Burnout is a term used to describe a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that results from prolonged and intense stress. It is a common problem in today’s fast-paced and competitive world. It can affect everyone in all professions. Burnout is not a medical condition but can impact an individual’s health.
Burnout is often caused by chronic stress, resulting from various factors such as work pressure, long hours, high job demands, low job control, interpersonal conflicts, and lack of social support. When individuals experience prolonged and intense stress, their body’s stress response system may become overactive, leading to physical and psychological symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, depression, irritability, cynicism, and decreased concentration and productivity.
Burnout became a hot topic during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a sudden change in many people’s lives. We shouldn’t forget it now that we are returning to previous norms. If you are an individual contributor (IC), you must learn about the early symptoms and manage your mental health. As a manager, you have more responsibility. You must take care of yourself and the others that you are managing.
Benefits of Stress
People respond differently to stress, depending on the stress level, duration, genetics, and personal thresholds. A careful dose of stress has benefits:
- Motivation: Stress can motivate people to work harder and accomplish more, especially when challenged by a particular situation or task.
- Increased focus: In certain situations, stress can help improve focus and concentration, allowing individuals to perform better.
- Improved memory: Stress can enhance memory by increasing the production of certain chemicals in the brain that helps with memory formation.
- Resilience: Experiencing manageable stress levels can help individuals build resilience and learn to cope with future stressors more effectively.
- Physical strength: Short-term stress can boost physical strength and endurance by increasing the production of adrenaline and other hormones to improve physical performance.
- Enhanced creativity: Moderate stress levels can increase creativity by helping individuals think outside the box and consider new solutions to problems.
- Greater self-awareness: When individuals experience stress, they may become more aware of their own thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, which can help them identify areas for personal growth and development.
- Enhanced performance: In certain situations, such as during athletic competitions or exams, stress can improve performance by increasing alertness, energy, and focus.
These benefits are only for manageable stress levels. Chronic or excessive stress can seriously affect physical and mental health. In extreme conditions, It will cause burnout. Unfortunately, people learn about their burnout condition too late. In these cases, they need longer recovery time with the aid of a mental health professional.
Causes of Burnout
We spend a good portion of our time of a day at work. It is natural to be vulnerable to workspace stressors. Some level of stress is natural at work. However, any chronic stress, if not appropriately managed, can cause burnout. Below are some of the common causes of burnout in the workplace:
- Workload: Excessive workload, long working hours, and unrealistic deadlines.
- Lack of control: Feeling like you have no control over your work or work environment.
- Reward imbalance: Feeling that the effort you put into your work is not matched by the rewards you receive.
- Unsupportive work environment: Lack of support from colleagues or superiors, poor relationships with colleagues or management, and toxic work culture.
- Work-life imbalance: Inability to balance work and personal life, lack of time for hobbies, social activities, and relaxation.
- Values mismatch: When the values of the individual are not aligned with the values of the organization or the job they are doing.
- Role ambiguity: Unclear job expectations or lack of clarity in job roles.
- Insufficient resources: Inadequate resources such as equipment, staffing, and technology.
- Lack of recognition: Feeling unappreciated or undervalued for your work.
- Emotional demands: Constantly dealing with emotionally challenging situations or people.
- Perfectionism: Striving for perfection and never feeling satisfied with one’s work.
- Career stagnation: Feeling stuck in a job or not seeing opportunities for growth and development.
- Lack of autonomy: Feeling micromanaged or not having the freedom to make decisions.
It’s important to note that burnout can vary from person to person, and what may cause burnout for one person may not affect another person similarly. Personal history, financial status, health status, and genetics are other factors that contribute to individual stress threshold for each type of stress.
Early Burnout Signs
Early burnout signs can vary depending on individuals’ work and personal life context. There is no global sign that applies to everyone. Self-awareness is crucial in understanding the signals early on. Following are some of the common symptoms:
- Physical and emotional exhaustion: Feeling tired, drained, and overwhelmed. You may feel like you need more energy and help to complete even basic tasks.
- Lack of motivation: Losing interest in work or other activities that used to bring you joy. You may feel apathetic, bored, or indifferent.
- Increased irritability or impatience: Becoming easily frustrated, short-tempered, and even angry over small things.
- Decreased productivity: Declining in your performance at work or other areas of your life. You may struggle to meet deadlines, make mistakes, or have difficulty concentrating.
- Difficulty focusing: Making it difficult to concentrate or stay engaged. There will be a tendency to make mistakes or forget things.
- Negative self-talk: Leading to feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, and even depression. You may start to feel like you’re not good enough or that you’re a failure.
- Withdrawal: Withdrawing from social activities, friends, and family. You may feel like you don’t have the energy or desire to socialize and prefer to isolate yourself.
- Difficulty sleeping: Interfering with your ability to fall or stay asleep. You may find yourself tossing and turning at night, waking up frequently, or feeling exhausted despite getting enough sleep.
