is almost inevitable, so being aware of the signs beforehand is vital.
Burnout is considered to have a wide range of symptoms, but according to the WHO, there are three main symptoms to watch out for.
1. Exhaustion and emotional depletion
You may feel as if your internal resources have been drained and you’re just running on empty. Severe fatigue and emotional exhaustion greatly impacts our ability to function in our daily life. You may be feeling listless, lethargic and unable to cope with even the smallest of stressors.
2. Negativity, cynicism or a sense of alienation
If you’re suffering from burnout, you may be feeling detached and indifferent at work with a notable lack of care and empathy, where once you were heavily invested. You may also be feeling isolated and disconnected from your coworkers and clients.
3. Reduced performance and efficacy at work
This may manifest as a lack of desire to achieve at work and reduced accomplishment. You may be feeling incompetent or inept in your role and find it hard to concentrate and keep up with the relentless demands of your job.
While some characteristics of burnout are quite specifically work-related, some of the signs of burnout can have other causes such as depression or anxiety. It’s important to consider other possibilities or consult your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms in non-workplace contexts.
How to deal with burnout
As we all respond to stress differently, there is no one-size-fits-all remedy for burnout. However, there are some steps you can take to make the stress more bearable.
Step 1: Pinpoint the problems
Recognise the workplace factors that are affecting you and take proactive steps. Reach out and talk to your supervisor or human resources manager, and look at ways to ease or reduce your workload. Creating a healthier working environment is fundamental to dealing with burnout.
Step 2: Take a break
Think about the last time you took a holiday — without taking your laptop and checking emails.
Many burnt-out workers struggle with asking for a break or their requests to work from home are met with resistance.
However, if you are a salaried employee, you are entitled to take paid leave. Planning regular breaks can make all the difference.
Step 3: Focus on your needs
Ensuring you are eating well, getting regular fresh air and exercise as well as sufficient sleep are all essential to your overall health, well-being and resilience. Find a release — be it yoga, meditation or even just a walk — and make it a part of your daily routine.
Step 4: Consider another job
If your job is non-negotiable, you may need to consider changing jobs altogether for a less stressful and more fulfilling role. Or even starting your own business.
Be mindful of simply swapping out one form of work-related stress for another. Working for yourself sounds easy, but certain personalities have even more trouble turning off when it’s their own business (and reputation) on the line.
Step 5: Reduce the financial pressure
If you’re under financial pressure, look at where you can cut back on your living costs. It may be worthwhile downsizing by moving house or simply sticking to a budget.
Creating some breathing room financially can give you one less thing to worry about.
Step 6: Start saying no more often
This can be a challenging one, especially for those keen to progress in their careers. But learning how to set healthy boundaries around work and recognising when you’re taking on too much is key to longevity in the workplace.
Step 7: Ask for help
If the thought of attempting any of these management strategies seems overwhelming, talk to your GP or a close family member and get the help you need.
From burnout to back on top
If work is leaving you physically and mentally exhausted, constantly stressed and unable to switch off, it might be time to take a break and assess the situation.
Take note of how you’re feeling and consider how you can relieve the pressure, be it through:
- Reducing your workload
- Changing jobs
- Becoming your own boss
With the right help and support, you can be feeling motivated, inspired and ready for the future.
Remember, if you or anyone you know needs help or support, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.