Do you feel like going to work is harder than it used to be? Maybe you’re feeling exhausted, uninterested and detached from your job. Have you been “quiet quitting,” or do you know, deep down, that you’re not doing your best anymore? If so, you might have workplace burnout.
Burnout can happen to anyone — from new moms and caregivers to kids in youth sports. But perhaps the biggest burnout culprit is the modern workplace. A recent survey conducted by AFLAC found that 59% of all American workers were experiencing at least moderate levels of burnout — that’s even higher than burnout levels at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a syndrome, “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” They say burnout includes feeling:
- Regularly exhausted.
- Negative about your job.
- Cynical about your work.
- Unable to do your best work.
Take a few minutes to learn more about occupational burnout, how it can affect your health and well-being, and what you can do about it.
The importance of addressing burnout in the workplace
According to “Mayo Clinic Strategies to Reduce Burnout: 12 Actions to Create the Ideal Workplace,” a book authored by Stephen Swensen, M.D., and Tait Shanafelt, M.D., burnout “boils down to some combination of too much work, not enough time to accomplish the expected output with the support provided, or both.”
While leaders often think job burnout is an individual issue, instead, Dr. Swensen and Dr. Shanafelt write that, “The issue of professional burnout must be reframed from an individual one — i.e., the professionals are at fault — to an organizational opportunity.”
Causes of burnout in the workplace
Burnout doesn’t happen overnight; it develops gradually, emerging as a prolonged response to chronic job stress. It often affects people who:
- Have a heavy workload and work long hours.
- Struggle with work-life balance.
- Have little or no control over their work.
- Work in a helping profession, such as health care.
A mismatch between the demands of your job and your ability to meet those demands is a recipe for job stress, Dr. Swensen and Dr. Shanafelt say.
Nobody likes to be micromanaged. When employees are given accountability, without the flexibility to do their best work, they “feel like cogs in a rigid and inflexible system that requires them daily to work unreasonable hours and to ignore issues that they are not empowered to fix,” Dr. Swensen and Dr. Shanafelt write in their book.
Dr. Swensen and Dr. Shanafelt also discuss several factors that get in the way of people finding meaning and purpose at work. These factors set up an environment where burnout flourishes.
You look at your to-do list and then you look at your calendar. The math doesn’t add up. There’s no way you can finish all you have to do before it’s due.
If this sounds familiar, you’ve dealt with an overwhelming workload. Workload is the amount of work a person is expected to do in a specified time. Having a high workload — too much work to do in a less-than-reasonable amount of time — is a crucial burnout factor. When workload ramps up, people feel more stress and their perception of fairness in the workplace goes down. As a result, there is a decrease in job satisfaction and job performance.
Lack of control over work
You’re the expert at your job. You’ve been doing it for years with great performance reviews every time. Now your new boss tells you to do it differently — even though you know his suggestion will lead to worse outcomes.
Research shows that “lack of control” is another critical factor in workplace burnout. When employees feel like they can’t influence decisions that affect their work or their voices aren’t heard, they become less engaged.
One study found that the stress of having too little control at work can cause significant adverse health effects. According to the study, individuals who have both low-control jobs and high job demands are associated with a 15.4% increase in the odds of death compared to people with low job demands. Employees with more control have a significant decrease in the odds of death.
Inadequate support from colleagues and superiors
Now that you’re working from home, you don’t get to interact with your team as much. It seems like your manager doesn’t remember you’re there — until a problem comes up. You feel isolated, ignored and out of the loop.
Having a work community and support from leaders is crucial to an employee’s wellness and engagement. When people experience social isolation, conflict and disrespect, they become vulnerable to burnout.
Mismatch between company culture and personal values
When an organization has a supportive organizational culture and compelling workplace values, it’s much easier for employees to find meaning in their work. However, when the company culture is misaligned with an employee’s values, burnout is common.
Poor work-life balance
The boundaries that separate work and home have been blurring for decades, causing tensions in all areas of life. Years ago, when laptops came out, answering emails any time of day became an expectation. Now, if you work at home, your workplace and your personal space are one and the same. And in today’s always-on workplace, there are dozens of ways for your leaders and teammates to contact you anytime — such as instant messaging or texting.
Burned-out employees are more likely to be tense and anxious outside of work. They withdraw from family life and have fewer friends. Finding a healthy work-life balance often counteracts the negative effects of work, such as burnout.
Impacts of burnout in the workplace
Burnout has far-reaching impacts on workplaces. As Dr. Swensen and Dr. Shanafelt explain, “Burned-out professionals are exhausted, jaded, demoralized and isolated, and they have lost their sense of meaning and purpose.”
If that weren’t bad enough, some employers blame the employees themselves for feeling this way.
“Frequently, these individuals are shamed and blamed by leaders who suggest they should sleep longer, meditate and become more resilient even as they expect them to work harder,” Dr. Swensen and Dr. Shanafelt write.
Workplace burnout affects the individual and the organization in several ways.
Decreased productivity and performance
Burnout leads to decreases in individual, team and organizational performance. For example, burnout can lead to:
- Inhibited creativity and innovation.
- Workplace mistakes, accidents and injuries.
- Increased personal and task-related conflict.
