Burnout at Work 101: From Symptoms to Recovery

burnout

Employee burnout was a global concern even before the pandemic started, and unfortunately, rather than mitigating the situation, the pandemic has only aggravated it. According to a recent Indeed study,  52% of workers suffered from burnout during 2021, 9% more than before the pandemic started.

Working from home used to be a way of relieving stress and successfully dealing with burnout at work. Yet, the pandemic hit, and almost 40% of the U.S. workforce began working exclusively from home and under entirely different circumstances than before.

Remote work started to feel like a burden, and workers felt trapped in their own homes, their working hours fused with their personal time, disrupting their routine and affecting their physical and mental wellbeing.

In this article, learn all about the signs of burnout at work and how to effectively overcome it.

What Is Burnout at Work?

As indicated by authors Geraldine Richelson and Herbert Freudenberger in their book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement, burnout is “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”

Burnout can manifest itself physically, mentally, or emotionally and it can be broken down into three subtypes: overload burnout, under-challenged burnout, and neglect burnout.

The first subtype is what most people commonly associate with burnout: working at an unsustainable pace to achieve recognition, success, or financial security.

Under-challenged burnout happens to people in the exact opposite situation: they experience burnout due to a lack of stimulation, motivation, and engagement with their work. As a result, they lose interest and feel disconnected.

Finally, neglected burnout happens when workers experience a sense of helplessness because they feel they have no purpose at work and that nothing they do makes a difference.

Work from home burnout was not a big concern before the pandemic since the percentage of remote workers was much less. Yet, the pandemic generated a completely different type of burnout, according to clinical psychologist and author of Pandemic Anxiety: Fear, Stress, and Loss in Traumatic Times, Margaret Wehrenberg.

In the beginning, everything seemed fine, but as the pandemic extended over time, “everybody ran out of steam, and the goalposts kept getting pushed farther away, again and again. With no end in sight, we’ve all become really depleted of mental energy”, explains Wehrenberg. It became a perpetual state of waiting or “languishing.”

What Causes Burnout?

Different factors can cause burnout at work, but it can generally be a reaction to either a real or perceived inability to deal with the demands of the position, a troubling reaction towards work stressors, or a combination of both.

People who experience work burnout symptoms can also have a stressor in their personal life that affects their performance at work, such as a breakup, losing a loved one, or looking after a sick relative.

In terms of work-related burnout, this may be caused by:

  • a heavy workload
  • a work-life imbalance
  • not sharing the company culture or values
  • a lack of autonomy or control over factors that influence the work the person does
  • feeling that your work is futile
  • not receiving enough compensation or emotional reward from their work
  • working in a counterproductive environment, where the person feels unhappy or uncomfortable either because it’s too fast-paced, it lacks the necessary structures or protocols, or because of unfavorable personal dynamics
  • experiencing discrimination or a lack of fairness from others towards their work
  • having to deal with emotionally draining or distressing situations, to the point of even experiencing  secondary traumatic stress (STS)

Signs of Burnout at Work

Burnout symptoms can present themselves in very different ways, depending on the individual and the type of stressors they experience. The person may experience both physiological and psychological symptoms, which can significantly impact their well-being and, ultimately, their quality of life.

Work burnout symptoms differ from the ones experienced due to stress. As Harvard’s Helpguide explains, “Stress causes an employee to over engage with their work environment. Feeling anxiety that their productivity levels are not high enough, they will display symptoms like hyperactive, urgent behavior, perhaps standing out from their coworkers. In contrast, an employee who has experienced work-related stress to the point of becoming burned out will exhibit symptoms like disengagement and a lack of productivity, due to feeling detached from their work environment.

Common psychological work burnout symptoms include:

  • anxiety
  • detachment or withdrawal
  • difficulty to concentrate
  • lack of creativity
  • low commitment
  • frustration
  • quickness to anger and similar behavioral changes
  • lack of commitment to their work
  • neglecting personal needs
  • a gloomier, more cynical outlook on life
  • depression
  • emotional fragility

Physical signs of burnout at work may include:

  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • gastrointestinal disorders
  • difficulty to sleep or insomnia
  • muscle tension
  • low libido
  • weight gain
  • lower immunity

In general, individuals who experience burnout from working too much often go through five different stages: the honeymoon stage, the balancing act, chronic stress symptoms, burnout, and enmeshment.

