How to Get Ahead of Burnout
Categories: Worker Wellness
September 24, 2022
Post-COVID Series: Re-finding Workplace Norms and Establishing New Norms
After a long, uneasy 2+ years of facing the pandemic, work is in flux. Workplaces are flustered to adapt to the expectations of employees who have lived and adjusted to unprecedented times, and while some industries came to a halt in the height of lockdown, they are now back in full swing, navigating a new normal. With change comes angst, and if the pandemic has not opened up new vulnerabilities, it has shone the flashlight on those pre-existing workplace gaps and pressures which, after so much suffering and uncertainty, seem less tolerable.
This is the second in a series of five spotlights on the experience of the worker and the employer post-pandemic, with an emphasis on mental health and wellbeing.
What is Burnout and Who Does it Affect?
3 in 5 North Americans report that they have symptoms of burnout. It’s a hot topic, and it packs a punch. Most of these workers are emotionally exhausted. They’re at the point where they find it hard to complete their assigned tasks and get through the day. They don’t have the energy to do more than scrape by. A survey that connected with 5,100 North American workers found that 62% felt high levels of stress, extreme fatigue, and a loss of control. And that was pre-covid.
Burnout can make you feel distant or unfulfilled from your relationships. It makes it harder to tap into your support system and open up about your struggles. If you’re burned out, you might feel nothing is worthwhile, or that you’re on the outside of all the things you once enjoyed. At worst, it can make you feel like a failure as if no matter how hard you try, you can’t see a task through or muster the energy you need for your work, errands, and relationships. Burnout can be similar to a muscle strain that develops into an acute injury if it goes untreated and unmonitored. When this happens, burnout can progress into mental health and addiction challenges, sleep disturbances, hypertension, or heart disease.
The good thing is that there’s something you can do to put a freeze on burnout. Intentional lifestyle strategies can interrupt the progression of burnout before it takes hold of your passions, connections, and the trajectory of your career. That’s what we’ll be focusing on today. We’ll share with you how you can spot the early signs of burnout, like the muscle soreness you experience after a hard workout. And we’ll offer some tools to help you release burnout before it becomes a bigger health concern.
What Does it Feel Like to be Burned Out?
How Do I Know If Burnout is Happening to Me?
The word burnout has come into overuse, and like other buzz words - stress & anxiety - it’s easier to say you have it than to put a name to those feelings. Researcher, Susan Bruce, simplifies it—you are prone to burnout after a prolonged period of stress, and that makes a lot of us vulnerable. When it happens, burnout leaves you totally exhausted on a mental, emotional, and physical level. It’s a different kind of tiredness than you experience when you’re waiting for your morning coffee to brew. But socially, that’s one of the challenges of determining if burnout applies. Many of us feel bone tired. So, how does burnout differ?
Some experts have questioned whether burnout is just a buzzword. Has a viral diagnosis gotten onto everyone’s radar? Dr. Richard Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, is one expert who feels this way. When the media puts a flashlight on a cluster of symptoms, they can make their way into everyday conversations until the lose specificity and the science becomes hollow. Dr. Friedman says, “when a disorder is reportedly so widespread, it makes me wonder if we are at risk of medicalizing everyday distress…the concept loses credibility.” Arianna Huffington, author and CEO of Thrive Global thinks otherwise. People are talking about it and noticing it because they’re experiencing it. So, maybe it’s a fine balance. It’s important to clarify the definition of burnout, so that we know the parameters of the clinical signs and markers when we talk about it.
The main difference between burnout and other forms of fatigue is that it compromises your coping mechanisms. It builds up until it’s hard to manage pressure, and eventually, you become debilitated. This change in performance can make it hard to show up at work, it impacts your productivity, and can make you apathetic on the job. Since burnout changes your ability to function well, it can make you feel like you’re failing at work and it starts to erode your self-esteem and confidence. Unfortunately, burnout isn’t fixed with a vacation, fewer hours, or shifts. It’s like running out of fuel on a major highway in a winter storm. You might lose motivation completely. You might even become hopeless. But all is not lost. There is a way to turn around a bad case of burnout.
The World Health Organization (WHO) came up with a way of thinking about, talking about, and labelling burnout. The diagnostic and statistical manual categorizes burnout as an employment and unemployment diagnostic, specifically a condition related to, “chronic workplace stress” that is not “successfully managed.” The WHO came up with three signs to distinguish burnout.
Feeling of energy depletion or exhaustion
Reduced efficacy at work
How to Tell if You’ve Been Burned Out @ Work?
A definition is useful, but many people experience symptoms of depression or anxiety without the ability to label their symptoms. Complex psychological conditions result from a series of small changes over time. It’s not that the person is in the dark about their physical and mental changes altogether, but if you were in a bathtub, you may not notice the instance you were: first wet, let alone when you were wetter, almost completely wet, and fully submerged. You would know you were wet, not dry if someone checked in with you, but the degree to which you were wet might be harder to pinpoint, and that’s where the nuance comes in when we talk about burnout. No one wants to let it go too far, but sometimes burnout gets away from you. A checklist can make it easier to tell that something is changing. Take note of these items which predict signs of burnout and keep notes in an app or a list so that you can discuss them with someone.
Is it hard to wake up in the morning, and do you dread going to work?
Do you find yourself showing up late for your shift?
Are you feeling more negative or critical at work?
Is it hard to start a task or complete a task?
Have you become more irritable with clients or coworkers?
Do you feel too tired to get through the day?
Have you lost the ability to concentrate?
You’ve stopped setting goals and lost your ambition?
Are you unmotivated to collaborate?
Are you using more substances to cope?
Has your sleep pattern changed?
