Having trouble focusing at work? Struggling to find the motivation to check off even minor tasks from your to-do list? Feeling apathetic toward the biggest project of the quarter? These scenarios have become all too common for modern workers and can be linked to a common phenomenon and major workplace issue: burnout.
Unfortunately, the global pandemic, economic uncertainty, and geopolitical conflict on top of other workplace stressors are only making burnout more prevalent. At a time when many employees are being asked to “do more with less,” businesses need to pay attention to and prioritize employee wellbeing before their workforce becomes unmotivated and disengaged.
What Is Burnout?
The term burnout was first coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974 when he observed that “helping” professionals like doctors and nurses often ended up in a "state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one's professional life." Today, we know that anyone can suffer from burnout — not just healthcare professionals.
In fact, burnout has become so widely acknowledged that the World Health Organization (WHO) included it in its 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) in 2019. In the ICD-11, the WHO defines burnout at work as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The definition states that burnout is characterized by three dimensions:
- Feeling exhausted or low in energy
- Having increased negative feelings toward or mental distance from one’s job
- Becoming less effective at one’s job
Put simply, burnout occurs when an individual experiences long-term stress relating to their occupation, leaving them physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted.
If you’ve experienced this before or feel you have a risk of burnout, you’re not alone. Gallup research found that 76% of employees said they experienced burnout on the job at least sometimes, with 28% going even further to say they experience it very often or always. That means that on any given team, 3 out of 4 employees will likely feel burnt out some of the time. Clearly, businesses and managers need to pay attention to their employees’ wellbeing and intervene long before these stressors become too much for an individual to handle.
Common Symptoms of Burnout
Despite the prevalence of workplace burnout, many people don’t know how to identify the signs and are surprised to learn that the occupational phenomenon can lead to a number of health problems. While burnout is not a medical condition itself, unaddressed job burnout can lead to more serious health conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and substance misuse, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Here are a few signs and symptoms to look for if you suspect you or a colleague are suffering from burnout:
Unfortunately, the impact of burnout can extend well beyond the workplace and impact other areas of life, as well. This chronic stress can seep into an individual’s personal and social life and even cause them to lash out at a family member or loved one, have no motivation to practice self-care or hobbies that were previously sources of joy, and more.
But burnout rarely takes hold overnight. Its harmful effects typically occur incrementally, so people often don’t recognize they’re experiencing it until they’re already overwhelmed. If you suspect you’re experiencing burnout syndrome, you don’t have to deal with the pain alone. It’s best to fight burnout head-on and as early as possible to minimize its impact, and that might mean you need to lean on your colleagues or manager to help you through it.
How to Talk to Your Boss About Burnout
Perhaps the worst thing about burnout is that it won’t just go away on its own over time. For that reason, don’t suffer in silence. You have to take action to combat and avoid future burnout, which often means having a candid conversation with your manager.
Already dreading this conversation? Just remember that it’s a manager's responsibility to help their employees succeed. If you exhibit 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.
To help, we’ve put together a step-by-step guide to prepare for this conversation and identify solutions to address and alleviate burnout with your manager’s help.
1. Make note of your symptoms.
Before you do anything, it’s important to understand exactly what you are experiencing and determine if it is in fact burnout. Take a moment to check in with yourself and answer these questions:
- When was the last time I felt positive at work? What has changed since then?
- Am I feeling overwhelmed? Why?
- Has my attitude toward work become more negative? Do I no longer care about things I previously cared a lot about?
- Do I have any work relationships that are causing me stress?
- Are there any business processes that are hindering my productivity?
- When was the last time I learned something new?
- Am I suffering from physical and mental exhaustion?
- Have my sleep habits changed?
- Have I been catching more colds than normal lately or experiencing frequent headaches?
- Is work affecting my personal life?
If you’re still on the fence about whether you are suffering from burnout, you can always take a formal evaluation to be certain. The most common one is the Maslach Burnout Inventory™ (MBI), which is a psychological assessment used to evaluate the extent to which an individual is burnt out. The MBI uses 22 questions to address three scales:
- Emotional exhaustion, or feelings of being emotionally overextended and exhausted by one's work.
- Depersonalization, or loss of empathy toward clients or colleagues.
- Personal accomplishment, or feelings of competence and achievement in one's work.
Using an individual's answers, the assessment can be used to determine whether they have a low, moderate, or high degree of burnout. While these surveys can be helpful to some people, don’t feel you need a survey result to define how you experience burnout. If you’re feeling empty and mentally exhausted, speak up and advocate for your own workplace happiness.
2. Determine what you think is causing the burnout.
Not sure what could be the root cause of your burnout symptoms? Long hours aren't the only cause of burnout. Here are some causes of burnout that could be behind your case:
- Long hours and overtime
- Extreme workload
- Insufficient compensation
- Overly competitive atmosphere
- Inadequate sick or vacation time
- Toxic work environment
- Lack of healthy boundaries
- Unclear priorities and poor communication
Burnout is most likely to occur in companies with 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 in preventing it.
3. Brainstorm solutions.
Before you talk to your manager, it’s best to come prepared with potential solutions you think could help improve your experience. This shows you’re thinking rationally about your situation and want to find a solution that benefits you, your team, and the business. Approaching your burnout conversation with a few prospective solutions in tow can help you and your manager get right to problem-solving and finding a speedy resolution to your issue.
Not sure how to jump into this conversation with your manager? Here’s an example of what an employee suffering from an excessive workload might propose to help alleviate their burnout symptoms.
4. Talk 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. Whether in a one-on-one meeting or an email message, 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 potential 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.
Odds are your first discussion of the topic won’t result in an immediate solution, and that’s okay. You just want your manager to understand the situation and start thinking of ways to accommodate your needs. You might need to schedule a few follow-up meetings to keep this topic top of mind and ensure you get the support you deserve.
5. Put yourself first.
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.”
If your manager still won’t adjust your workload or accommodate your requests, consider these options:
- Escalate your situation to a department head or human resources representative.
- Take paid or unpaid time off.
- Seek counseling or therapy.
- Practice self-care techniques.
- Investigate other job opportunities within the company.
- And if all else fails, search for a new job that respects your wellbeing.
While we hope things don’t escalate to that point, don’t underestimate the impact burnout can have on your life. If you’re feeling the effects of burnout in your role, do what you can to take time to reflect and recharge — for the health of your mind, body, and career.
Employee burnout is a growing issue that employers need to work toward rectifying. Businesses need to step up and build positive work environments that encourage employees to do their best, while still prioritizing their wellbeing.
Wondering the best way to strike this balance? In our ebook, How to Prevent and Treat Workplace Burnout, you'll learn how your business can help employees manage stress and lead successful, fulfilling careers.