How to Treat Burnout at Work
As the isolation phase of the pandemic has come to a screeching halt, the collective is seeing a return to all the demands of pre-pandemic life, but now with the added complexities of all the pandemic stresses and choices - masks, indoor events, remote work with its plusses and minuses, back-to-back weddings, work conferences, etc. While we are still under a very real threat of illness or suffering the longterm consequences of illness, the expectation is that we will show up to everything again, regardless of how we feel. Even feeling sick is no longer an excuse for someone to miss work. After years of traumatic isolation and fear, where people weathered illness, breakups, deaths, and political unrest from behind their screens, the expectation that people return to acting like everything is normal weighs heavier than one might imagine - especially in the workplace. As such, people show up in my virtual office every day wondering “why do I feel so stressed by work? These things didn’t use to bother me.” The answer, oftentimes, is burnout - an underdiagnosed syndrome that mimics some of the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Burnout is more serious than it may sound. It’s classified in the International Classification of Diseases an actual syndrome resulting from unmanaged workplace stress, which, when left untreated, can lead to physical, mental, and emotional problems. So today we will define burnout and explore the causes, impact, and treatment in this post.
What is burnout in the workplace?
Burnout is a kind of emotional exhaustion characterized by depletion of energy, exhaustion, negative feelings related to work, and mental distress that generally results from unmanaged and chronic workplace stress. It is classified in the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases) as an occupational phenomenon rather than a health condition.
How do I know if I'm burned out?
The three main symptoms of burnout are: lack of motivation, lack of pleasure in your work, and an inability or feeling of inability to complete tasks efficiently. If you have found yourself increasingly weary in response to your workplace, it is worth asking yourself if you’re burned out.
Take a self-inventory of some of the below symptoms as they are related to your current work. If you have more than 3 of these, talk to a wellness coach or qualified therapist about your situation and begin to put a plan in place.
Signs of workplace burnout
- Anxiety about or avoidance of work
- General fatigue or lack of energy, especially for work-related tasks
- Low motivation at work
- Difficulty making decisions, especially at work
- Cynical or pessimistic outlook
- Lack of pleasure in your job
- Low (or high) level irritation and a “short fuse”
- Often, low self-worth or lack of belief in yourself to accomplish tasks
- Struggling with easy tasks at work
- Procrastination, “kicking the can down the road”
- Turning towards substances or other addictions, including alcohol, drugs, prescription drugs, social media, etc.
If the above symptoms are noticeable, it’s important to take them seriously and address the causes before they turn into a more serious condition.
What causes burnout?
Even if you love your job, it’s possible to burn out. In fact, it can be more likely if you are the kind of person who identifies with your job and pours all of yourself into doing it perfectly. Burnout happens when we are unable to keep up with demands of work either due to the excessive nature of the demands or our own neglected emotional, physical, and mental needs. Without proper acknowledgment, intervention, and treatment, burn out can linger for months and snowball into bigger mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Burnout researcher Dr. Christina Maslach identified six main risk factors, which include:
- Workload: Having too much work and/or too many goals, especially if you tend towards perfectionism or people-pleasing, may make the expectations of your work feel impossible to meet.
- Control: Having less say in the direction of your work is correlated with burnout, as is having difficulty setting and keeping effective boundaries. Having a sense of control at work can minimize your risk of burnout.
- Reward: Feeling that you are not rewarded for your work can lead to burnout. Monetary rewards are nice but even small rewards like positive feedback, promotions, growth opportunities, and public recognition go a long way in making one less prone to burnout.
- Community: Feeling connected and “psychologically safe” to share oneself and one’s ideas without being afraid of potential negative backlash - i.e. being shamed, undermined, or competed with, is essential to preventing burnout.
- Fairness: A sense of fairness is a deep need for many people. If managers or leaders don’t fairly set expectations or treat everyone consistently in a kind and respectful way, a feeling of unfairness can erode one’s sense of health and balance, leading to burnout.
