The term “burnout” has become part of the everyday lexicon, putting a name to the symptoms of fatigue, lack of motivation and declining productivity that are linked to overwork.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has even recognized burnout as an occupational phenomenon. The group’s definition serves as official acknowledgment that workplace burnout represents a real problem.
While workplace burnout is a legitimate concern, it’s important to understand what burnout is (and isn’t) before diagnosing yourself with the syndrome. To learn how to prevent burnout syndrome, read on for tips to reduce work-related stress and identify the warning signs of burnout.
Burnout is a recognized workplace phenomenon characterized by severe fatigue, feelings of dread and negativity, and reduced effectiveness in the workplace as a result of overworking. It is the logical conclusion of a work/life balance that is dramatically tilted in favor of working at the expense of quality of life.
According to the WHO, “Burnout 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. The definition of burnout goes deeper, with the WHO describing burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
Understanding the three dimensions of workplace burnout is important for employees and employers. Employees who experience one of the symptoms may be worn down or approaching burnout, but all three dimensions are necessary for their feelings to qualify as occupational burnout. However, if you do experience one or more symptoms, that should serve as a warning that you may need to rebalance your priorities around work.
Feelings of energy depletion and exhaustion aren’t uncommon among workers, but the mental distance and reduced self-belief make burnout a more concerning issue than just fatigue. 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.
While there isn’t an exact way to confirm that you have burnout, use the WHO’s three criteria as a guide. Are you feeling emotional or physical exhaustion? Are you extremely negative about your current role? Are you less effective than usual at work?
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, 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.”
Brief online self-assessments can also help put your feelings into context. If you’re unsure whether or not 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.
Test results shouldn’t be taken as definitive proof, but they can help you determine if what you’re experiencing is burnout or fatigue. Be sure to monitor your emotional exhaustion, not just how you feel physically. 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 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 also includes 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 for 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. 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. If the two of 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 employees’ well-being.
Once you become burned out, that feeling doesn’t go away overnight. Take things one day at a time and be patient during the process. You won’t overcome burnout with a single walk in the park, so be ready for a few weeks or months 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 founder of US Nanny 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.”
By acknowledging that you are burned out, you give yourself a reason to make needed changes in your lifestyle and perspective. Don’t be afraid to ask for support from co-workers, family and friends.
Reaching burnout often means you’ve been putting work above personal responsibilities or hobbies. Take the time to reevaluate your priorities if you find yourself experiencing burnout.
“Make a list of all the things that are important in your life,” said Leslie Kalk, restaurant and hospitality coach. “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.”
Take concrete steps to make your work life better. Consider the following actions:
Support can come from your employer as well as from family, friends and co-workers. Approach your supervisor or HR to determine which of the above steps is possible and put a plan in motion.
If you are the business owner, delegating some of your responsibilities can help relieve pressure. Identify trusted employees and give them some of the tasks you have been handling.
“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 recenter, 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.”
For outside support, talk to your spouse to explain the situation and get support for any changes you make, including, if applicable, reduced income, the disruption of routine and a temporary loss of benefits. It’s easier to avoid or overcome burnout if you’re surrounded by close friends and family who provide an outlet to discuss the problems and feelings you’re experiencing in your career.
Many companies offer employee assistance programs as an employee benefit. These programs provide free or low-cost confidential counseling for work-related or personal issues, and sometimes financial and operational support.
Recovering from burnout is a process. It requires increased commitment to taking care of yourself emotionally and physically. It’s possible to overcome burnout, but the process 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. Try the following self-care ideas:
If you can’t make the time for yourself because of work requirements, it might be time to look for a new job.
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 you don’t expect your current situation to improve, start looking for employment elsewhere.
If you do like your job but the workload is causing fatigue and you fear burnout may be on its way, seek a better work-life balance. Find ways to reduce the time spent on working and thinking about your job, which in turn should reduce fatigue and prevent burnout. Set goals for your sleep, diet and exercise. Getting more sleep, eating well and exercising a few times a week can 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 feelings of burnout.
“You hardly ever see it coming,” Kalk said. “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.”
Some jobs are more prone to burnout. They tend to be positions that have high pressure, involve a lot of responsibility, deal with the public, are poorly paid, or involve people in difficult or life-threatening situations. These are some particularly burnout-inducing jobs:
In Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index report, 41% of workers globally said they are likely to leave their current employer within the next year, an increase from around 20% in 2020.
You 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 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.”
In addition, make a practice of recognizing employees for their hard work and results and to remind them of how their work makes a difference in people’s lives and in society as a whole. A sense of purpose and the feeling that their employer cares about and appreciates their efforts helps employees fight burnout.
Jennifer Dublino contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.