Are you spending more money?
Do you have new physical concerns like bowel problems, unexplained headaches, or other complaints?
It’s important to check in with a health practitioner if the items on this list resonated with you. Some of these complaints may be a part of other conditions, such as depression or other health conditions.
What Factors Contribute to Burnout?
When it comes to feeling burnout on the job, it doesn’t come out of the blue. Before you arrive on shift too exhausted or irritable to stay on task or miss your shift, you’ll experience changes in how you feel, along with your outlook. If you pay attention to the triggers, you can have that difficult conversation, talk to your boss about reorganizing your shift schedule or position on the hospitality team, and avoid further suffering. Your burnout could be a byproduct of your team leadership or tension with co-workers on shift. It could even be a demanding or unpredictable shift schedule. Take the time to try to get to the bottom of it.
Here are some of the top workplace stressors that can be the culprit causing burnout. When you read this list, think about whether you are affected by these challenges in your job and one small way you could address it internally or with a colleague.
Loss of control related to scheduling, resources, tasks & workload.
A challenging culture—tense? misunderstood?
Too big an extreme—a monotonous factory line or a chaotic kitchen?
Not enough social support? This can increase your stress and vulnerability.
Work/Life (Im)balance—Day bleeds into night and vice versa.
When we started talking about burnout, the first step was to notice that it was happening. As you get further along in your understanding of burnout, you’ll be able to pinpoint why it’s happening and make a change if you need to. Finding meaningful work, creating a healthy balance between time on and off the shift, and connecting with a boss and coworkers who protect your boundaries and are invested in your development are the best preventative measure. And we’ll do a deep dive into just that: burnout prevention and, when necessary, early intervention.
We know burnout can cause health risks, but for the most part, there are warning signs. Early predictors can give you a read on your burnout before it takes a turn. For instance, if your job demands are outside of your limits, that's a reason to put up a red flag. Another trigger can be role confusion. Maybe you feel that you lack control, or you have the pressure of many competing demands. You may feel weighed down by job demands, lack of support, or feelings of unfairness and inequality. All of these factors can lead to burnout, which can leave you feeling cynical, resentful, helpless, and hopeless.
How can you intervene in a case of burnout?
With practice, you can identify burnout and stop it in its tracks. Burnout shows up a little differently for each person, but the cure is unanimous. It’s best if we intervene early, and when we do, it takes a lifestyle intervention to derail burnout. Here are some solutions focused approaches that will help build up your physical and emotional resources if you notice signs of burnout:
Prioritize healthy sleep
Integrate good nutrition
Take a daily break from technology
Spend Time in Nature
It may sound a little tedious, but tracking gives you an honest sense of how you’re using your time. It’s the same reason that people tend to see change when they track their drinking or eating patterns; you may, for instance, know that you have a bit of chocolate in the afternoon or drink coffee, but you lose sight that it’s half a bar, or three large mugs. Use a journal, an excel spreadsheet, an app, or the notes section on your phone (whatever feels easiest) and write down your daily activities, including social media use or tv time! Here are some helpful things to record about your activities:
What were you doing?
Who were you with?
On a scale of 1 to 10, being drained to energized, how did you feel?
The benefit of this exercise is that you can spot the activities that maximize your energy and your mood and minimize those activities that deplete you. Maybe you find that you love to journal, it makes you feel like a 9 or 10, but you only do it once a week. You might start setting aside 30 minutes to journal each morning to clear your head before work. On the other hand, it might surprise you to find that after scrolling Instagram, you feel like a 3 or 4. You may not want to give up this habit altogether, but shortening the window of use, will give you extra time to put toward the activities that enhance your mood and feelings of wellbeing.
Burnout is like a bad back injury. If you slipped a disc playing tennis and find that any torque makes you flare up, then playing tennis day after day will only worsen your injury. You need to take some time off the court, or at least rest days between play, and don’t forget to stretch! Without rehabilitating the injury or making time for activities - like an Epsom salt bath, a stretching session, or a walk - that reduce your symptoms and give you the chance to heal, you will be stuck with ongoing discomfort. If you ignore all the signals, it could progress to the point that you are debilitated. The same goes for burnout. When the first signs appeared, you may haved ignored them and stayed on the court. But when you notice burnout, you can nip it in the bud by acting early.
We’re just getting started on our deep dive into the worker experience, so stay tuned for the next part of our series: Addressing Quiet Quitting. FindWRK is on the front lines, listening to the stories of workers and employers, tuning into your needs, and innovating the next-best in all things hourly employment. We’re here for you, so check back with us any time for resources, support, or to find your next role. We think it should be simple, so we’re on a mission to make it that way.
Forbes. Some Say the American Workforce is Overdiagnosing Itself with ‘Burnout.’ Retrieved September 20, 2022 from https://apple.news/AVXvWTK_4QFmFpVBlAGWWrg
Home. Mental Health America of Eastern Missouri. Retrieved September 20, 2022 from https://www.mha-em.org/im-looking-for/mental-health-knowledge-base/wellness/30-burnout-prevention
Sutton, J. (2020, July 13). How to Prevent Burnout in the Workplace: 20 Strategies. Psychology.com Retrieved September 20, 2022 from https://positivepsychology.com/burnout-prevention/
World Economic Forum. There’s a problem with the way we talk about burnout. Retrieved September 20, 2022 from https://apple.news/AUZ3x5dpwRUm21M4DXamw9a
(2021, June, 05). Know the Signs of Job Burnout. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved September 20, 2022 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642
(2021, August 27). 4 Steps to Beating Burnout. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved September 20, 2022) from https://hbr.org/2016/11/beating-burnout