Job burnout: how to spot it and take action

Jane Wrigglesworth

Sleep expert at How to Sleep Well

The most demanding jobs will almost always guarantee stress, but if you’re constantly feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and apathetic, you may be experiencing burnout.

‘Burnout’ was recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2019 as an ‘occupational phenomenon’. It is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion that can occur when an individual experiences excessive and prolonged stress in their job, or when carrying out emotionally draining tasks for an extended period of time. It is a significant and real issue, and it’s one that health professionals have recognised for some time, long before WHO documented it in 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).

While burnout occurs in individuals, it’s fundamentally rooted in systems. “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” WHO writes. In other words, it is the work environment and its systems that drive burnout.

What is burnout?

WHO characterises burnout by three main dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Anyone can be affected by burnout, but individuals will have a higher risk of experiencing it if they have poor self-esteem, they have unrealistic expectations in the workplace, they’re a workaholic (they have poor work-life balance), they’re a perfectionist, they have a need to be in control (they are reluctant to delegate to others), or they aren’t comfortable coping with stressors (e.g. if they use avoidance-based coping mechanisms). They may also experience burnout at a higher rate if their workplace is understaffed, has unresolved conflicts, or it doesn’t appreciate or reward work well done. Some experts also believe that depression may be a contributing factor.

Burnout symptoms

Burnout is not a sudden onset of symptoms, nor is it something that goes away on its own. If not addressed from the outset, it may lead to a complete inability to function at work.

Burnout isn’t as simple as exhaustion. Fun activities won’t be fun anymore (even those with family and friends), and you’ll begin to lose interest and motivation with your job as well as your personal life. You’ll feel consistently unhappy, and every day will be a bad day.

At first, the signs and symptoms will be subtle, but as time goes on, they will get worse. Early symptoms should be seen as a red flagged and dealt with straight away. Pay attention to your feelings and actively work to prevent full-on burnout.

The difference between stress and burnout

Burnout may stem from continuous stress but it isn’t the same as chronic stress. On the whole, stress may result from too many demands, too many pressures. However, those who are feeling stressed usually feel that if they can just get everything under control, or if the stressors go away, they will feel much better again. Burnout, on the other hand, is a state of pure mental exhaustion, a feeling of emptiness, with zero motivation. Those experiencing burnout typically see no hope of any positive outcomes or changes to the current situation.

Reactive or overreactive emotionsBlunted/flat emotions
Lack of energyLack of motivation and hope
Physically tollingEmotionally tolling
Sense of urgencySense of helplessness
Leads to anxietyLeads to depression, detachment

Common signs of burnout include:

  • Feeling constantly tired or drained.
  • Feeling helpless and/or trapped.
  • Feeling a loss of personal identity or self-doubt.
  • Feeling overwhelmed.
  • Feeling disillusioned.
  • Having a cynical/negative outlook.
  • Experiencing “compassion fatigue” — i.e. being emotionally unavailable for others.
  • Struggling to concentrate or keep attention on a task.
  • Procrastination.
  • Lack of interest in social interaction.
  • Having trouble sleeping at night.

How to prevent full-on burnout

Burnout can be a problem, but it is not insurmountable. It can be helped along by the ‘Three R’ approach: recognise; reverse; resilience.

Recognise is the first step. Be honest with yourself and call it what it is. It will be difficult to move forward if you cannot recognise or affirm your feelings of overwhelm.

Once you’ve recognised the symptoms of burnout, you need to take action, implementing both short-term and long-term solutions to reverse the damage. Start by taking note of the stressors that affect you negatively. These might include:

  • Excessive work volume
  • Short deadlines
  • Unreasonable time pressures
  • Complex projects
  • Emotionally draining tasks or roles
  • An uncomfortable work environment
  • Poor working relationships
  • Lack of support and/or communication from management

Once you’ve found your triggers, seek support and manage your stress. You may need to make tough choices here, but the good news is even the smallest steps can help you along the road to recovery.

  1. Talk to your manager or your human resources department and let them know your concerns. Make a list of the tasks that drain or overwhelm you and reach out for support. Your manager may recommend you take some time off to recharge your batteries. That’s great, but if no changes are made upon your return, you’ll be back to square one. Taking time off, however, will enable you to take a step back and reassess your situation. Taking complete time out – going away on a holiday – can help enormously for your frame of mind.
  2. Ask your friends and family to help where they can so that you have more time to work out a long-term solution. Ask them for their input as well. The simple act of reaching out to other people for help is an incredibly effective means of reducing stress, and a face-to-face chat with a good listener is one of the quickest ways to calm your inner mind.
  3. Reframe the way you look at work. By doing this, you can change your outlook from negative to positive almost overnight. Find value in your work. Are you learning a new skill that can further your career or lead to promotion or a pay increase (or, let’s be honest, a better role in another company)? Focus on the positives, even if it’s just being able to have the ability to network or make friends within your industry.  Positive psychologist Martin Seligman says that people require five essential elements in their lives in order to experience well-being. These elements – positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and achievement – are described in his PERMA Model. Use this model to learn whether any of these elements are missing, and to think about what you can do to incorporate them into your life.
  4. Manage your thoughts. Stop negative self-talk (self-talk is the constant chatter in your head of either positive or negative thoughts). Is your glass half empty or half full? Positive thinking helps dispel stress. For example, if you are feeling overwhelmed in a task, rather than thinking, ‘I can’t do this, it’s overwhelming,’ change your thought pattern to, ‘This is overwhelming now, but I am learning invaluable skills and I will soon be a pro at this.’
  5. Learn to say no (politely). Requests on your time are demanding and can be stressful, particularly if you are already stressed. Come up with some viable ‘excuses’ beforehand to prepare yourself for saying no. Something like: ‘Unfortunately my schedule is chokka that week/this month.’ Or ‘I appreciate the offer/invite, but I am completely booked/have a prior engagement. I wish there were two of me!’
  6. Take time out. Join a sports club, social group or commit to a weekly catch-up with friends. The social interaction, even if you don’t feel like it initially, will do wonders for reducing stress.
  7. Encourage your creative side – it’s a powerful countermeasure to stress and burnout because it takes you completely out of the moment. Learn to paint, take up knitting or crochet, start a garden, or resume a favourite hobby. Choose something that has nothing to do with your job.
  8. Commit to daily exercise, even if it’s a 15 minute walk around the block at lunch-time. Invite a friend at work to go with you if it’s a lunchtime walk. Exercise can help alleviate stress and create a sense of well-being. Regular exercise will help you to get a good night’s sleep.
  9. Eat a well-balanced, healthy diet. A diet high in sugar is not only inflammatory, it can affect your mood for the worse.
  10. Place emphasise on good sleep. Lack of sleep contributes to stress, inflammation and poor health. Conversely, stress, inflammation and poor health contributes to poor sleep. If your mind is racing at night, learn some relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, guided meditation or visualisation exercises, and deep breathing. Specific herbs are also useful for alleviating stress and aiding sleep, such as ashwagandha, chamomile, bacopa, California poppy, passionflower, lavender and lemon balm.