Do you feel chronically exhausted by your work?
Are you cynical about your workplace even if you used to love your job?
Do you feel like your work doesn’t matter anymore?
If you answered yes to all three of these questions, you might be suffering from what the World Health Organization (WHO) has diagnosed “burnout syndrome.”
While burnout has been discussed in the past few decades as an increasingly common workplace phenomenon, in 2020, workers started dropping like flies. Nearly 3 million women left the workforce in 2020, many of whom were working moms trying to juggle work and children. Healthcare workers faced anxiety and exhaustion; essential workers haven’t caught a break.
Chances are, you are currently facing burnout, have experienced it in the past, or will feel its effects in the future. But what exactly are the symptoms of burnout and how can we prevent it from taking a physical and mental toll?
Michael Leiter and Christina Maslach have been researching burnout for 30 years. They define the condition as “a syndrome of exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy. If someone is experiencing high rates of all three of these at work, that indicates they are burned out, while low rates of all three indicate they are engaged.”
This past year, they argue, has greatly exacerbated burnout across the board as workers have lost face-to-face contact with colleagues and their daily routines, have had to navigate dramatic change, and faced increased workloads and personal challenges.
Maslach expands elsewhere on the causes of burnout, which range from how much control someone has over their work to fair practices or policies at their company. Other experts have argued that there are different types of burnout with different solutions: one worker might need mental health services for anxiety or depression, while another may simply need greater support from their employers.
Winona State University identified five stages of burnout. Most employees start out in a honeymoon phase of being motivated at work and highly creative. Eventually, they move to the balancing stage act where they become more realistic about the expectations and stresses of the job but are still engaged. But if a worker doesn’t intervene in this second stage, it leads to three worse phases: chronic physical symptoms (including mental health sympotms), crisis mode, and permanent enmeshment of burnout symptoms.
To avoid this downward spiral, it’s important to pay attention to the signs of burnout and intervene before it becomes much worse. Poor performance at work, physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches, or coping mechanisms like substance abuse will only make things worse.
Here are a few strategies to intervene with feelings of exhaustion and discouragement at work.
Take breaks throughout the day. Cornell professor Vanessa Bohns recommends carving out time to take a walk or make a cup of coffee just to reset for work. “Having free time where you feel like you are truly able to take a break from work is key to battling burnout,” she says. That break can consist of those 15-minute breaks throughout the day, or they can be longer breaks, such as weekend rest.
Take a day off. Most religious traditions recognize the importance of rest. Christians recognize Sabbath on Sundays, Jews recognize Shabbat on Saturdays, and Muslims take a break from work to worship on Fridays. In Western society, the idea of a weekend rest is common, but side hustles, family responsibilities, and any job outside of an office 9-5 position often fill that time. Still, it’s important to find a full day of the week to avoid work responsibilities, and intentionally protect time to rest or recreate. Believe it or not, it will ultimately make you even more productive.
Talk to your employer. A recent article in The Atlantic argues that ultimately, none of these self-care “tips and tricks” will solve worker burnout. “Your employer will. Burnout is a problem created by the workplace, and changes to the workplace are the best way to fix it,” writes Olga Khazan. Ultimately, a vacation might help as a stopgap to burnout, but it’s not going to fix the long-term problems in the workplace. Good leaders will listen to their employees’ critiques and find solutions that offer the best outcomes for all.