Job burnout is a popular topic right now, and for good reason. People everywhere are dissatisfied with their work. They feel unengaged, overworked, like the work they’re dedicating their lives to is increasingly meaningless. If you search for the phrase “burnout symptoms” in Google, you’ll get about 26 million results. For a lot of people out there, things are bleak.
Just how many people are feeling burned out on their work? A 2018 Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23 percent reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes. Additionally, nearly 40% of workers are so burned out that they’re on the verge of quitting.
In fact, burnout has become such a widespread problem that there’s even an official diagnosis for it. The World Health Organization recently classified burnout in its 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
According to WHO, burnout is characterized by “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy.”
So what’s contributing to this epidemic and what can we do to mitigate its effects?
Origins of burnout
1. Overwork. Working too many hours, taking on too many projects, or simply committing too much of your limited energy to your job is perhaps the most common cause of burnout among workers. If you’re feeling exhausted or that no matter how much work you do you’re hardly making a dent in your workload, it might be time to dial it back a bit before your lack of energy affects the quality of your life.
2. Lack of career growth. Sometimes, businesses grow stagnant and, as a result, the prospects for advancement can dry up entirely. When this happens burnout can soon set in. If you feel like your career is languishing—that you’re stuck in a role you don’t care about any longer, at an organization that’s no longer growing—it can lead to feelings of resentment, cynicism, and negativity.
3. Dysfunctional workplace dynamics. A toxic working environment can very quickly lead to mass burnout among employees. If you’re dealing with an office bully, misogynist managers, or creepy coworkers (to name a few of the nasty characters common in toxic workplaces), it’s difficult to stay focused or believe in the company mission. And if you’re entrenched in that culture, there’s no way to compartmentalize the negative from the positive—pretty soon it becomes all-consuming.
4. Work-life imbalance. When your work-life spills over into your life-life, and when that starts to affect your relationships with your friends and loved ones, you may begin to feel the effects of burnout. And while it’s not really possible to achieve a perfect work-life balance, it is possible to manage stress in a way that prevents work from overtaking your life and causing you or your family undue stress.
5. Monotony. Are you performing the same four tasks every week without fail? Monotonous routines can be mind-numbing and could eventually take their toll on how we view our role in relation to our organization’s goals. Long periods of repetitiveness, combined with a lack of variation or challenges can lead to burnout, fast.
6. A lack of results. This is when you’re putting in the work, doing your best to deliver a certain outcome, but either unable to meet expectations or simply unable to adequately measure your work’s impact on the business. This can lead to the feeling that your role doesn’t matter, which can often become a self-fulfilling prophecy and a major cause of burnout.
Symptoms of burnout
As mentioned above, burnout is now an officially classified syndrome and has its own set of symptoms. They’re as follows:
- Physical and emotional exhaustion
- Cynicism about your work/company/role/industry
- Detachment or alienation from work-related activities
- Headaches or stomach aches and/or intestinal pain
- Reduced creativity
- Chest pains
- Increased susceptibility to illness
- Difficulty sleeping and/or eating properly
Some subtle signs that burnout is creeping up on you can also include:
- The feeling that every day is a bad day
- Caring about your work or home life seems like a total waste of energy
- You’re exhausted all the time
- The majority of your day is spent on tasks you find either mind-numbingly dull or overwhelming
- You feel like nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated
Unlike stress, burnout is all about a void: feeling empty, apathetic, exhausted, used up, a lack of motivation. Much like depression, burnout is all-consuming and seemingly inescapable. Once you realize you’re in it, you feel like there’s no getting out. So often what happens is people simply give up trying to get back on track, often with disastrous results. But burnout can be mitigated and it can be prevented.
Steps you can take
1. Social support. Dealing with or preventing burnout is really all about finding support from colleagues, loved ones, friends, and yes, your manager. Reach out to someone close to you and let them know how you’re feeling. If it’s a colleague, remember not to turn the conversation into a venting session (burnout can be infectious after all).
In fact, you don’t even have to talk about what’s bumming you out about your job. Often the act of forming relationships with people around you can give you a renewed sense of perspective about your circumstances, and that can make all the difference. Remember: you're not as isolated and alone as you might think.
2. Find meaning outside of work. If your job’s taking over your life and having a negative impact on other aspects of it, it’s time to focus on something you care about instead of thinking too much about the source of negativity. Find a cause you care about or connect with a like-minded community who you admire or find inspiring. Take a pottery class or learn how to fix muscle cars. The goal here is to find value outside of your work.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson explains how Americans’ devotion to their work—what he calls Workism—has effectively put our jobs on a pedestal above all else. “What is workism?” he writes. “It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose.”
Finding a way out of this mode of thinking, especially if your work is causing you to feel empty inside, requires finding an identity outside of your job. It means concentrating on activities that provide you with joy and a sense of meaning. Seeking out these activities means recognizing that your work doesn’t define you, that you have other interests and priorities that are ultimately going to be much healthier pursuits. You just need to find out what they are.
Burnout is an epidemic in modern workplaces, and it’s a disheartening topic to write (and read) about. Feeling empty about your job and purpose in life is not to be taken lightly, and finding ways forward is likely going to be more challenging than following the advice of a random blog article you’ve stumbled upon. If you’re feeling burned out on your job, hang in there. Talk to a professional if need be. Keep in mind that you’re more than your work, and you don’t deserve to be consumed by a negative experience.
Want to create a positive employee experience and minimize burnout?