burnout in the workplace

How to manage and prevent burnout in the workplace

You’ve probably heard the term “burnout” used over and over again in the workplace, especially after this past year. The popular buzzword sometimes is used flippantly or interchangeably to describe feeling “stressed out” at work, but it’s more than just usual stress. 

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) recategorized burnout as an occupational syndrome, “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Previously, burnout was only considered “state of vital exhaustion,” though the Maslach Burnout Inventory was used to diagnose burnout, and it is still widely used today. 

This diagnostic tool, developed by Christina Maslach, Professor of Psychology (Emerita) and a core researcher at the Healthy Workplaces Center at the University of California, Berkeley, is used by experts to identify burnout in individuals. According to the Maslach Burnout Inventory, burnout occurs when these three factors are present: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a diminished sense of personal accomplishment.

Burnout is on the rise 

An article by Forbes reported that workplace burnout is on the rise since the pandemic began last year. A study conducted by the job-seeking site, Indeed, found that: 

  • 52% of survey respondents are experiencing burnout in 2021—up from the 43% who reported burnout in Indeed’s pre-pandemic survey. 
  • Millennials are the most affected population, with 59% reporting feelings of burnout. However, Gen Z is following closely behind at 58%, up from 47% pre-pandemic. Additionally, Baby Boomers reported a 7% increase in burnout since the pandemic began, now at 31% compared to the 24% reported pre-COVID-19. Finally, Gen X is close in numbers with Millennials and Gen Z, with over half (54%) of Gen Xers reporting experiences of burnout in the workplace. 

COVID-19 shook up the workforce globally, leading to drastic changes in workplace environments. While working from home many have been easy or beneficial for some, others struggled to adapt and establish routines or juggle both work and family. Among those who responded to Indeed’s survey, 80% believe Covid-19 impacted workplace burnout with a 67% majority saying burnout has worsened during the pandemic, while 13% believe it has gotten better.

Signs of burnout in the workplace

The signs of burnout are not always easy to spot, especially when they’re happening. Many brush off burnout as simple workplace stress. Everyone has bad days, right? But burnout is more than just a few bad days or even a bad week. Burnout is when there never seems to be a good day anymore. Burnout is a chronic response to untreated workplace stress. If you think you may be experiencing burnout, it’s crucial you take a step back and seek help to navigate and overcome these feelings, because burnout can take a toll not only on your mental health, but your physical health as well. 

Ask yourself: 

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you find it hard to concentrate?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
  • Have your sleep habits changed?
  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?

If you answered yes to any or all of these, you may be experiencing burnout. These may also be signs of other mental health issues, such as depression, so it’s important you speak to your doctor or mental health provider about these feelings. 

Other key signs of burnout include: 

  • Not feeling excited about your work anymore
  • You have stopped putting your usual effort into your work
  • You’re exhausted, easily drained, and emotionally depleted
  • You’re experiencing physical symptoms such as insomnia, chest pains, headaches or migraines, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, dizziness, or gastrointestinal pain. 

What you can do to manage burnout and how employers can help 

Managing burnout is usually not something you can do alone because burnout is a result of workplace stressors which are often outside of your own control. This is why it is important for employers to be aware of burnout and work with their employees to address the common triggers. 

On the personal level, you can work to change your mindset and develop healthy coping mechanisms for stress. Practicing mindfulness and exercising regularly are great ways to naturally cope with stress. Setting aside time each day to do something fun and creative is also a great way to get rid of stressful energy and cultivate joy. 

You might be interested Stress Awareness Month: Coping with post-covid stress and stress at work

Another way to deal with burnout is to make changes in the workplace, such as changing your workload, taking a vacation, or even a prolonged break, and making changes on a systematic level. This is where employers come in. 

If you are feeling overwhelmed by workplace stress, approach your boss to have a conversation about the fact that you feel overworked and identify ways to change your workload.

Employers should also lead by example, cultivating a work-life balance and encouraging employees to use their vacation days and sick leave when needed. One way to encourage work-life balance is to set clear boundaries for when someone is “on the clock” and when they are not, such as only responding to work-related emails during the workday and not glamourising or encouraging overtime work. 

The most important thing is open communication and speaking up when it all feels too much. Burnout in the workplace doesn’t have to be inevitable.

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