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How to Combat Burnout

image for Robert Kneschke / Shutterstock
Robert Kneschke / Shutterstock
  • Burnout is recognized by the World Health Organization as an occupational phenomenon.
  • Unlike fatigue, burnout affects your emotional health and reduces your self-efficacy.
  • If a day or two off from work doesn't change your mindset about it, you're likely experiencing burnout.
  • Overcoming burnout takes time and usually requires a good support system at work and at home.

The term "burnout" has made waves recently, as the World Health Organization (WHO) recently recognized burnout as an occupational phenomenon. The organization's definition aligns with syndromes and represents an important step in recognizing workplace burnout as a real problem.

While workplace burnout is a legitimate concern, it's important to understand what burnout is before diagnosing yourself with the syndrome. Both employees and employers need to understand the symptoms of burnout to combat it. If you're looking to learn how to combat burnout syndrome, start by learning what it means. From there, dive deeper into how to reduce work-related stress and how to recognize the warning signs of burnout.

According to WHO, "Burn-out is included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. It is not classified as a medical condition."

That's an important clarification. Burnout is not considered a medical condition, but an occupational phenomenon. The definition of burnout goes deeper, with WHO saying, “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
  • Reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life."

When defining burnout, it's important to recognize that WHO considers burnout an occupational phenomenon, not something that applies to other aspects of life. Understanding the three dimensions of workplace burnout is important for employees as well as employers. Employees experiencing one of the symptoms may be worn down or approaching burnout, but it takes all three dimensions to technically have occupational burnout.

Feelings of energy depletion and exhaustion aren't uncommon among workers, but the mental distance and reduced self-belief are not as common and make burnout a more concerning issue than just being tired. Employees and employers should work diligently to monitor how they feel at work. If you find a long week becoming a long month and feelings of increased negativity come out more often, you may be headed for burnout.

Much of burnout relates to how you're feeling, which makes it difficult to say for sure if you have burnout. While there isn't an exact way to confirm that you or another employee has burnout, you should use WHO's three criteria  as a guide. Is the person feeling emotional or physical exhaustion? Are they extremely negative about their current role? Is their personal efficacy reduced?

If you answer yes to these three questions, you're likely experiencing burnout. You can also perform a few unofficial tests to determine if you have burnout or its warning signs.

"Persistence is the quickest answer," said Robert Bogue, an organizational development consultant, president of Availtek LLC and co-author of Extinguish Burnout: A Practical Guide to Prevention and Recovery"Everyone has a bad day, but just like depression, if the feeling lasts for a long time, then it's something different than just a bad day. Another test is to take a day of rest. If you rest and feel recharged the next day, then it's probably not burnout. Burnout persists even after you take a break."

There are also brief online self-assessments to help put your feelings into context. If you're unsure whether you have burnout, try taking a few online tests and use those results as a guide. The scores can be helpful, but the questions are just as valuable. Study what questions are being asked to get a better understanding of the signs of burnout. These are a few tests worth checking out:

Those test results shouldn't be taken as fact, but it's worth taking a few assessments to better determine if what you're experiencing is burnout or fatigue. Be sure to monitor your emotional exhaustion, not just your physical exhaustion. Emotional exhaustion is one of the more common burnout symptoms. Other symptoms include the inability to get a good night's sleep, being unreasonably angry at work or at home, and compassion fatigue, which refers to the inability to be compassionate on a regular basis. If you find yourself being a bit ruder than normal at work, this may be a warning sign of workplace burnout.

According to the WHO definition, burnout includes exhaustion and fatigue, but it goes further to include reduced personal efficacy and increased mental distance from your job. Technically speaking, those two criteria are the difference between burnout and feeling tired.

There are other signs that you've passed fatigue and hit burnout. These include mental fatigue and increased negativity. If you feel like your job doesn't have a purpose and you're working long hours, you're at high risk of burnout.

"Many of us get tired," said Sonya Matejko, senior manager of communications at Situation. "Many of us could use a little more sleep. Many of us love that afternoon burst of caffeine. The difference between burnout and having a slow day is when we start to not show up authentically routinely. Burnout happens when you start moving through the motions robotically – almost like you're sleepwalking through your responsibilities. Burnout affects us mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. With burnout, I've personally noticed the effects spill into other areas of my life, and that's when I knew I had to get it under control."

If you feel exhausted at work, treat your feelings as a warning sign for burnout. Take some time off or find ways to focus on tasks you enjoy the most. Depending on your role in a company, that can be easier said than done. Try setting up a meeting with your boss as you start to experience feelings of fatigue and burnout, and see if you can find ways to mitigate the issues. If you can't come to an agreement, it may be time to update your resume and start looking for work at a company that better values employee wellbeing.

If you could easily avoid burnout, you would. Unfortunately, burnout frequently occurs because of unrealistic expectations at work, a strained relationship with a boss or a dead-end job. Burnout is often caused by things we can't control, which makes prevention challenging. If you find yourself in a job you truly dislike or don't expect your current situation to improve, it's a good idea to start looking for employment elsewhere.

