Recognizing and Preventing Burnout in the Workplace
Between the pandemic keeping us within the same walls for two years and our daily jobs becoming increasingly demanding, burnout in the workplace is a common issue that affects employees from all backgrounds. Burnout is characterized by feelings of extreme exhaustion, general lack of motivation, and decreased productivity. Burnout can lead to real health problems and can even eventually result in job loss. It’s extremely important for employees to be able to recognize early signs of burnout and take steps to fight it. Learn more about burnout, its history, and how to identify and combat it below.
History of Burnout
"Burnout" as a concept was first identified in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He described burnout as a state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged stress specifically related to a lack of job satisfaction. Freudenberger's studied workers in high-stress, social-good environments such as healthcare professionals and social workers– professions that were based on achieving a higher good or purpose. Freudenberger noticed a key trigger of burnout was when the employee’s work turned out to not provide the fulfillment or purpose they expected. Freudenberger’s theory was that burnout symptoms flare up when we expect to find meaning in our jobs beyond a paycheck.
Another prominent name in the burnout game is Christina Maslach. Maslach is known for her research on burnout, particularly her work on developing the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a widely used tool for measuring burnout (more on this later!). Maslach helped bring burnout into the mainstream as we know it today.
What Causes Burnout
Burnout is a growing problem in today's fast-paced, high-stress world, especially in America where we often conflate our personal selves with our jobs.
In America, “hard-working” is one of the best traits a person can be, and as a society we greatly value those with high-paying occupations. The primary cause of burnout is when an employee conflates their job with their self-worth and has trouble creating space for themselves outside the role. Some common examples of this include working long hours with little personal time, lack of control over work outcomes, and no support from colleagues or supervisors.
Workplace Burnout Scale
The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is a commonly used tool for measuring burnout. The MBI is a 22-item self-assessment questionnaire that measures three aspects of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment.
Burnout Pillar #1: Emotional Exhaustion
This could look like feeling overwhelmed at small stimuli, or not having the stamina to work for a full workday. General fatigue
Burnout Pillar #2: Cynicism/Depersonalization
This one is trickier, but in general means detaching meaning from the object of your job in a negative way. It could mean thinking of patients in the medical field as numbers, or users in the tech world as statistics instead of real, breathing humans in need of assistance.
Burnout Pillar #3: Reduced Personal Accomplishment
This one is simplest– feeling like you’re doing a poor job at work is hugely demeaning. This can wreck our sense of self. This can manifest in general poor professional self esteem.
How to Identify and Assess Workplace Burnout
There are several signs and symptoms of burnout that employees can look out for, in yourself and others. These include:
- Exhaustion, both physically and emotionally
- Lack of motivation or interest in work activities
- Detachment from work outcomes
- Feeling overwhelmed or inability to handle job demands
- Loss of enjoyment in previously enjoyable activities
Assess Factors Causing Workplace Burnout
Burnout can be caused by a variety of factors in the workplace. Some common causes of burnout include:
- Lack of control over one's work, including things like unrealistic deadlines or lack of responsibility
- Excessive workload or unrealistic job expectations
- Lack of support from colleagues or supervisors
- Inadequate compensation for the amount of work being done
- Lack of clear communication from leadership
How to Fight Workplace Burnout
There are several steps employees can take to combat burnout, and every person is unique. We suggest a combination of:
Actively Pursue Hobbies
Pursuing hobbies or activities can help counteract burnout by giving you another source of meaning to life beyond the workday. According to a research market study, less than 25% of participants said they actively participated in a hobby.
Things like getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating well seem like common sense. However, sometimes the stress of work gets the best of us! We recommend being diligent when it comes to combating burnout. Be rigorous! Keep a journal logging sleep schedules and exercise plans. Endorphins are key.
Set Boundaries at Work
Free time should be exactly that– free. As humans, we need free time to look forward to so we can pursue hobbies. Burnout thrives when we find ourselves having issues clocking out. Take steps like limiting slack notifications past 5pm, and maybe deleting email off your phone.
Host a Meeting with Your Team
Does the idea of being disconnected sound.. Disconcerting? Burnout is not something we can solve alone. We need support from colleagues and peers. We recommend having a conversation around setting boundaries. Maybe start with your manager. If they’re not receptive, maybe it’s time to move on. No amount of money is worth your mental health.
Get an Accountability Buddy
Human beings are social creatures. Odds are, a friend or colleague is feeling the same way as you. Ask around, and maybe meet weekly to talk over your efforts to disconnect and create hobbies. Figuring out something together is immensely better than working alone.
Take Time Off, but Really Disconnect
We just went through one of the most intense and unhinged periods of our life with COVID-19, the Ukraine war, and political divides. Give yourself some grace, and (if able) take the time you need.
If you think you may be experiencing burnout symptoms, it's important to take action quickly or seek help. A therapist can help identify causes of burnout (though usually work related) and help develop strategies to manage it. If you’re interested in learning more about burnout, check out our sources: The End of Burnout by Jonathan Malesic and The Burnout Challenge by Christina Maslach.
Are you burned out? Need a buddy to chat with? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.