What is burnout?
When you’re stressed for a long time and this stress isn’t managed, you may experience burnout. It’s an ‘occupational phenomenon’, which means it’s not a medical condition, but it’s something that people might seek help and support for. That also means it describes feelings that are caused by work-related pressure, rather than from other life stresses.
How does burnout make you feel?
If you’re experiencing burnout, you may:
- lack energy and feel emotionally exhausted
- feel negative about your work – you may feel detached from it or cynical about it
- be less efficient at work and feel inadequate or unable to accomplish things
In addition, you might feel anxious, frustrated or irritable. Burnout can also be linked with depression. You might have physical symptoms of burnout, such as headaches, stomach aches or trouble sleeping. These feelings can affect your life outside of work, so it’s important to recognise the signs of burnout and address the cause of it.
What causes burnout?
It’s thought that there are six key areas that can contribute to burnout.
If you can’t keep up with your workload, you won’t have the opportunity to rest and recover, and this can lead to burnout. Being able to manage your workload allows you to give tasks the time and effort they need, and even expand on and develop new skills.
2. Control and autonomy
A lack of control over what work you do, and when and how you do it, can lead to burnout. It’s important to maintain a level of control over your work – this could be as simple as choosing what tasks to do each day. Or thinking about what resources you need to do your job effectively.
3. Recognition and reward
If you aren’t recognised or rewarded for doing a good job, you may start to feel depleted. You might even entertain the idea that you’re not doing a good job. But if you feel that your work is valued, you might feel more satisfied.
4. Community and relationships
Feeling connected and part of a team that works well together helps people to avoid burnout. When there’s a sense of community, you may feel more supported and engaged with your job. However, if tensions are running high or there’s a lack of support, there’s a risk of burnout.
5. Fairness and respect
Being treated fairly at work is important because if you feel you aren’t treated with respect, this might cause you to feel angry and hostile. This negative association can get you down and cause burnout.
If there’s a disconnect between your personal values and the values of your workplace, you may feel compromised. Believing in what you do is an important motivator. And if your values are lost or undermined, you may begin to see work as merely an exchange of time for money. This makes you more likely to experience burnout.
You might find it helpful to speak to your manager if any of these areas are affecting your mental health.
How can I manage burnout?
You may have identified areas in that list that affect you, but it can take time to address them. Luckily, there are other, more immediate steps you can take to help reduce the effects of burnout.
Maintain work-life balance
Try to use your annual leave. It’s important to take time off work to relax, if you can. And remember to take breaks, too – they can improve your mood and performance. Try to schedule them on your calendar so they’re given the same importance you might give to meetings. Or you might find the Pomodoro technique helpful. This technique sets aside short bursts of focus time and encourages regular breaks in between.
When we have a lot of work to do, it can be tempting to try and do it all in one go. But this isn’t always a productive use of our time, and it can wear us out.
Boundaries are also important. While you’re working, try not to work more than your hours on a regular basis. By shutting down your computer at the end of each day, and wearing ‘work’ clothes – even when working from home – you can help create boundaries.
When you’re overworked, your sleep can be one of the first things to suffer. Perhaps you stay up late or get up early to make a dent in your to-do list. However, after 17 hours of being awake, your attention and cognitive control may be almost the same as the legal blood alcohol limit for driving. Sleeping well is also important for your health.
To help stave off burnout, try to get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night. And if you’re having difficulty sleeping, consider seeking help from a medical professional.
Being physically active is one of the best things you can do to improve your physical health, but it also has benefits for your mental health. Large studies have found that physical activity and exercise can reduce stress and improve your mood. Exercise also has some protective effects against conditions like depression, which can be a long-term consequence of prolonged burnout. But don’t worry if the gym isn’t your thing – there are lots of ways you can add more activity into your life. Why not try slotting a 15-minute body weight workout or some high-intensity interval training into your day?
If you feel overworked, you might lose time with family and friends in favour of more time at the office. But humans are inherently social creatures, so spending time with people you like may improve your wellbeing. And feeling connected to other people can have a number of benefits on both your physical and mental health.
Therapies that use creative techniques – such as art, music, dance or drama – have been shown to reduce stress. Emerging evidence suggests that these creative arts can be an effective way of managing stress. Taking part in these creative activities may also give you something else to focus on outside of work. If you don’t know where to start, try something like daily journaling. Expressing yourself through writing can help manage symptoms of stress and help you figure out what’s causing it.
Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on the present moment and being an impartial observer of thoughts and emotions as they pass by. Studies have linked mindfulness with improved wellbeing, and it’s been shown to reduce anxiety and stress in healthcare professionals. Just taking a moment to focus on your breathing when you feel stressed could be helpful.