Having a strong work ethic is a good thing. When we have work to do, whether it is our dream job or simply some work that needs doing, doing it well is a sign of character. Good work done well can be a gift, to us and others, but our work was never meant to define us or give us our sense of value.

Unfortunately, too often we use work for that purpose, and that can have many negative effects on our self-perception and overall wellbeing. When work dominates our lives, whether by choice or under compulsion, that can lead to job burnout.

What is burnout?

Burnout at work is far from being a recent phenomenon. While the recent pandemic led to a situation in which new stressors were introduced into everyday life, and those stressors were persistent and indefinite with the result that they heightened everyone’s risk of burnout, the term burnout is decades old, and the experience of it is far older.

One way to define burnout is that it is “an extended period of time where someone experiences exhaustion and a lack of interest in things, resulting in a decline in their job performance.”

Here are a few questions to discern if you may be experiencing work burnout:

  • Have you become frustrated, cynical, or critical at work?
  • Do you find that you must drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you’re there?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your work achievements and feel disillusioned about your work?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with your co-workers or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy and motivation to be consistently productive?
  • Do you find it hard to concentrate?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be dealing with work burnout. Burnout can take three forms: under-challenged burnout, overload burnout, and neglect burnout. Under-challenged burnout stems from not being challenged by your work, and when that doesn’t happen you can feel disconnected and uninterested in the work.

Neglect burnout can result when a person feels helpless in the workplace. This is when a person feels that what they do doesn’t make a difference, or that the work is too much or too complex to handle. When one feels overwhelmed and without a sense of purpose or agency, this can lead to neglect burnout.

Lastly, overload burnout names what people typically mean by “burnout.” Overload burnout is when you work hard and long at a job at a pace that is unsustainable and that ultimately jeopardizes your wellbeing.

What causes burnout at work?

There are several causes of burnout, but chronic stress without relief is the main culprit behind work burnout. When many demands are placed on you, and they exceed the resources you have on hand to deal with the stressors, it leads to burnout. Several factors contribute to burnout, and they include:

Tight deadlines and a large workload with insufficient resources to handle them. If your work conditions are such that you have tight deadlines and a lot to work through, it can easily lead to overworking as you try to manage what is ultimately an unmanageable workload.

If your workload feels unmanageable, even if you are the most optimistic employee at your workplace, you may find yourself feeling hopeless and overwhelmed, despairing that you’ll get the job done. When that happens, the feeling of hopelessness can quickly lead to burnout.

A lack of control. Apart from tight deadlines and an overwhelming workload, burnout can also result when a person has a lack of agency in their workplace. That includes not having a say in the work you do or having to keep up with constantly moving targets that keep you off balance. If your manager has shifting expectations or frequently changes what they want, you’re constantly trying to play catch up, which can be both frustrating and demoralizing.

Unfairness. There are some work situations where workers can see that people receive preferential treatment despite official policy stating otherwise. If you have a situation where your manager plays favorites and there’s rampant unfairness in how shifts or tasks are distributed, or in the punishments received for infractions, that too can push you toward burnout. Dysfunctional workplace dynamics in which you work with people that undermine you, or for an overbearing boss can also add to the stress.

Work that doesn’t align with your values. Tedious work that doesn’t engage a person’s creativity, and work that you perform simply because of the paycheck can lead you toward the path of burnout faster than work that you find interesting.

Additionally, if the work that you’re doing doesn’t align with your values (whether the company you work for has an undesirable ethos, or the work itself goes against what you believe in), you’ll likely experience burnout.

Lack of social support. You don’t necessarily need to be friends with your colleagues, but to thrive in the workplace you do need to have a functional working relationship. Lack of support either at work or feelings of isolation in your personal life might increase your stress levels and increase the chances of becoming burned out.

Certain personalities that tend toward perfectionism, and people who don’t have a rich life outside of work are often more susceptible to burnout. You may also experience burnout if you have to balance work with another major change in your personal life such as moving, buying a house, a new baby being added to the family, or going back to school.

Signs of burnout at work

Stress is a part of every job, though the levels of stress differ. How can you tell if what you’re dealing with is regular job stress or the kind of stress that leads to burnout? How do you know if you’re experiencing burnout?

