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Updated Jun 03, 2024

How to Combat Burnout

Burnout is more than just feeling tired. These are the warning signs you are about to burn out and what you can do to avoid it.

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Bennett Conlin, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Writer
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Most of us are familiar with workplace “burnout,” that feeling of fatigue, lack of motivation and declining productivity linked to overwork. But burnout is more than just a buzzword — it’s a real problem that must be taken seriously. The World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognizes burnout as an occupational phenomenon.

While workplace burnout is a legitimate concern, it’s essential to understand what it is (and isn’t) before self-diagnosing. Read on to learn how to recognize burnout warning signs and discover tips for combating burnout and bouncing back.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a recognized workplace phenomenon characterized by severe fatigue, feelings of dread and negativity and reduced workplace effectiveness due to overworking. It is the logical result of a work-life balance dramatically tilted toward work at the expense of quality of life.

According to the WHO, “Burnout is included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases as an occupational phenomenon. It is not classified as a medical condition.”

That’s an important clarification because the definition of burnout goes deeper. The WHO describes burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” 

The WHO lists three criteria that indicate burnout: 

  • Exhaustion and depleted energy 
  • Negativity, mental distance or cynicism about one’s job
  • Lowered professional effectiveness and efficiency 

Employees and employers must understand the three dimensions of workplace burnout. Workers experiencing one symptom may be worn down or approaching burnout, but all three dimensions are necessary to classify the issue as occupational burnout. However, if someone experiences one or more symptoms, it’s a serious warning that they need to rebalance their priorities around work.

Employees and business owners should diligently monitor how they feel on the job. If you find a long week becoming a long month and feelings of increased negativity emerge more often, you may be headed for burnout.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Feelings of energy depletion and exhaustion aren't uncommon among workers. However, the mental distance and reduced self-belief make burnout a more concerning issue than fatigue or typical workplace stress.

How do you know if you have burnout?

While there isn’t an exact way to confirm that you have burnout, you can assess your condition with the following three methods. 

1. Evaluate yourself with the WHO’s burnout criteria.

Use the WHO’s criteria to determine if you’re truly experiencing workplace burnout. If you answer yes to the following three questions, you’re likely experiencing burnout: 

  • Are you feeling emotional or physical exhaustion?
  • Are you extremely negative about your current role? 
  • Are you less effective than usual at work?

2. Perform unofficial burnout tests. 

You can also perform a few unofficial tests to determine if you have burnout or some early symptoms:

  • Evaluate if your feelings are persistent: How do you know if you are burnt out or having a bad day? “Persistence is the quickest answer,” according to Robert Bogue, 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.”
  • Determine if you feel better after some time off: Burnout won’t get better after a day off. “Another test is to take a day of rest,” Bogue suggested. “If you rest and feel recharged the next day, then it’s probably not burnout. Burnout persists even after you take a break.”
  • Take an online self-assessment: If you’re unsure whether you have burnout, take 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 better understand the signs of burnout. Mind Tools and Psychology Today both offer tools to test burnout.

3. Assess if you have typical burnout symptoms.

Understanding the symptoms of burnout can help you evaluate whether you’re experiencing the condition. Typical signs of burnout include:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Loss of sleep
  • Unreasonable anger at work or home
  • Compassion fatigue (the inability to be compassionate on a regular basis)
  • Feeling detached and unmotivated 

If you can’t get a good night’s sleep, notice your emotions wearing thin and find yourself being ruder than usual at work, you may be experiencing early warning signs of workplace burnout.

How can you overcome burnout?

Workplace burnout doesn’t go away overnight. Take things one day at a time and be patient as you alter your routine and create healthier workplace habits. Consider the following five steps to start overcoming burnout.

1. Acknowledge that you are burned out.

According to Elizabeth Malson, growth officer at Amslee AI and founder of US Nanny Institute, acknowledging burnout is the first step toward recovery and regaining physical and mental balance. 

“When burnt out from work, it’s important to regain balance and force some perspective,” Malson explained. “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.” 

Malson says resolving burnout is a process — you didn’t get burned out overnight and won’t recover immediately. 

Did You Know?Did you know
Healthy lifestyle changes will help you combat burnout and become a better employee. For example, a healthy diet increases productivity, so eating well will help you fight burnout and perform optimally.

2. Reset your priorities to combat burnout. 

If you’re burned out, you’ve likely prioritized work over personal responsibilities or hobbies. In this case, it’s time to reevaluate your priorities.

Restaurant and hospitality coach Leslie Kalk advises making a list of everything you view as important in your life to help you regain the big picture. “List everything that means something to you: friends, family, community, health, relationships, hobbies, charities, etc.,” Kalk suggested. “Once a week, pick one of these nonwork-related items and spend the week being deliberate about giving it the attention it deserves.”