- Physical symptoms: Manifesting in physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, muscle tension, or other bodily discomforts.
- Feeling detached or disengaged: Feeling disconnected from others and your own feelings. You may feel like you’re just going through the motions and not fully present at the moment.
- Cynicism or negativity: Becoming more negative and critical of others or your own work. You may find yourself becoming more cynical or sarcastic.
- Decreased job satisfaction: Leading to decreased job satisfaction and a feeling of disillusionment with your work. You may feel like you’re not making a meaningful contribution or that your efforts are not appreciated.
- Increased use of substances: Leading to increased use of drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with stress. This dangerous coping mechanism can lead to addiction or other health problems.
- Increased absenteeism: Miss work or other important events more frequently than usual. You may find yourself taking sick days or just avoiding certain tasks or responsibilities.
- Decreased resilience: Making it harder for you to bounce back from setbacks or to handle stress. You may find yourself becoming more reactive or emotional in challenging situations.
- Loss of creativity: Making it difficult to think creatively or develop new ideas. You may feel like you’re stuck in a rut and unable to find new solutions to problems.
- Feeling trapped or stuck: Feeling of being trapped or stuck in your current situation. You may feel like you don’t have any options or that there’s no way out of your current circumstances.
- Strained relationships: Strained relationships with coworkers, friends, and family members. You may become more irritable, argumentative, or withdrawn, making communicating difficult.
Of course, none of these signs in isolation can mean a person is at risk of burnout. However, when put together with context, it can help recognize a pattern than can lead to burnout. Unfortunately, in many cases, the individual may not notice these signs. Family members, close friends, colleagues, and, most importantly, managers should closely monitor behaviour change. They can initiate a chat and help them understand the current situation and advise on activities that they can do to recover.
Recovering from burnout can be a gradual process involving physical and mental self-care. Here are some steps that you can take to recover from burnout:
- Talk to your manager: Keep the manager in the loop early on. By explaining the situation and signs, the manager can help balance the stress from work.
- Take a break: Take a break from work and other stressors that may have contributed to the burnout. This break can involve taking a vacation, a mental health day, or just taking some time off to relax and recharge.
- Practice self-care: Engage in activities that promote physical and mental well-being, such as exercise, healthy eating, getting enough sleep, practicing mindfulness or meditation, and spending time with loved ones.
- Seek support: Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or therapist about your feelings and experiences. Talking can help you gain perspective, process your emotions, and feel less isolated.
- Set boundaries: Establish boundaries to prevent overwork and overwhelm in the future. Setting boundaries can involve learning to say no, delegating tasks, and setting realistic goals and expectations.
- Re-evaluate priorities: Take some time to reflect on your values and goals, and determine if your current workload and lifestyle align with these priorities. Adjust your actions accordingly.
- Engage in creative activities: Engage in creative activities that can help you express yourself, relieve stress, and promote relaxation. These activities can include writing, painting, drawing, or playing music.
- Practice positive self-talk: Use positive affirmations to remind yourself of your worth, strengths, and accomplishments. This can counter negative self-talk that may contribute to burnout.
- Prioritize rest: Make time for rest and relaxation activities, such as taking a hot bath, getting a massage, or practicing deep breathing exercises.
- Practice time management: Practice effective time management techniques, such as prioritizing tasks, breaking them into smaller chunks, and avoiding multitasking.
- Take a technology break: Unplug from technology for a period of time each day or week. Disconnecting can help to reduce feelings of overwhelm and promote mindfulness and relaxation.
- Get outside: Spend time in nature, go for a walk or hike, or engage in other outdoor activities that can help to promote relaxation and reduce stress.
- Engage in regular exercise: Engage in regular physical activity, such as yoga, running, or strength training. Exercise can help to reduce stress, boost mood, and promote overall well-being.
Not all of these activities apply to all situations. It depends on the context and situation. Everyone’s path to recovery from burnout is unique. It’s important to find the best practices and strategies for you and to make self-care a regular part of your routine.
A manager plays a crucial role in helping someone recover from burnout. She is a key part of a person’s work environment. Here are some key ways a manager can support an employee dealing with burnout:
- Acknowledge: The first step is acknowledging burnout as a real issue and validating the employee’s feelings. A manager should express empathy and understanding towards the employee and reassure them that their well-being is a priority.
- Identify the causes: A manager should work with the employee to identify the causes of their burnout. This may involve discussing workload, job responsibilities, team dynamics, or other stressors.
- Create a recovery plan: Once the causes of burnout have been identified, a manager should work with the employee to create a recovery plan. The recovery plan may include adjusting work hours or responsibilities, providing additional resources or support, or developing a self-care plan.
- Encourage time off: Sometimes, the best way to recover from burnout is to take time off. A manager should encourage the employee to take time off, whether it’s a vacation, a mental health day, or an extended leave of absence.