During the first stage, everything feels right. You enjoy what you do, you feel energized and creative until you begin to develop unhealthy patterns. Eventually, you notice that keeping up with your work obligations is becoming more complex. You start forgetting things or having insomnia due to this sense of unfulfillment, which coincides with the balancing act stage.

You have more bad days than good on stage three, and you resent people who ask things from you. You often feel exhausted and even depressed or cynical. During stage four, you experience the physical, psychological, and even emotional work burnout symptoms and consider quitting until you reach the enmeshment stage, where burnout becomes a part of you. You may even be diagnosed with depression or anxiety before identifying burnout.

How to Overcome Burnout at Work

Although work burnout symptoms can feel overwhelming and never-ending, there are ways to treat it and stop the cycle. Building healthy habits that can help fight off the symptoms is an excellent way of fighting back burnout. Consider the following tips on how to fix burnout at work:

1. Stay connected to your feelings

A key part of knowing how to deal with burnout at work is paying attention to your feelings and understanding how these affect your mood and ultimately lead to burnout symptoms. By identifying them beforehand, you can learn to manage your frustrations and disappointment.

2. Take a closer look at your workload

In general, an excessive workload often stems from taking on additional tasks without considering the work you already have and how much time and effort those tasks alone will mean. When you better understand what each task entails for you, you know whether you can take on more work and say “no” if needed.

3. Build relationships with your coworkers

Going to work or starting your work remotely is easier when you get along with your colleagues and even build meaningful relationships. Not having a support system or a community can often be the difference in avoiding burnout at work. By building trust and caring about your peers, you can feel a sense of belonging and feel more comfortable leaning on others and asking for help.

4. Don’t make your work the center of your universe

If everything revolves around your job and you start experiencing burnout symptoms, it will be harder to fight the effects. However, if you have a hobby and other interests outside your work, you can find a better work-life balance and lean on these habits to get you through rough times at work.

5. Don’t bring work home with you

Whether you work from home or at an office, setting clear boundaries between your work and personal life will help keep a balance. If you struggle with separating them, resorting to physical boundaries, like locking your office door or removing your work email from your phone, may help.

A schedule can also help you juggle your work and life responsibilities more efficiently. You can make sure your Zoom meetings don’t affect your family dynamics or clash with other activities. Having flexible work hours can also help you manage your times better.

6. Make time for yourself 

One of the many signs of burnout at work is a lack of interest in your self-care. Carve out time to exercise and take care of your mental health. Mindfulness can also be a great tool to help clear your mind and stay in touch with your feelings. Even if it’s just five minutes a day, this can significatively impact your mood and your approach towards your work.

Pay attention to your personal needs, your water and food intake, and your time with others. This becomes even more important when experiencing remote work burnout, since you can quickly lose track of time and spend all day in front of your computer. Be sure to set time aside for productive activities and to release work-related stress.

7. Take time off

If you are wondering how to reduce burnout at work, one of the most effective ways is to take time off. Whether it’s just taking a break from work and going for a walk or asking for vacation days and disconnecting completely, recognizing burnout and taking action is key.

If you take a few days off, plan. Meditate, spend time with your family and friends, relax and recharge. Disconnecting will help you feel more refreshed and motivated when you come back.

8. Lean on your manager

Burnout can seriously impact any team, especially when colleagues don’t lean on one another or have a leader they can rely on to find a solution or ways to lessen the load. By asking for the help you need, you might help others experiencing the same thing you are and, in some organizations, even trigger a much-needed cultural shift.

Effectively combating burnout, especially remote work burnout, means recognizing your feelings, taking a closer look at your behaviors, and asking for help. Talking about your struggles and finding the root causes is the first step in your journey towards recovery.