You’re sitting at your desk, trying to write an email updating your supervisor on an assignment, 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 next week, even though it’s the biggest project of the quarter. You want to feel productive and happy at 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.
In fact, a recent Deloitte survey revealed that 77% of employees have experienced burnout at their current job. Of these, 51% said they have felt burned out at their job more than once, and 84% are not passionate about their work. During the pandemic, burnout became increasingly prevalent among employees working both in and out of their homes, and it won't go away unless we do something about it.
What is burnout?
Earlier this summer, the World Health Organization added burnout at work to their latest revised International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as an occupational phenomenon, also noting that they were going to start developing "evidence-based guidelines on mental health in the workplace." They define burnout as follows:
"Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life."
According to the IDC-11, burnout is characterized by three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance or feelings of cynicism related to one's job
- Reduced professional efficacy
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. This is likely why burnout is increasingly being acknowledged as an “employee crisis” that could result in a slew of problems for both companies and employees.
How do you spot burnout?
Despite how prevalent it seems to be, many people don’t know how to identify the signs of burnout. Psychology Today characterizes burnout as “a state of chronic stress” that employees face, which can lead to a number of problems for both physical and mental health, including but not limited to:
- Physical and emotional exhaustion
- Difficulty with concentration
- Irritability and restlessness
- Low self-confidence
- Isolation and detachment
- Lack of energy and enthusiasm
- Disrupted sleep patterns
Burnout erodes work-life balance and can also cause more serious impact to an individual's well-being. According to the same Psychology Today article, other symptoms of burnout include insomnia, as well as physical issues like shortness of breath and headaches. You may also experience increased susceptibility to colds and flus and even bouts of anxiety and depression — causing you to take sick days, only to get back to work and be even more behind.
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…” At the end of the day, having the job of your dreams shouldn’t come at the cost of your well-being.
What causes burnout?
The harmful effects of burnout occur incrementally, so people often don’t recognize that they’re experiencing it until they’re already overwhelmed. But what are the main factors that drive employees to their breaking points? Burnout happens when expectations for work do not meet reality, for reasons outside of the employee’s control. Common causes of burnout are:
- Extreme workload
- Long hours and overtime
- Insufficient compensation
- Overly competitive atmosphere
- Inadequate sick or vacation time
- Toxic work environment
- Lack of healthy boundaries
Burnout is most likely to occur in company cultures where employees are pushed to work beyond reasonable measures. This could be as direct as expecting employees to be accessible beyond normal work hours, or as subtle as rewarding employees who exhibit unhealthy work habits, such as working late on a regular basis. In either case, knowing how burnout happens is the first step to preventing it.
How do you deal with burnout?
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 candid conversation with your manager. If the prospect of telling your manager that you're drowning under a heavy workload and feeling 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. The natural tendency is to think, ‘I am not working hard enough, smart enough, or efficiently enough. I should be able to handle this.' So you suffer in silence.”
Morgenstern also says that the bottom line is, “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.
Here are some steps you can take to address and alleviate burnout:
Step 1: Perform a self-diagnosis.
Before you do anything, it's important to understand exactly why you are experiencing burnout. Are you feeling overwhelmed from the amount of work you were assigned, or did you take on too much because you were trying to make a good impression on your manager? Do you have any work relationships that are causing you stress or processes that are hindering your productivity? When was the last time you felt positive at work? Take a moment to diagnose what might be causing you to feel burned out so that you feel confident advocating for your own workplace happiness.
Step 2: Reach out to a colleague.
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 also a great way to gauge whether or not your workplace stress is truly unreasonable. A peer may be able to provide context on areas where you lack visibility or provide suggestions for handling similar issues based on their own past experiences.
Step 3: Brainstorm needs and solutions.
Based on your self-diagnosis, identify 2-4 things you feel you need in order to overcome employee burnout and try to think of some feasible solutions. If your main priority is to achieve work-life balance, maybe working fewer hours or establishing set times for work-related communications would help. If you want to manage your stress levels, consider whether you can lighten your workload by placing any tasks on the back burner or restructuring them as a more collaborative effort between you and other members of your team. As you brainstorm solutions, make sure that they don’t conflict with the company’s objectives and deadlines.
Step 4: Be open with your manager.
When you feel ready to go to your manager, be open about the fact that you’re feeling the effects of burnout. Communicate the symptoms you have noticed – both physical and mental – and highlight some things you identified as needs for overcoming your current state. Before sharing any solutions, ask for guidance on how to level up your time management skills, streamline tasks, and prioritize more effectively. If you and your manager decide to reassign any of your responsibilities, offer to help with the transition and provide regular guidance to whoever takes over. Finally, tell your manager if you want or need to take advantage of employee benefits such as paid time off. You have to recharge after burnout, so taking some time to disconnect might be necessary for your mental health.
Step 5: Advocate for yourself.
In a 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 providing more granular insight into your crowded to-do list, tapping on coworkers to validate your claims, or just learning how to say “no.” Depending on your budget, you can even consider taking a small amount of unpaid time off to get some much-needed R&R. However, if you do find that your manager won’t adjust your workload or accommodate your time-off requests, it may be time to investigate other opportunities or begin your job search so that you can find a work environment that is better suited for you.
Employee burnout is clearly an issue 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. If you're feeling the effects of burnout in your own role, take some time to reflect and recharge — for the health of your mind, body, and career.