- Provide resources: A manager can provide resources to help the employee recover from burnout, such as access to an employee assistance program, mental health resources, or wellness programs.
- Follow up: A manager should follow up with the employee regularly to see how they are doing and whether the recovery plan is working. It’s important to continue to offer support and resources throughout the recovery process.
While the above list is a reactive approach to help someone recover from burnout, there are things that a manager can do more proactively. These are some examples:
- Set realistic expectations: A manager can work with the employee to set realistic expectations for their workload and deadlines. This expectation setting can help the employee to feel less overwhelmed.
- Provide training and development opportunities: Offering training and development opportunities can help employees to develop new skills, gain confidence, and feel more engaged in their work. This can also help them feel like they are progressing towards their goals and can be a powerful motivator.
- Encourage work-life balance: A manager can encourage employees to find a better work-life balance by setting boundaries, taking breaks, and avoiding overworking. Encouraging healthy habits, such as exercise and mindfulness, can also be helpful.
- Foster a supportive work environment: A supportive work environment can go a long way toward helping an employee from burnout. A manager can create a culture of support by encouraging open communication, collaboration, and teamwork. They can also model healthy work habits themselves.
- Provide flexibility: A manager can provide the employee with greater flexibility in their work, such as flexible hours, remote work options, or part-time schedules. This flexibility can help employees manage their workload and responsibilities more effectively.
- Celebrate small wins: Celebrating small wins can help employees feel more motivated and engaged in their work. A manager can recognize and praise the employee for their accomplishments, even small ones, and provide positive feedback on their progress. These celebrations help employees feel like their efforts are appreciated and valued.
- Promote workload management strategies: Workload management strategies, such as prioritization and delegation, can help employees manage their workload more effectively and avoid burnout. A manager can provide guidance on these strategies and can work with the employee to develop a plan for managing their workload.
Burnout is a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that results from prolonged and intense stress. It can affect anyone in all professions, and its causes include excessive workload, lack of control, reward imbalance, unsupportive work environment, work-life imbalance, values mismatch, role ambiguity, insufficient resources, lack of recognition, emotional demands, perfectionism, career stagnation, and lack of autonomy. Early burnout signs can include physical and emotional exhaustion, lack of motivation, increased irritability or impatience, decreased productivity, difficulty focusing, negative self-talk, withdrawal, and changes in sleep patterns and eating habits. It is crucial to be self-aware of the early signs of burnout and manage them accordingly to prevent it from escalating.
While a careful dose of stress can have benefits such as motivation, increased focus, improved memory, resilience, physical strength, enhanced creativity, greater self-awareness, and enhanced performance, chronic or excessive stress can seriously affect physical and mental health, leading to burnout. Therefore, it is important to manage stress levels and recognize when they become unmanageable. People respond differently to stress, depending on factors such as stress level, duration, genetics, and personal thresholds. Managing burnout requires recognizing its causes and symptoms, taking proactive steps to manage stress levels, setting realistic goals, taking breaks, delegating tasks, seeking support from others, engaging in self-care, and seeking help from a mental health professional when needed.
Burnout became a hot topic during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a sudden change in many people’s lives. While the pandemic may have amplified the issue, burnout has always been a problem. It is essential to keep this issue in mind as we return to previous norms. If you are an individual contributor, it is essential to learn about the early symptoms and manage your mental health. If you are a manager, you have more responsibility and must take care of yourself and the people you manage. By recognizing the signs of burnout, taking steps to manage stress levels, and seeking help when needed, individuals and organizations can prevent burnout and promote well-being.
Burnout Risk Calculator is a simple tool that gives you the risk of burnout by asking 20 questions in 4 different categories. It gives you your burnout risk in each of these categories as well as the overall risk. You can also record your results and see the trends over time.
During my research for this essay, I found many articles around the web talking about burnout. These are some of the that stood out to me:
- Burning out and quitting: This is a personal story of burnout. It resonated a lot with me. I went through a similar experience in 2016. I lost 15 kg. I couldn’t get out of bed. I had no motivation. As part of my recovery, I immigrated to a different country and almost started my career from scratch. From that experience, I’m much more careful about myself and closely monitor my direct reports. I know burnout is real; people may know it when it is too late.
- To Recover from Burnout, Regain Your Sense of Control (paywall): The article points out one key idea about recovery: regaining the sense of control. When you are in a burnout phase, you feel you are a victim, and things happening are outside your control. It is true. Your mind is already withdrawn. A small modification in life goes a long way. You should feel you are in charge, not others. In my personal case, immigration was a key part of my recovery. It gave me back my sense of control.
- Preventing burnout: A manager’s toolkit: This is an interesting toolkit for managers by Gitlab. I believe every company should have such toolkits available to the managers. Raising awareness is crucial in identifying early signs of burnout and getting it under control.