If you do like your job but the workload is causing fatigue and you feel like burnout may be on its way, check yourself and seek a better work-life balance. Find ways to reduce the time spent on working and thinking about work, which in turn should reduce your fatigue and prevent burnout. It can be helpful to set goals for your sleep, diet and exercise. Getting more sleep, eating well and exercising a few times a week can also reduce your risk of burnout. If you're an entrepreneur or employee working 60-plus hours per week, you may not always have time for eight hours of sleep or to work out every day, but adding just one hour of sleep a night or one or two workouts per week can mitigate some feelings of burnout.

"You hardly ever see it coming," said Leslie Kalk, a restaurant and hospitality coach. "You think, 'I'll just work a little more to get through this month, then I'll cut back.' But you don't, so the best way to avoid it is to make clear boundaries for yourself and do not deviate. It's your physical and mental health at stake, so don't take burnout lightly."

Employers can help prevent burnout in employees by giving them tasks they enjoy on a more frequent basis. Find ways to play to the strengths and interests of your team. For example, if an employee works as a salesperson but prefers leading teams, send them to a few leadership development conferences. The employee will be happy, and you'll be grooming one of your employees for future leadership at the company.

You may learn that an accountant at your company is interested in graphic design. Allow them to spend a few hours each week taking online graphic design courses. This can reduce their risk of burnout while allowing them to pursue a passion. The employee might eventually gain enough skills to help your marketing team with graphics – and even if they don't get to that point, they'll still be grateful for the chance to build a new skill set. A few hours of career development each week won't throw your business off track, and it can make your employees happier.

"It's important for managers to learn the work preferences of the people on their team," said Lauren Herring, CEO of IMPACT Group. "That way, to the best extent possible, their people can work on the things that are most interesting and exciting to them. It's hard to feel burned out when you're totally engaged in the work. While a lot of times people associate burnout with working long hours – which can definitely be an issue – often the challenge is not enjoying the work and feeling the stress of it at the same time."

Once you become burnt out, it's going to take time to reduce the feeling. If you're trying to overcome burnout, it's important to take things one day at a time and be patient during the process. You won't overcome burnout with a walk in the park, so be ready for a few weeks or month of altering your routine and creating healthier workplace habits.

"Acknowledging burnout is the first step to addressing the emotional and physical symptoms of burnout," said Elizabeth Malson, president and VP of marketing at the Amslee Institute. "When burnt out from work, it's important to regain balance and force some perspective. Focus first on the physical by getting plenty of sleep, exercising and eating healthy. Improve your mental state by taking time each morning to be grateful – for your health, family, home, etc. Instead of focusing on work 24/7, keep it to business hours, and retrain your mind to focus on relaxation and enjoyable activities each evening and weekend. Resolving burnout is a process. It took time to get burnt out, and it will take time to recover."

In addition to acknowledging that you have burnout, a good starting point for overcoming it is to reset your priorities. Reaching burnout often means you've been putting work above personal responsibilities or hobbies. Take the time to re-evaluate your priorities if you find yourself experiencing burnout.

"Make a list of all the things that are important in your life," Kalk said. "When we become consumed with work, we lose the big picture. List everything that means something to you: friends, family, community, health, relationships, hobbies, charities, etc. Once a week, pick one of these non-work-related items and spend the week being deliberate about giving it the attention it deserves. When you're at work, you're immersed in work, so give the same attention to spending time with friends, for example. Really be there with them; don't let yourself get distracted away from letting your friends' company restore you."

Recovering from burnout is a process. It requires increased commitment to taking care of yourself emotionally and physically. In most cases, it also requires you to find close supporters who will help you work through the process. It's easier to avoid or overcome burnout if you're surrounded by close friends and family who give you an outlet to discuss the problems and feelings you're experiencing in your career. 

"Launching a business is challenging, so when we first started Anytime Fitness, I burned out due to stress – making sure my team was happy and taken care of – but also from wearing too many hats," said Chuck Runyon, CEO and co-founder of Anytime Fitness. "In order to re-center, I focused my energy on two things: my team and our values. It's hard to quickly bounce back from burnout alone, so don't be afraid to ask for help."

It's possible to overcome burnout; it just takes time. Be willing to put in at least a few hours each week to restore your body and mind to the way they're supposed to feel. If you're unable to commit the time to yourself because of work requirements, it might be time to look for a new job.

Bennett Conlin

Bennett is a B2B editorial assistant based in New York City. He graduated from James Madison University in 2018 with a degree in business management. During his time in Harrisonburg he worked extensively with The Breeze, JMU’s student-run newspaper. Bennett also worked at the Shenandoah Valley SBDC, where he helped small businesses with a variety of needs ranging from social media marketing to business plan writing.