Burnout is having a moment — and that’s a good and a bad thing.
It’s good because more people need to know about the issue of workplace burnout, which is surprisingly common and has potentially big consequences for individuals and companies. According to a recent Gallup poll, burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day, 2.6 times as likely to leave their current employer, and half as likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with their manager.
Even scarier, burned-out employees are 23% more likely to visit the emergency room. These are just a few reasons why the World Health Organization recently named burnout as a syndrome and occupational phenomenon in its 11th International Classification of Diseases.
As for what’s bad about burnout being in the spotlight, refer to back to what we said about it being surprisingly common. Workplace burnout is getting more attention because more Americans are experiencing it. According to Gallup, 23% of employees report feeling burnout at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling it sometimes.
With statistics like that, it’s easy to start self-diagnosing, but resist the urge. Feeling fatigue or boredom at work sometimes is not the same as true burnout.
“Normal fatigue goes away with a short break,” says Robert Bogue, co-author of Extinguish Burnout: A Practical Guide to Prevention and Recovery. “The difference with burnout is that it’s a persistent condition. If a vacation or break doesn’t resolve the issue, you may be facing burnout.”
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.
Burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.
This doesn’t happen overnight. Burnout creeps up on us over time, which can make it much harder to recognize if you’re not on the lookout for symptoms.
Are You on the Road to Burnout?
Most people have days when they feel overworked, underappreciated, or unable to make a dent in their to-do list. If you feel like this most of the time, however, you may be burning out.
Watch for these early warning signs that something needs to be addressed. The sooner you take action, the easier it will be to avoid full-fledged burnout.
Sign #1: You’re Not Keeping Regular Work Hours
Are you showing up late or leaving early without a good reason, such as an appointment? This, along with lack of motivation and withdrawing from responsibilities, is a potential sign of burnout.
What to do: Ask for time off. “Dragging your feet to get to work and then leaving way earlier than your colleagues is a sign that something is going wrong,” says Rebecca Ogle, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist who specializes in helping patients prevent and cope with burnout. “A break from work, even if it’s just a one-day staycation, may really help you get back on track.”
Sign #2: You’re Falling Behind on Work Responsibilities
If you’re finding that you can’t keep up with your workload or are having trouble focusing, check in with yourself: Is this because you’re simply overloaded — maybe you took on the workload of a colleague cut from your team — or because you can’t concentrate and stay engaged? If it’s the latter, it may be a sign of burnout.
What to do: Start by talking with your immediate supervisor. “Find out if it might be possible to delegate some of your tasks to a coworker,” Ogle says. “If not, see if you can set better boundaries with regard to the amount and type of work you’re taking on.”
Once you’ve gotten a handle on your stress, you can gradually add responsibilities, but trying to push through isn’t a smart idea.
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Sign #3: You Spend a Lot of Time Venting to Coworkers About Work
If you’re constantly dwelling on office issues, talking about a coworker who is keeping you from achieving your work goals, or just generally becoming more cynical and negative, you may be burning out.
What to do: Consider seeing a therapist. “If you’re in a toxic work environment, a therapist can help you talk through some of these critical issues,” Ogle says. “He or she can also help you become more assertive at work if that’s an issue you need to work on.”
Sign #4: You’re Trying to Get in Balance, But Nothing’s Working
Taking steps to cope with chronic stress is a good thing, but it’s important to evaluate what you’re doing to get relief. Is it actually providing the results you want? If not, you may need to commit to some trial and error until you find something that works.
What to do: Audit your self-care routine. “I recently had a client who told me she was burned out and couldn’t understand why treating herself to a spin class twice per week wasn’t helping her feel better,” says Randi Braun, founder of Something Major, a career coaching and consulting firm in Washington, DC.
“What we discovered was that doing a fitness class wasn’t truly the self-care she needed,” Braun says. “Starting a book club with friends and a monthly outing to a museum was what she needed to refill her emotional and intellectual tanks and bring her best self to work every day.”
Sign #5: You’re Sleeping Much More or Less than Usual
If you’re heading home and crashing right away, taking multiple naps on the weekends, or waking up in the middle of the night in a panic about your workload, take note: A changing sleep pattern (and the often-associated lack of energy) is a common early sign of burnout.
What to do: Speak to a healthcare professional. “A radical change in sleep habits often signals that there may be physical or mental health issues you’ve been putting off dealing with,” Ogle says. “If this is the case, your first step is to address these — and a professional is there to help.”
Sign #6: You Can’t Stop Checking Work Emails
Thanks to smartphones, we’re now expected to be accessible 24/7, available to reply to email, Slack, or whatever internal communication your office uses at any moment. But here’s the thing: You establish the rules for yourself. And if you’re constantly checking work email, it may be fueling burnout because you’re never truly taking a break from the office.
What to do: Take dedicated time off all electronics. While it may not be realistic to completely shut down your email or phone for an entire day, start by doing it for an hour in the evening or for an entire Saturday.
“It’s very important to have some time and space away from work, as that space can have a remarkable impact in addressing the acute feeling of not being able to handle your job for one more day, week, or month,” Braun explains. “It also gives you the space to plan your next move, whether that’s recalibrating at work or finding a new opportunity.”
The Bottom Line on Burnout
Burnout isn’t like the flu; it doesn’t go away after a few weeks unless you make some changes in your life. In addition to the tips above, one of the most effective ways to deal with overwhelming stress and get your life back into balance is to reach out to others — friends, family, or coworkers.
Social contact is nature’s antidote to stress and talking face to face with a good listener is one of the fastest ways to calm your nervous system and relieve stress.
Your employer can help, too. Click here to see how companies can curb the rise of workplace burnout, and to stay in the loop on all things related to worker well-being, sign up for our free weekly newsletter, the JUST Report!