While most of us experienced some level of burnout during the pandemic, dealing with ongoing – and sometimes crippling – burnout is different. According to a survey recently conducted by one job search website, 52% of all working Americans report some level of job burnout. It's reached epidemic levels, and is even fueling the new movement known as "quiet quitting", where workers do the bare minimum necessary to keep their job, but without any real emotional investment or desire to succeed.
People often use the term burnout casually to describe a project or issue they've been dealing with. While burnout isn't a medical diagnosis with a clear set of criteria for diagnosis, it's generally agreed the true burnout is a more serious and chronic condition caused by workplace stress. This also applies to caregivers who spend a great deal of time attending to the needs of an elderly or sick friend or relative.
Burnout and depression often present with similar symptoms, although they are two distinct conditions. In both cases, exhaustion, sleep disturbances, irritability, difficulty concentrating, overeating or loss of appetite, and abusing alcohol or drugs are common symptoms. However, burnout generally abates – at least somewhat – with a break from work, such as a vacation. Those suffering from burnout are generally still able to find joy and satisfaction when spending time with friends (outside of work), family, or pursuing hobbies and activities they enjoy. Those suffering from depression are more likely to disengage from activities they formerly found pleasurable, feel that the future is hopeless, and are more prone to isolating themselves. Also, thoughts of self-harm or suicide are serious symptoms that occur only with depression, and require immediate medical intervention and treatment.
It's easy to dismiss burnout as a trendy condition or one which doesn't need to be taken seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth. The unrelenting stress that can result in burnout takes a serious toll on physical health as well as mental and emotional well-being. Left unchecked, burnout can often evolve into clinical depression. American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first coined the term burnout in the 1970s to describe the consequence of severe high stress and high ideals in "helping" professions, such as doctors, nurses, and full-time caregivers. Today the term applies to any profession, and underscores the real impact of continual self-sacrifice for the job. That includes anything from working excessively long hours, feeling undervalued or unappreciated, being underpaid, doing work that isn't challenging or satisfying, trying to meet unrealistic expectations, and being constantly asked to do more or perform at a higher level.
There are three tell-tales signs of burnout, and each has many varying degrees of severity. In general, these signs of burnout indicate you are putting your emotional and mental health at risk:
- Exhaustion. Feeling emotionally drained and exhausted is often an early symptom. As burnout progresses, many people feel unable to cope, are frequently tired and down, and don't have enough energy to do normal tasks. Physical symptoms can also be present including pain and gastrointestinal problems.
- Alienation from work-related activities. With burnout, people find their jobs increasingly stressful and frustrating. They become cynical about their working conditions, colleagues, and even the purpose of the work. They may distance themselves emotionally, and feel indifferent or apathetic about their work. Quiet quitters often exhibit many of these symptoms.
- Reduced performance. Burnout affects the everyday tasks you are expected to perform, and results in many people becoming very negative about those tasks and expectations. Most people find it increasingly difficult to focus or start new projects or complete current ones. Being bored, listless, and unable to think creatively are also common signs.
Short of quitting your job, (or quiet quitting – which doesn't really remedy the situation), how do you cope with burnout? Finding a way to have more control over your situation and setting boundaries is critical to alleviating burnout. Some of these tips may help:
- Take a mental health day as soon as you see signs of burnout. Just one day away from work can sometimes be enough to recharge your batteries and give you a reprieve from the symptoms.
- Plan a vacation. If you've been feeling burned out for a while, one day away may not do it. Plan a week away – two if possible – and completely disconnect from work. No emails, no phone calls. If you return to work feeling much better, great! But, if symptoms of burnout resurface within a day or two, it's time to consider a job change. Turn off email and Slack notifications after hours and on weekends. Being on call 24-hours a day is a recipe for burnout. If necessary, talk to your supervisor about how you can be reached during an emergency, but save the other notifications for working hours.
- Plan rewarding breaks into your day. If there's a weekly call that you always dread, make sure you block out 20 minutes afterwards for a quick walk, coffee with a friend, meditation, or just shutting your door and reading a good book.
- Identify areas of your job that you enjoy, and talk to your supervisor about expanding your role in those areas. If you spend more time on satisfying work, you are less likely to experience burnout. On the other hand, if there's nothing about your job you enjoy, it's time to move on – and possibly even consider a new line of work. Get professional help. A good therapist can help you work through the causes of burnout and identify a path forward that will help you find more joy and satisfaction in what you do.
It's important to remember that some workplace stress is inevitable, but unrelenting stress isn't acceptable. Some boredom and mundane work will come with almost any profession, but when it's the norm and not the exception you shouldn't accept it. Working extra hours on a big project or during an emergency is normal, but when the hours become extreme and take over your life, it's not okay. Learn to set boundaries to protect yourself, prioritize your health (physical, mental and emotional) and when necessary take steps to find a new, better job that's more aligned with your goals and expectations.
This article first appeared in the March 2023 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.