In 2019, the World Health Organisation defined “burnout” as a syndrome associated with unmanaged chronic stress. People often link burnout with the emotions associated with exhaustion and stress and some experts think that it may just be a product of a deeper issue such as depression. Nevertheless, burnout can hinder our productivity, often making us feel unmotivated.
Whereas stress can be seen as can feel like an overwhelming burden, burnout generally feels like having nothing more to give. Burnout usually comes out in three different components:
- Exhaustion – Both physically and mentally. This may be a result of fatigue from work-related stress.
- Cynicism – When work just becomes work, we may start doing only the bare minimum. Tied with a lack of motivation, cynicism makes work feel like a fruitless endeavour.
- Rumination – Thinking about how we are not able to do our work properly or live up to our own or others expectations can potentially lead to a feedback loop that keeps us in a state of burnout.
These components are not all necessary for burnout to occur. After all, burnout is not really a medical diagnosis. However, taking note of these signs can help us to spot when we are starting to burn out. Are you critical of your work? Are you more irritable with regards to work-related activities? Do you find it hard to concentrate? Do you struggle to be motivated when it comes to work? Do you not feel any satisfaction from work? All of these questions are good ways to gauge whether you might be feeling burnt out.
What causes burnout?
Burnout – much like other issues surrounding mental wellbeing – is not caused by one specific thing. Generally, multiple factors, no matter how small, contribute to the overall state. While researchers point to specific individual factors such as personality or genetics, it is much more useful for us to focus on factors that are less intrinsic. Focusing on things that cannot be changed tends to lead to less successful outcomes.
A heavy workload is a common driving factor of burnout. While a lot of work with stressful deadlines can put a lot of pressure on us, the feeling that we cannot live up to those responsibilities is instrumental in creating the kind of thought patterns and behaviours that aggravate our burnout.
But workload alone only really contributes to stress and associated fatigue. With burnout, we generally tend to continue working even though we are unmotivated. That sort of lack of motivation is just as important as a contributing factor to burnout as a heavy workload is. Imagine putting in countless hours of work without any sort of reward or satisfaction. Burnout is when those hours are put in despite the lack of any sort of positive outcome.
Humans often need to feel mentally stimulated in order to feel at ease. We are generally the most comfortable when work activities are in the Goldilocks zone of stimulation. Dull, mundane, and monotonous work contributes to boredom and fatigue, often requiring excess energy in order to remain focused. On the other side of the spectrum, chaotic and overstimulating work also requires excess energy in order for us to remain focused. In other words, both over- and under-stimulation lead to mental fatigue.
Ambiguous work expectations can lead us to overthink our work and spend more mental energy on it than is necessary. Too much freedom can sometimes be a detriment when scheduling, deadlines, and organisation can be great driving factors. Different people have different limits on how much freedom and flexibility make us feel directionless. On the other hand however, a lack of freedom contributes to a lack of mental stimulation and added stress.
A work-life imbalance leads us to blend work with leisure. When time meant for recuperating is spent on more work, when are we supposed to rest? A person cannot continue working forever. We need that rest. In fact, when we rest, our brains quickly go into a sort of “resting mode”. Likewise, our brain has its own sort of gear for work-related activities. When work life and home life start to blend together, our brain gets confused as to which mode to be in. Thus, even when we are supposed to be resting, our mind is constantly working in the background, and when we are supposed to be working, our brain is not geared towards doing our tasks. During the COVID-19 lockdown where many employees started working from home, many people’s work life got mixed in with their home life.
When it comes to mental health, a good social support structure is generally protective against these kinds of issues. Continuously bottling up emotions has been shown to lead to both physical and mental fatigue, a hallmark of burnout. Thus, if we have no one to talk to, and without a good outlet for those emotions, our feelings begin to build up.
As you can see, many of these causes can be associated with other things such as fatigue or stress. It’s when it is all put together that they stack on top of each other and lead to burnout. When passion for your work is replaced by resentment, we have often already been burnt out for a while.
How can we deal with burnout?
Dealing with burnout is most effective when you start noticing the early signs. In fact, at what point do you actually have burnout? Nobody knows, but the best way to look at it is that it lies on a spectrum. In that way, any preventative measure can be seen as “treatment”. We do not just get over burnout overnight usually. We get rid of contributing factors and eventually our brain “resets” and can come back rejuvenated.
The most common way of dealing with burnout Is making sure that our work life is separated from our personal life as much as possible. Avoid working from home. If work needs to be done, do it in the office or at a cafe, but don’t do it in the same place that you intend to rest at. Make time for resting and during that time, make sure that work is not on your mind.
If regular rest doesn’t cut it, perhaps it may be time to ask for a vacation. Make good use of vacation pay if you have it. However, be respectful if you are asking for time off. While burnout is caused by the work we do, your superiors may see your request as a slight to them. Just remember that you are not “lazy” or just “procrastinating” if you need a break.
While on a break, do not do any sort of work. Don’t even think about it. Also, make that break special. If you are suffering from burnout, it is daily living that contributed to it. If you continue with life as normal just without work, your brain might not recognise it as rest. While on break, do things that you wouldn’t normally do. Go to places you don’t normally go. This sharp contrast and absence from work acts as a way of “resetting” the brain.
Once back at work, take steps to ensure burnout does not sneak its way back. If you were feeling uninspired at work, perhaps a change of pace or scenery would spark more motivation within you. For example, if you are tasked with working with the same client for an extended period of time, perhaps working on another client may breathe new life into your work.
If the main problem was a heavy workload, consider negotiating this with your superiors. Additionally, know and respect your boundaries. If you constantly say “yes” to every sort of request given to you, many people may start to depend on you or take advantage of you. Do not bite off more than you can chew.
Even then, if you feel unappreciated at work, then consider bringing this up as well. Feeling unappreciated can often lead to demotivation so if you feel that you are not given your worth it is time to make it known what you think you are worth.
Also consider your work environment and colleagues. Avoid negativity and being around the kinds of people that may mistreat you or not acknowledge you. Oftentimes, our thoughts are influenced by the kind of environment we surround ourselves within. Instead, ensure that you are working in a healthy environment and have people you can open up to in your life. The release of emotions a little at a time ensures that they don’t build up and weigh you down.
Furthermore, enrichment of our personal life may provide a nice reprieve from work. We don’t all often have the chance to work on our passions in our professions. That is why it’s important to work on our passion projects at home. Do you have a dream or a goal? Make an active effort to work towards it outside of work. Let yourself be creative and express yourself in a way that is perfect for you as an individual. Even if your work life is burdensome, knowing that you have something to come home to that provides the kinds of satisfaction work cannot, can lessen our chances for burnout as well.
What can corporate do to help?
While there are many steps that we can take to prevent burnout. Leaders in an organisation can take steps to mould an environment in which burnout is less widespread.
Workplace culture has an impact on our chances for burnout. A negative environment and harsh working conditions are a prime substrate for burnout. Yes, we can try to limit our contact with negative people, but leaders should put in the effort to ensure the workplace is a safe environment. Employees not being properly awarded or acknowledged contributes to the lack of motivation and burnout in a business. A safe environment also includes being able to speak freely. Businesses allowing employees to grieve about their burnout when they have no one else to talk with may end up retaining much more workers especially when many find quitting a suitable response to burnout.
Companies like Google and Facebook acknowledge that mental stimulation, creativity, and freedom are important for good employee wellbeing. That is why they often encourage their employees to work on passion projects or host hackathons. It is a simple way to grant some freedom to employees without directly impacting productivity.