- Higher absenteeism and turnover.
- Less empathy while dealing with others.
Signs and symptoms of burnout
Behavioral and emotional burnout symptoms
- Are cynical or critical at work.
- Have become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients.
- Find it hard to concentrate.
- Experience a lack of satisfaction in achievements.
- Feel disillusioned about your job.
- Use food, drugs or alcohol to feel better.
Burnout can impact an individual’s behavior and emotions. You might be burned out if you:
Physical burnout symptoms
Physical symptoms are the body’s way of letting you know something is awry. If you’re burned out, you might:
- Lack the energy to be consistently productive.
- Notice changes in sleep habits, such as insomnia.
- Experience unexplained headaches, stomach issues or bowel problems.
- Have other physical complaints.
Strategies for preventing burnout
According to Dr. Swensen and Dr. Shanafelt, the opposite of burnout is “an engaged, fulfilled and resilient individual who is connected to and supported by a network of similarly engaged colleagues with a shared purpose, working together in high-functioning teams to achieve a shared mission.”
Luckily, they’ve got ideas on how to get us there.
What organizations can do to prevent burnout
To battle burnout, Dr. Swensen and Dr. Shanafelt emphasize the importance of meaningful work and having an “esprit de corps”— a feeling of fellowship with colleagues.
Provide meaningful work
Having meaning and purpose in your job is critical to having a fulfilling and rewarding career. When organizations don’t recognize the importance of meaning and purpose in work, they subject their employees to a higher risk of burnout.
In their book, Dr. Swensen and Dr. Shanafelt explain, “The best organizations help professionals recognize and reconnect with the meaning and purpose in their work.”
In a large study, approximately 500 physicians were asked what aspect of their work was most meaningful to them. For some, it was teaching medical students. For others, it was doing research or working with patients.
According to the authors, “No matter what activity was specifically meaningful to respondents, the amount of their workweek focused on that activity had a strong, inverse relationship to burnout. In fact, physicians who spent 20% or more of their time in their most meaningful activity had half the burnout rate as those who did not.”
Emphasize teamwork and support
We all want to belong — to be included, appreciated and part of the team. When people collaborate, they become united by shared interests and common bonds. This leads to trust, collaboration and better business outcomes.
In organizations that create that sense of connection, burnout decreases. New roles, such as chief wellness officer, help organizations keep the focus on a healthy culture and healthy employees.
Get leaders on board
Senior leadership needs to start by acknowledging that burnout is an organizational problem, not a personal issue. Then they need to dedicate time, attention and resources to creating an environment that supports professional fulfillment. For example, Dr. Swensen and Dr. Shanafelt recommend that leaders focus on fostering these elements:
- Community and camaraderie at work.
- Allowing people more control and flexibility in their work.
- A fair and equitable culture.
- Intrinsic motivation and rewards that recognize character (in addition to achievement).
- Partnership with management to improve the work environment.
- Professional development and mentorship.
- Psychological and physical safety.
- A feeling of being trusted and respected by the leaders.
What individuals can do to prevent burnout
How can you prevent burnout? While employers bear a lot of responsibility to provide good working conditions, there are things individuals can do, too. Here are some hints to help you get started on your way to burnout recovery.
Take proactive action to avoid burnout at work
Engage in “job crafting” — taking proactive actions to evolve your role to something more realistic and rewarding. For example, you might:
- Meet regularly with your supervisor to get support and feedback on your work.
- Have frank discussions with your leaders about maintaining work hours and work-life integration.
- Identify tasks that energize and interest you. Focus on those tasks and volunteer for similar projects.
- Increase or maintain relationships with your co-workers — even if it means that you have to organize events or instigate interactions.
- Learn to say “no” or “not right now” to requests outside of your job priorities.
Be intentional about prioritizing your home life
You can put the “life” back into work-life integration if you:
- Make a division between work and home life, even if you work at home. You might try taking a walk after work to clear your head, turning off your email alerts or closing your office door at 5 p.m.
- Find time to meet up with friends and family members regularly for social support. Schedule a happy hour, family game night or trip to the movies with people you care about.
- If there’s conflict at home, take action to lower your stress levels. Have a family meeting to discuss what’s going on or get help from a family therapist.
Prioritize your health
Don’t forget that taking care of your health and well-being helps you decrease burnout. Try to:
- Improve or maintain your physical health with a healthy diet, regular exercise and plenty of sleep.
- Improve or maintain psychological well-being. Seek professional counseling to learn coping strategies to manage stress.
- Engage in relaxing activities that reduce stress.
- Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep.
- Learn tactics for managing stress, such as yoga, meditation, journaling or volunteering.
Beating the burnout epidemic
Many people say we’re in a “burnout epidemic.” But as organizations and individuals learn more about decreasing or avoiding burnout, there’s hope for the future.
Dr. Swensen and Dr. Shanafelt say they can anticipate, “a work environment where everyone in the organization was treated as a unique, talented and dedicated professional working in partnership with co-workers to accomplish an aligned and worthy pursuit.”
“Just imagine the good we could do if we worked in such an environment,” they write.
You can purchase Dr. Swensen and Dr. Shanafelt’s book here. All royalties are donated to charity.
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