Kalk recommends devoting the same personal resources to your nonwork activities as you do to your work. “When you’re at work, you’re immersed in work, so give the same attention to spending time with friends, for example,” Kalk said. “Really be there with them. Don’t let yourself get distracted away from letting your friends’ company restore you.”

3. Evaluate your options for combating burnout.

Take concrete steps to make your work life better. Consider whether any of the following actions can apply to your situation:

4. Seek support to help you combat burnout.

Employers, friends, family, co-workers and more can support you as you overcome burnout: 

  • Company-related burnout support: Approach your supervisor or human resources department to explain your situation, determine the best next steps and put a plan in motion. Additionally, many companies offer employee assistance programs as part of their employee benefits package. These programs provide free or low-cost confidential counseling for work-related or personal issues and sometimes offer financial and operational support.
  • Support from friends and family: It’s easier to combat burnout when surrounded by close friends and family who provide an outlet to discuss the problems and feelings you’re experiencing in your career. It’s crucial to talk to your spouse or partner and explain the situation and its ramifications. You’ll need their support as you make changes that may lead to reduced income, routine disruptions or a temporary loss of benefits. 
FYIDid you know
Stress management for business owners is particularly important, as entrepreneurs are prone to burnout. Consider delegating responsibilities to trusted employees to relieve pressure and stay healthy.

5. Practice self-care to combat burnout.

Combating burnout is a process that requires a commitment to taking care of yourself emotionally and physically. Invest time restoring your body and mind to how they’re supposed to feel. Consider the following self-care ideas:

  • Practice a relaxing activity such as yoga, tai chi or nature walks.
  • Exercise alone or with others.
  • Restore your well-being with good sleep habits.
  • Focus on experiencing the present without judgment.
  • Find activities that bring you joy and allow you to spend time with people you love.
  • Check out your company’s employee health and wellness program to find resources for self-care.

If you can’t make time for self-care because of work requirements, it might be time to look for a new job.

How can you avoid burnout?

Avoiding burnout can be challenging amid things we can’t control, including unrealistic workplace expectations, strained relationships with managers and co-workers and dead-end jobs. However, you can do your best to avoid burnout by focusing on the following advice: 

1. Focus on what you can control.

While you can’t control your boss’s attitude or an ever-growing pile of dull paperwork, you can control how you react. While it requires conscious effort, taking a step back and deciding not to let work problems overwhelm you can help keep feelings of burnout at bay.

Discover tasks you enjoy completing that bring you a sense of purpose. Make time for them every day, even if the rest of your to-do list includes less fulfilling objectives. 

TipTip
Look for and lean on work friends and mentors who motivate and inspire you. An office ally can make a big difference in your attitude.

2. Learn to manage stress.

While stress is an often unavoidable part of life in and out of the workplace, it’s crucial to find ways to manage and reduce workplace stress levels. Consider the following stress-reducing methods: 

  • Become aware of what triggers your stress and work to avoid those things. 
  • Find co-workers you enjoy working with to talk to and lower anxiety. 
  • Accept help on projects instead of trying to go it alone.
  • Don’t answer work emails or texts after hours. 
  • Take appropriate breaks during the workday to exercise or rest. 

3. Seek a better work-life balance.

Work can take over a massive chunk of our lives. Even if you’re passionate about your job, a heavy workload can lay the groundwork for burnout. Finding ways to improve your work-life balance is crucial to reduce fatigue and prevent burnout.

Creating a positive work-life balance requires planning and a willingness to set clear boundaries between your professional and personal life. Schedule time for activities you’re passionate about, even if it’s time to relax with friends. Test out new hobbies and prioritize your relationships — friends and family can be critical lifelines when work stress gets out of hand.  

“You hardly ever see it coming,” Kalk warned. “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.”

4. Take time off.

While it’s easy to get caught up in work and never come up for air, everyone needs breaks to relax and reset. Make sure to schedule short breaks throughout the day so your body and mind have time to rest. 

When things are especially stressful, it may be time to take a mental health day or get away for a few days to truly disconnect. Many workers fear they’ll be fired for taking a vacation or that they’ll only come back to even more work piled up but not taking time off can lead to burnout — and the effects of burnout are more detrimental and long-lasting than a few days out of the office.

Did You Know?Did you know
Employee breaks increase productivity, so taking breaks will benefit you and your organization.

5. Organize your time.

Better time management can help when work becomes overwhelming. Track how you spend your time over a week or two, paying attention to when you feel most stressed and when you get the most work done. Determine what tasks take longer and see where you can make improvements. For example, determining your most productive work time can help you organize your tasks more efficiently and make your work day seem less daunting. 

6. Take care of yourself.

Self-care is essential to combat burnout, but it’s also critical to avoiding burnout. Commit to exercising more, sleeping better and eating healthier to keep your body and mind fit enough to fend off burnout when your job stresses become overwhelming. 

