You’re sitting at your desk, trying to write an email updating your supervisor on a big project, but you can’t seem to type anything that makes sense. Or, you can’t muster the energy to work on that report that’s due Friday, even though it’s the most important thing you're responsible for this quarter. You feel as though you’re drowning in so much work, but instead of throwing you a lifeline, people just keep dropping more tasks on you.
These scenarios have become all too common for workers at every stage of their careers, and indicate a common phenomenon that's become a major issue: burnout.
Earlier this summer, the World Health Organization added burnout at work (though they call it "burn-out") to their latest revised International Classification of Diseases as an occupational phenomenon, also noting that they were going to start developing "evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace."
It is described in the chapter: ‘Factors influencing health status or contact with health services’ — which includes reasons for which people contact health services but that are not classed as illnesses or health conditions. Burn-out is defined in ICD-11 as follows:
"Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life."
Burnout is widely acknowledged as an “employee crisis” that could be to blame for a slew of problems for companies, and their employees.
According to a study conducted by Kronos Incorporated and Future Workplace, 95% of human resources leaders acknowledge that employee burnout is significantly impacting workforce retention.
Despite how prevalent it seems to be, many people don’t know how to identify the signs of burnout. In a long piece about it, Psychology Today calls burnout as “a state of chronic stress” that employees face, which can lead to both physical and emotional exhaustion, as well as feelings of detachment, cynicism, and lack of accomplishment. It can be caused by an extreme workload, exorbitant overtime and long hours, and/or insufficient compensation, and it is negatively impacting the employees of businesses small and large. Additionally, the effects of burnout occur incrementally, so people often don’t recognize that they’re experiencing it until they’re already overwhelmed.
People who suffer from it describe symptoms of burnout such as lowered productivity, a lack of enthusiasm, and feeling totally drained. A reader of Alison Green’s “Ask A Manager” describes her experience at a high-stress job where she tackles a heavy workload: “I’m tired all the time and grumpy. Worse, in the last couple weeks I seem to be losing the ability to think. I’ll read an email and be unable to make sense of the words, or unable to figure out what to do with it…”
Burnout erodes the work-life balance and can also cause more serious impacts to an individual's well-being. According to the same Psychology Today article, these include insomnia, as well as physical issues like shortness of breath and headaches. You may also experience healthcare issues like increased susceptibility to colds and flus if you’re burned out, and even bouts of anxiety and depression — causing you to take sick days, only to get back to work and be even more behind.
Perhaps the worst thing about burnout is that it won’t just go away on its own over time. You have to take action to combat and avoid future burnout, which means having a conversation with your manager. If the prospect of telling your manager that you're drowning under a heavy workload and feel detached creates a squirming ball of panic within you, that’s okay. Productivity expert Julie Morgenstern identifies part of why it’s so difficult: “In the bottom of your belly is the feeling that if you can’t handle the work, there’s someone else who can; you feel dispensable.” You feel as though, if you can’t cut it — the long hours, having to constantly check your email from home or during your vacation days, the endless duties — you’ll lose your job to someone with the skill set to handle all that workplace stress with grace.
“The natural tendency is to think, ‘I am not working hard enough, smart enough, or efficiently enough. I should be able to handle this,’” adds Morgenstern. “So you suffer in silence.” Liane Davey, cofounder of 3COze Inc., explains why you shouldn’t let this stop you from speaking up: “You overcommit because you are ambitious or you want to impress your boss, but then when you fail to deliver — or deliver work that is rushed or of poor quality — it sends a message that you are not reliable.”
The bottom line, Morgenstern says, “Bosses want their employees to speak up if there is anything that’s keeping them from performing at peak levels.” So, if you exhibit the signs of burnout, being honest with your manager about your high stress levels, your heavy workload, and your overall job burnout will be better for both of you in the long run.
If going straight to your boss seems too intimidating, confide in a friend or trusted coworker about your stress levels and lack of job satisfaction so you can begin to feel heard. Laying out all your responsibilities and getting social support can help you feel more confident in approaching your manager. It’s a great way to gauge whether or not your workplace stress is truly unreasonable. Do a diagnostic regarding the possible causes: is the excessive stress from the amount of work you were assigned, or did you take on too much? Did you get caught up trying to make a good impression on your manager, or is the problem with the amount of work structural? Your friend may even be able to help you brainstorm suggestions for lightening your workload or acquiring more reasonable work hours so you’re more prepared to talk to your boss.
When you do go to your manager, be open about the fact that you’re feeling the effects of burnout and ask for guidance in time management to streamline tasks and prioritize more effectively. Then, based on your “diagnostic” above, explore whether any of your tasks can be placed on the back burner, and which of your assignments can become a more collaborative effort between you and other members of your team. To keep your manager on board, make sure that these re-assignments don’t mess with the company’s objectives and deadlines -- maybe even try to frame it as a team-building exercise. Additionally, if any of your work is being reassigned to a coworker or team, you can offer to touch base with them regularly or be available to answer questions via email — essentially smoothing the transition and creating a more seamless work environment.
Finally, tell your manager if you want or need to take advantage of employee services such as paid time off. You have to recharge after burnout, so a little distance might be necessary for your well being. If such services are few and far between, it may still be worth it to take a small amount of time off without compensation — only you can determine your budget and needs, but don’t be afraid to point out to your manager to that meeting you halfway so that you can craft a solution to your burnout together will likely be best for both of you in the long run. After all, it won’t solve itself, no matter what your budget — so you truly do have to be proactive.
It’s the worst-case scenario: you tell your boss that you’re being crushed by your heavy workload, and they don’t do anything. This is tricky, but you have to advocate for yourself — whether it means reminding them that you need to take a few things off your plate, seeking help from your team members, or taking a personal or vacation day now and then just to get some space. However, if you do find that your manager won’t adjust your workload, it’s time to take action and investigate other opportunities or begin your job search, so that you might be able to find greater job satisfaction.
Employee burnout is clearly a huge problem in a variety of workplaces, so rest assured that you’re not alone. Chances are that your manager is familiar with the employee burnout crisis, and will be willing to find a more manageable workload for you. Take time, recharge, and banish the workplace burnout— for the health of your body and mind, as well as your career.