What Is Burnout and How to Avoid It

  1. Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that is typically caused by excessive and prolonged stress.
  2. Burnout is characterized by three main dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism (or less identification with your job functions) and feelings of reduced professional ability.
  3. To avoid work burnout, you should set boundaries, change up your work environment, and take time for yourself.

Everyone has stressful days at work where you feel overwhelmed and exhausted by your tasks. But when this feeling becomes chronic or unavoidable, no matter what you do, you may be experiencing job burnout. Burnout can cause people to feel constantly stressed, exhausted, and unable to cope with the demands of a job and life.

Because much of the country is currently under quarantine, thousands of workers have made the shift to remote work. This is causing significant added stress in many ways: Employees have had to figure out how to make their jobs work remotely, balance working with round-the-clock childcare, and are dealing with the general stresses of a crisis, such as whether their job will survive the economic downturn and if their loved ones will be healthy throughout the pandemic.

All of these added stresses can contribute heavily to employee burnout since employees are suddenly faced with more stress than they had before.

Here’s how to spot burnout and what you can do to avoid it.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion that is typically caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Job burnout, in particular, can also involve a reduced sense of accomplishment and loss of personal identity or task ownership. Burnout may also present itself with physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches as a result of stress.

Burnout is not an official medical diagnosis and can sometimes be linked to or exacerbated by other mental health conditions such as depression. 

Symptoms of burnout

Burnout is characterized by three main dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism (or less identification with your job functions) and feelings of reduced professional ability. Put more simply, if you’re feeling drained, are starting to hate your job, and feel like you can’t do your job well, you are showing signs of workplace burnout.

Other common signs of burnout include:

  1. Alienation from work-related activities. Burnout causes you to view your job as a recurring, serious point of stress and frustration in your life, and can cause you to develop cynicism around your work and the people you work with. This may cause you to emotionally distance yourself and feel numb regarding your work.
  2. Physical symptoms. Burnout is a result of chronic stress, which often manifests itself in physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches or intestinal issues. You might experience changes in your sleep habits or appetite. Additionally, prolonged severe stress has been shown to lower your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to physical illnesses like colds or the flu.
  3. Emotional exhaustion. Burnout will also push your emotional capabilities past their limit, making you feel drained, unable to cope and tired. You might also feel detached or isolated from other people close to you, like family members or co-workers.
  4. Reduced performance. Because burnout causes you to feel physically and mentally incapable of work, it almost invariably causes a decrease in the quality of you work, which can, in turn, compound the existing symptoms. You may have reduced focus and a lack of creativity, and feel negative about any tasks you need to complete.
  5. Behavioral changes. You may find yourself withdrawing from your responsibilities, isolating yourself from others or taking your frustrations out on loved ones and family, or skipping work. Some individuals experiencing burnout may also use alcohol, drugs or food as ways to cope with what they are feeling.

The 5 stages of burnout

It is important to note that burnout manifests itself differently in each individual, so the signs and symptoms may vary. However, these are the five most commonly observed stages:

  1. Honeymoon phase. When we start a new job or task, we often begin by experiencing high job satisfaction and motivation to do good work. During this phase, you might feel a strong commitment to the tasks at hand, a desire to prove yourself, lots of creativity, optimism and plenty of energy.
  2. The onset of stress. The second stage is where you begin to feel some stress and lose some of your initial optimism. You might feel some common stress symptoms such as anxiety, fatigue, forgetfulness, headaches, an inability to focus or sleep, and you may avoid social interaction or decision-making.
  3. Chronic stress. This stage is a marked change in your stress levels, where you are experiencing severe stress on a highly frequent basis. Your symptoms from stage two may become more intense, and you might also experience apathy, aggression, feeling pressured or out of control, persistent tiredness, resentment, social withdrawal, or take up escapist activities like drugs and alcohol or excessive eating.
  4. Burnout. Stage four marks the point where symptoms become critical and carrying out your life as it was before is no longer possible, making this the stage where you should seek intervention. Symptoms include behavioral changes, chronic headaches or stomach problems, neglect of personal needs, a desire to “drop out” of society or life, feeling empty inside, significant self-doubt, energy depletion, chronic fatigue and a pessimistic outlook on life.
  5. Habitual or chronic burnout. The last stage of burnout means that the symptoms are so embedded in your life that you are likely to experience a serious physical or emotional problem rather than sporadically experiencing workplace stress or burnout. Chronic burnout symptoms may include burnout syndrome, chronic mental or physical fatigue, or depression.

How can working from home contribute to burnout?

Working from home, when done correctly, can be a great way to balance the demands of work and your personal life, but it takes careful consideration and implementation of boundaries. Because the coronavirus pushed many people who don’t normally work from home into doing so, you likely came into this situation without those boundaries in place, which may make you feel as though you need to be available at all times or that you’re isolated.

“The isolation and ability to work anytime and anywhere can definitely lead to burnout if you’re not careful,” said Angela Mastrogiacomo, owner of Muddy Paw PR. “Because remote workers don’t have that community support and energy to draw off of, and because their home has now become their office, it can become easy to tell yourself you’ll just work a little bit more, and before you know it, you’ve been working 14 hours straight.”

Working from home, especially during quarantine, can also mean that workers are trying to get work done while caring for children or other family members, as well as dealing with external stressors, which can leave you feeling like you’re burning the candle at both ends and blur – or completely erase – the line between work and home.

“Oftentimes, workers’ workspaces are in their living rooms, which makes it difficult to take breaks and separate from your workspace,” said Drew Cheneler, founder of SimpleMoneyLyfe. “Add on the distractions of family and watching the kids, and it’s hard to stay focused and enjoy a true work-life balance.”

Tips for avoiding burnout

There are steps you can take to avoid occupational burnout early and keep it from affecting your personal or professional life. The best thing to do is to be proactive and build up your mental resilience.

  1. Set boundaries. If you are new to remote work, the first thing you should do is set firm boundaries around your working hours, when you can be contacted with work matters, and whether you need to isolate yourself from family members while you work.
  2. Break up your day. “Break your days up into blocks and make sure you give yourself one to two 30-minute breaks,” said Cheneler. “This will allow you to tend to chores around the house or deal with family. A break is also great to clear the mind and refocus on your project or task.” Taking walks or getting outside for a few minutes, if possible, can also be beneficial for relieving stress and giving your mind a break. Take a walk, even if it’s just up the driveway for the mail, or around the block.
  3. Develop strong coping mechanisms from the start. If you have just entered a new job that you know will be stressful, or are a person generally prone to stress, it’s imperative that you develop strong coping mechanisms that will help keep the stress from growing into burnout syndrome. The American Medical Association recommends deepening your emotional self-awareness, learning how to self-manage your emotions, practicing empathy, staying connected with team members and learning about conflict management techniques.
  4. Take time for yourself. It is vital that you allow yourself the space and time to do things you enjoy, for yourself. Whether that’s taking a walk, reading a book, or putting your laptop away in a drawer for the entire weekend, doing things that are unrelated to work can have a major beneficial effect when it’s time to return to work the next day.

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