Not only is it a career-killer, it’s seriously bad for your health.
Earlier this year, burnout was recognized by the World Health Organization as a significant workplace health hazard. That officially makes it “a thing“.
The term “burnout” was first coined in the mid-’70’s by American psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger, who used it to describe symptoms he had experienced: “exhaustion, disillusionment, and withdrawal resulting from an intense devotion to a cause that failed to produce what he expected. In earlier times it was generally termed “nervous breakdown” or emotional exhaustion”
Burnout today refers to a collection of different physical, emotional, and mental reactions that occur in response to prolonged stress and overworking. Surprisingly, experts can’t agree on an exact definition.
While I sort of knew about burnout, I never thought it would happen to me. Even-keeled and rarely stressed out, I thought I was Iron Man in this department and nothing could break me. Burnout carries a stigma as a sign of weakness and since I am not weak, I couldn’t reconcile how burnout could come knocking at my door.
My energetic “Type A” approach to building a career I that I loved, led to deep down fatigue – the kind that doesn’t go away with a good night’s sleep. I was getting snappish and reactionary around trivial things and feeling increasingly grim about the future.
The Car Crash You Don’t See Coming
Burnout is an insidious condition that sneaks up on you. It happens slowly, over a lengthy time frame. The consequences can be life-altering.
That’s why it’s so important to spot the hazard signs and symptoms early.
Symptoms could include:
– Chronic fatigue and a sense of dread about what lies ahead on any given day.
-Insomnia. In the early stages, you may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep one or two nights a week.
– Forgetfulness/impaired concentration and attention. Lack of focus and mild forgetfulness are early signs. Later, the problems may get to the point where you can’t get your work done and everything begins to pile up.
-Physical symptoms may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting, and/or headaches (all of which should be medically assessed).
-Getting sick easily and often
– Vague anxiety. Early on, you may experience mild symptoms of tension, worry, and edginess. As you move closer to burnout, the anxiety may become so serious that it interferes with your ability to work productively and may cause problems in your personal life.
-Depression. In the early stages, you may feel mildly sad and occasionally hopeless, and you may experience feelings of guilt and worthlessness as a result. At its worst, you may feel trapped and severely depressed and think the world would be better off without you. (If your depression is to this point, you should seek professional help immediately.)
– Unreasonable anger. At first, this may present as interpersonal tension and irritability. In the latter stages, this may turn into angry outbursts and serious arguments at home and in the workplace. (If anger gets to the point where it turns to thoughts or acts of violence toward family or coworkers, seek immediate professional assistance.
Could you be burning out?
“Burnout is what happens when you try to avoid being human for too long.” Michael Gungor
Understanding Three Varieties of Burnout
I didn’t realize there are different types of burnout but thanks to the American Association of Psychological Science, here they are:
- Overload burnout
With overload burnout, the tendency is to work too long and too hard work in an amped-up search for success. Sleep, personal health, and overall well-being are sacrificed in hot pursuit of ambition. Business is worn like a badge of honor even though it’s stressogenic.
2. Under-challenge burnout
Less understood, the “under-challenge” can cause burnout. Feelings include feeling unappreciated, boredom, and a lack of learning opportunities. When there’s no passion or enjoyment in work. Coping mechanisms include distancing, indifference, cynicism, avoidance of responsibility, and overall disengagement.
3. Neglect burnout
This subtype of burnout stems from chronic feelings of helplessness at work. There are feelings of incompetence or falling behind on the demands of the job. This results in stasis, passivity, and low motivation.
In a 2018 research piece, researchers at Gallup identified 5 leading causes of workplace burnout.
5 Causal Factors Leaders Should Be Aware of
These five factors were most highly correlated with burnout syndrome in the study:
- Unfair treatment at work
- Unmanageable workloads
- Lack of role clarity
- Lack of communication and support from the management
- Unreasonable time pressures
Burnout is not inevitable.
You can prevent — and reverse — burnout by changing how you manage and lead yourself and those who rely on you. If you don’t address the root causes of employee burnout in your organization, you won’t have a healthy environment that empowers your people to be and do their best.
What to Do
As a leader, it’s particularly important to spot the signs and symptoms of burnout early, because it’s associated with numerous health problems. The human and corporate toll can accumulate fairly rapidly.
Also, as a leader, you can set an understanding and respectful tone on how this gets addressed. This is a human problem not a “personnel issue.” Here are some practical steps to take.
- Create a “psychological safe space” to talk about it.
Encourage discussion of specific concerns. Work together to change expectations or reach compromises or solutions. Be realistic about setting goals for what must get done and what can wait.
- Don’t do this alone.
Encourage those impacted to reach out to their co-workers, friends, loved ones, or even you as their manager, for the support and collaboration that will help them cope. Recommend to your team that they utilize an employee assistance program if they feel stuck and unable to approach you. These and other relevant services can help with employee burnout.
- Engage in relaxation activities
Either suggest or help involve your employee or co-worker in exercise programs that can help alleviate stress. This can include group runs or cycling, or more gym-related activities such as yoga, meditation or tai chi.
- Get some exercise and sleep
Carving time for physical exercise is known to help relieve stress. Regular physical activity can take your mind off work and help restore broken sleep patterns.
This may not be for everyone, but mindfulness is a great way to alleviate stress and stave off burnout. Mindfulness is the act of focusing on your breath flow and being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling at every moment, without interpretation or judgment. In a job setting, this practice involves facing situations with openness and patience, and without judgment.
Burnout is a real thing. It happens when you least expect it.
In my instance, I caught it early and was able to turn it around. This came with the help and support of my wife, friends and a very smart family doctor.
Others aren’t so lucky.
You may toil for years at the same pace and suddenly found yourself in the middle of burnout without even seeing it coming. It’s good to love your work. But you have to love it in moderation. If you don’t, burnout will make you hate it, and that’s harder — much harder — to bounce back from that.
Let’s have a great month of August!