Burnout is how we react to prolonged or chronic job stress, and it is marked by three main elements: exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of reduced professional ability. Feeling depleted or exhausted may mean you are exhausted no matter how much sleep you get. You may struggle to relax, feel sick more frequently, and lack motivation at work and in other areas of life. You may also find your appetite diminished.

Cynicism may manifest as feeling disconnected from your work and can lead to behaviors such as irritability, avoidance, absenteeism, procrastination, forgetfulness, or arriving at work late and leaving early. Another key element of burnout is that you may feel that you’re incapable of discharging your duties.

This can be putting off the completion of tasks, confusion, or disconnectedness during meetings, being unwilling to communicate with your colleagues, delaying in completing tasks, and doing other work during work time.

The signs of burnout include:

  • Feeling depleted and exhausted
  • Losing your sense of joy and creativity in your work, experiencing a lack of motivation and satisfaction in your work
  • Having work on your mind even outside of work hours
  • Lacking energy or desire to hang out with your friends
  • Neglecting your health, and experiencing stress-related health problems such as digestive issues, heart disease, depression, and obesity
  • Becoming disillusioned with your work
  • Experiencing more conflict at work and home
  • A decline in work performance
  • Frustration and cynicism, and feeling like what you’re doing doesn’t matter
  • Difficulty with your memory and ability to concentrate. Problem-solving ability declines, making it hard to make decisions and get things done
  • A decline in self-care, and taking unhealthy habits such as excessive drinking, smoking, or using recreational drugs
  • A lack of belief in your ability to complete assigned tasks, which may include struggling with simple tasks and feeling like you cannot do your job well

How to deal with burnout at work

Burnout is rooted in chronic stress that doesn’t get dealt with, and so the way to deal with it is to reduce stress as much as possible. It’s important to try and catch burnout before it sets in too deeply, as it gets harder to rectify the longer and deeper the burnout sets in. The health problems that result from burnout can also pose a serious risk to your wellbeing, and so the sooner you address those, the better.

Take real breaks, and sleep properly. Good sleep is the key to good physical and emotional health. On the other hand, poor sleep can have massively negative effects on your productivity at work because it leaves you feeling tired and unmotivated, and it can make you more susceptible to mistakes and errors of judgment. When stressful events occur, it is better to meet them well-rested so that you can make emotionally intelligent decisions. Take other steps such as eating well and getting exercise.

Set boundaries. You should be willing to unplug your devices and be unavailable so that your work stressors don’t seep into your vacation and family time. Turn off your phone while eating dinner, and only check and respond to emails during your work hours.

Vary your workload to avoid stagnation. This will engage your creativity and help you not feel like you’re doing repetitive tasks.

Get clarity about your tasks, and the associated expectations. A lack of clarity about what you’re supposed to do, and how and when to do it can be stressful. You don’t want to fly blindly into tasks. Get clarity, and if a task is too much for you, make that clear and ask for help if you need it.

You can also speak with your HR department about having a more positive work environment or ask them to provide stress-management training to help workers meet challenges in a healthy way. You can also ask your colleagues and leaders for help and support because unexpressed needs can lead to burnout just as easily as demanding workloads.

Revise your personal goals and situation. Is the job worth your health? Sometimes we put ourselves under pressure because of financial commitments, the prestige of the job, or the benefits. In the wake of the pandemic, the Great Resignation occurred in the US, with many people walking away from job situations that weren’t good for them in order to find work that supported their goals and mental health.

Be better organized. To avoid having a time crunch and the last-minute dash to submit pieces of work, organize your time better and work consistently to discharge work as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Have a varied and rich non-work life. Your life should not just be about work. When work consumes your waking hours and you have no relief from it, that can lead to unhealthy life patterns. A rich life outside of work helps you maintain balance as well as ways to relieve work stress.

“Stressed Out”, Courtesy of Lukasbieri, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Staying in Bed”, Courtesy of Isabella and Zsa Fischer, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Goals”, Courtesy of Alexa Williams, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Friends”, Courtesy of Jarritos Mexican Soda, Unsplash.com, CC0 License