- Values: To feel that you work in an environment that aligns with your values is important, i.e. working for a company whose mission statement shares your values. Another way values are important at work is feeling that your environment is set up so that you can act in alignment with your values, i.e. the workplace environment supports you in enacting personal values like transparency and honesty with coworkers or outside vendors or in marketing. Some statistics have identified misalignment or conflict in values as a top reasons people leave their jobs.
So, how do these burnout causes show up specifically for you in your workplace? Here are some more specific internal and external factors that make one susceptible to burnout identified originally in this BetterUp article:
Internal factors or personality traits
- Perfectionism or Type-A Personality
- Being hyper-competitive or a tendency to compare yourself
- Poor boundaries and an inability to set limits or say “no”
- Difficulty asking for help
- Difficulty prioritizing efficiently
- Seeing your job as the most important aspect of your life or identity
External or lifestyle factors
- Sudden health issues in oneself or a loved one
- Being in school or working more than one job
- Being a caretaker
- Not having balance outside of work (not doing hobbies or self-care activities)
- Additional stressors such as moving, life transitions, or a change in life circumstances
If any of these apply to you but you are not yet feeling burnout, good for you! However, make sure to put preventative measures in place as burnout can simmer under the surface for quite some time before actually negatively impacting our life.
The big question: How do I treat burnout?
The biggest and most important step to burnout is identifying it and NOT PUSHING THROUGH IT. Once my clients hear the label and definition of “burnout,” they breathe a sign of relief, realizing that their feelings make sense and are a normal reaction to working without taking breaks or setting boundaries. Then comes the hard work of actually responding to burnout, which is equally important. Without a response to burnout, one can end up depressed, sick, or at risk for quitting or getting fired. This step can be particularly hard for those most prone to burnout as they tend to invest their identity so heavily in work they can be hesitant to take a step back from work to reestablish their health. That being said, here are 16 suggestions for treating workplace burnout.
1. Identify and respond to your feelings
Burnout is made up of different difficult emotions. Your emotions, particularly so-called “negative” ones like resentment and anger, can actually point you to what you are needing that you may not be getting in your current environment. Understanding these needs can help you respond appropriately before those feelings turn into bigger problems like burnout, depression, and anxiety. This step is helped most by therapeutic support.
2. Seek support at work
Having the support of leadership or HR can make you feel more psychologically safe and validated and also help address whatever organizational challenges may be contributing to your burnout. If HR and management are not supportive, the work environment may not be a good fit long term for your health and wellbeing.
3. Physical Self-Care
Burnout takes a toll on us physically which is why it’s important to tend to your basic physical needs. Start eating regular and healthy meals. Cut back on caffeine, sugar, alcohol, fried foods and any foods you know you can’t tolerate. Exercise, shower, and take care of your physical body. This may not sound like much, but these small changes can make a huge difference in preventing or recovering from burnout. Oftentimes, we may have let these habits get out of control as a way to compensate for or reflect how bad we feel inside. Part of changing how we feel internally, is starting to make behavioral changes.
4. Self-Compassion training
Self-Compassion is a trainable skill rooted in mindfulness. You can find a compassion coach or therapist trained in Mindful Self-Compassion, or look for a skills training course. A good place to start is the mindfulselfcompassion.org website.
Mindfulness and meditation are helpful practices in managing stress and the symptoms of workplace burnout. Find a mindfulness class to join remotely or in-person, or start with an App like Headspace or Calm.
We’ve all heard that 20 minutes of vigorous cardio three times a week is good for us, but did you know it can also help with burn out? If this feels like too much to start with, just simple short walks throughout the day can help relieve stress and shift your mental state. A longer 20 minute - hourlong walk as a transition ritual out of your workday is something many clients have found beneficial.
7. Get into Nature
The rhythms of nature (the sound and visuals of waves, trees, birds, silence, etc) help our nervous system re-regulate. Being by the ocean or in the quiet of a forest on a hiking trail helps our nervous system entrain with the rhythms around us and bring us into our bodies, a great way to reset on a busy day.