Set realistic goals for sleep, diet and exercise habits — and stick to them. 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 daily workouts. However, adding one hour of sleep a night or one or two workouts per week can mitigate feelings of burnout.

7. Know yourself and be proactive.

If you want to avoid burnout, you must pay attention to yourself. When stress and pressure become too much, we tend to experience physical and emotional symptoms. Understand what those symptoms look like for you. Listen to your body — when you feel yourself headed toward burnout, take action to stop it in its tracks. 

8. Look for a new job or career.

Sometimes, workplace strategies and self-care aren’t enough. If you truly dislike your job or don’t expect your current situation to improve, start looking for other employment. 

You may want to stay in your industry and switch companies to experience a new environment. However, some careers are more prone to burnout and it may be time to alter your career path. 

Some positions are particularly high-pressure, involve a lot of responsibility, require dealing with the public, are poorly paid or involve people in difficult or life-threatening situations. For example, the following burnout-inducing jobs may not be for you and you may want to try another career: 

  • Physician
  • Nurse
  • Retail worker
  • Fast food worker
  • Social worker
  • Police officer
  • Air traffic controller
  • Emergency response workers, such as emergency medical technicians and firefighters
TipTip
When changing careers, you must show potential employers that you have the necessary skills to succeed, even if you don't have relevant experience. Read our resume tips for switching careers to present yourself optimally.

How can employers help prevent burnout in employees?

Burnout impacts employers and can adversely affect an entire organization. Business owners and managers should take active steps to ensure employees avoid burnout, including the following.

1. Utilize individual strengths and interests.

Keep employees engaged by assigning tasks they enjoy whenever possible. Learn your team members’ strengths and interests and delegate work accordingly. It’s also critical to set clear expectations so they know precisely what’s expected of them. 

“It’s important for managers to learn the work preferences of the people on their team,” advised Lauren Herring, founder and chairwoman 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.”

2. Provide opportunities for growth.

Employees want to feel stimulated by their work and find opportunities to grow into new roles. Discuss your team members’ aspirations and find ways to help them achieve career goals. Knowing there are opportunities to advance in the organization can mitigate feelings of stagnation. 

For example, if a sales team member shows leadership potential and enjoys management opportunities, send them to leadership development conferences. They’ll be appreciative and excited and you’ll help nurture a future leader for your organization. 

3. Let employees pursue their passions.

Some employees might have a passion for aspects of the business unrelated to their job description. For example, an accountant at your company may be interested in graphic design. If possible, allow them to spend a few hours each week taking online graphic design courses. When you encourage and support employees pursuing their passions, you reduce the risk of burnout and they may develop skills that benefit your business. 

4. Recognize and reward success.

Recognize employees regularly for their hard work and results. This appreciation and attention will remind them that their work matters. A sense of purpose and knowing their employer cares about and appreciates their efforts will help employees fight burnout. 

5. Listen to your employees.

Listening to your employees is a crucial way to prevent burnout. By fostering an environment of open communication, employees will feel heard and be more invested in their roles within the company. 

Most importantly, when an employee begins feeling burnout symptoms, they should feel comfortable coming to you. Beyond lending a sympathetic ear, you should open a dialogue about steps to remedy burnout symptoms, whether reshuffling roles or taking paid time off.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Employers can help create a stress-free work environment that combats burnout by supporting and listening to employees. In doing so, they'll nurture a collaborative environment that boosts productivity and helps employees feel valued.

What is the difference between burnout and feeling tired?

According to the WHO definition, burnout includes exhaustion and fatigue but also encompasses reduced personal efficacy and increased mental distance from your job. Other signs you’ve passed tiredness and hit burnout include mental fatigue and increased negativity.

“Many of us get tired,” explained Sonya Matejko, founder of Nurtured Narratives. “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.”

Matejko says moving robotically and sleepwalking through your duties are indicators of burnout. “Burnout affects us mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” Matejko noted. “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.”

Don’t sleep on burnout

The key to combating burnout is taking active steps to reduce stress, increase engagement and recognize early symptoms. If you feel exhausted at work, treat your feelings as a warning sign for burnout. Take time off or find ways to focus on tasks you enjoy the most. 

However, depending on your role in a company, that can be easier said than done. Set 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. Nipping burnout in the bud should be a shared responsibility. Fostering employee well-being at all levels leads to thriving employees and long-lasting businesses. 

Thomas Anziano contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

author image
Bennett Conlin, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Writer
Bennett Conlin's passion for business and entrepreneurship is evident everywhere, from his bachelor's degree in business administration and management from James Madison University to his work with small business development centers to the founding of his own small multimedia company. Conlin has provided consultative services for small businesses looking for social media and website assistance, studied the cybersecurity landscape and expertly guided entrepreneurs toward the wide range of products and services needed for everyday operations. In recent years, Conlin has focused on the intersection of business, finance and sports with insights on the casino industry and coverage of sports betting news and legislation.
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