Having a weekly time commitment with an empathic and skilled practitioner that is devoted to working through your difficulties, learning and cultivating skills for change, and simply feeling heard can create an enormous sense of relief and support in your daily life. Therapy can help you identify specific triggers and learn tools to regulate your anxiety and improve your mood and relationships.
Executive coaching geared towards your workplace can be a good way to uncover the specific workplace triggers contributing to your burn out. Working with a coach can help you develop a plan to address and eliminate these triggers and your coach can support you in putting your burn-out plan into action.
Communication tools for setting boundaries such as Non-Violent Communication are a great way to identify and assert your needs. Simply knowing what you need can give you a sense of hope, direction, and a solid plan to start improving your mental state.
Vacations, as opposed to “trips,” can create a sense of peace and calm in your entire body. Planning a vacation that allows you to rest and rejuvenate rather than running from place to place is an antidote to burnout. These can look like anything from going on a silent meditation retreat to a trip to remote mountains to a few days at the beach.
Preventing burn-out is not just about taking extravagant vacations, but about honoring your body’s natural pace and rhythm. There may be times where you have more on your plate than usual - in family life, romantic life, or related to health issues - and these are times you need to honor by taking more time off, taking breaks at work, or even just taking a night in to recoup rather than going out (even for something fun.) In times of more difficulty at work, even a small stressor like not getting enough sleep one night requires a change in behavior or pace - perhaps you end the work day early that day or take more time to unwind before bed to ensure adequate rest..
13. Cultivate relationships at work
Spend time in your work day investing in social time with colleagues - this can be lunches, water cooler breaks, or for those working remotely, this can be phone chats, coworking together, or simple text exchanges throughout the day that make you and your coworker feel less alone.
14. Social Support
As a follow up, Having meaningful social support outside of work is one of the biggest protective factors against any stressor or even trauma, but is undoubtedly helpful in times of work burnout. During burnout, it’s important to have people that you can talk to about your emotions and feelings, as well as people that can do supportive things for you and people you can have fun with.
15. Workday transition rituals
Whether going into an office or working from home, daily rituals are important reminders for our nervous system. These can be as simple as a mindful, quiet breakfast, listening to classical music on our commute, or breathing into the soles of our feet during our commute to work (providing we’re not driving ourselves), or as involved as a daily end of day yoga or journaling practice. End-of-day transition rituals are especially helpful if you work from home and can be a helpful part of winding down and preparing for a good night’s sleep (sleep being one of the most important health prevention tools for burnout).
16. Practice gratitude journaling
Practicing gratitude helps shift our focus from what causes us stress to what gives us meaning. As humans, we are built to have a “negativity bias” which helps us remember the bad things that happen to us so we can avoid these pitfalls and survive in the future. To combat this tendency, we have to regularly and pre-emptively (meaning, before burnout even happens), find ways to cultivate gratitude. Writing down what we are grateful for is much more likely to have a longterm impact than simply thinking it. The Five Minute Journal is a great resource for structured daily gratitude journaling.
While the above are some suggestions to start treating burnout in your daily life, it can be good to jump-start the process by taking a week off. If this list sparked some other ideas for you, please place ideas in the comments below! It’s always helpful for others to read and see what people are finding helpful.
Lovewell offers qualified therapists, wellness coaching, and corporate wellness workshops in California to treat burnout and improve general wellness, mental health, and relationships - in life and in the workplace.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q1. Who is prone to burnout?
A. Anyone in the workplace is prone to burnout. Perfectionist, high-achievers, "type A" personalities and those who derive a sense of self-worth from work are more likely to overwork and burn out. Those who do not like their jobs but continue to "push through" are also prone to burnout.
Q2. What does burnout feel like?
A. You may feel depressed, cynical, and resentful at work with little to no motivation. Your home life and social life may suffer as a result of burnout. People who are burnt out frequently don't believe that their circumstances will improve.
Q3. What happens when you have burnout?
A. Chronic burnout can impact your physical and mental health and lead to lower immunity and higher risk of generalized anxiety, major depression, and other mental illness.