Maybe, you’ve seen it pop up in every other article or have heard people complain about burnout at work (but stick with me!). Perhaps it conjures up images of exhausted, unhappy, and unmotivated individuals working for the weekend. Maybe it hits pretty close to home, and your thoughts immediately go to the exhaustion you’re currently experiencing. Maybe you’re reading this on a Sunday night when the Sunday Scaries are the loudest, dreading the idea of facing tomorrow’s seemingly impossible workload. Burnout might be that annoying buzzword that you’ve heard way too many times, but if you feel burnt out, it’s time to start taking it seriously.
We live in a society that glorifies hustle culture to the detriment of mental and physical wellbeing. We overlook our most basic needs and sometimes even consciously push them aside to prioritize our “success.” Powering through only works for so long. Insert any Ye Olde Cliches about burning the candle at both ends.
Workplace burnout is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an affliction resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The word chronic is worth focusing on here: chronic stressors can refer to seemingly small things that build up to exhaust us over time.
The definition of burnout that we use today comes from the work of Dr. Christina Maslach. Dr. Maslach is a leading expert in burnout and healthy workplaces. Burnout can manifest itself in so many different ways, and there is no one-size-fits-all definition, but Maslach has identified three common dimensions of burnout:
1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
This is where the physical stress manifests. These are the feelings that come after you have hit the snooze button five times on your alarm clock and still can’t get out of bed. You might feel that no amount of caffeine can keep you energized to complete the work you need to do. You might feel exhausted all day, only to toss and turn all night. You may even feel physically ill, as chronic stress can lead to a lowered immune system and other physical ailments. Feelings of anger or irritability are common, and you may find yourself snapping at others or having a shorter fuse with your friends and loved ones.
For me, the overarching energy depletion and exhaustion is something that permeated all facets of my life, not just work. I felt exhausted and very unmotivated on weekends as well. Caffeine seemed to give me some energy so I gave in and drank it, even though it made me jittery and uncomfortable. I would fall asleep sitting at my desk at work – that was a new one for me – and when it came time to sleep at night my body could not relax. My anxiety about the next day coupled with the very real workload that I didn’t finish hung over me like a rain cloud. I was essentially Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.
2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.
Dr. Maslach has identified this dimension as the most crucial part of burnout. Even if you once valued your work and enjoyed your job, you might find yourself experiencing increasingly negative emotions about the work you’re doing or perhaps the company that you are working for. You may start telling yourself that you don’t enjoy your job, clients, coworkers, supervisors, or work environment. You simply don’t have the energy or motivation to feel good about your job anymore. You want to finish what you can, avoid any other tasks like the plague, and get the heck outta there!
When I was struggling with burnout, I told my supervisor that I did not want any new tasks and did not want to be considered for a promotion. Who doesn’t like upward mobility? Someone who is burned out at the job they currently have.
Dr. Maslach explains that it is at this point in the process where there is a shift: “instead of trying to do your very best, you end up doing the bare minimum.” You may find yourself putting in the smallest effort you can to get things done. This brings us to our third dimension.
3. Reduced professional efficacy.
Of course, if you’re feeling any of the symptoms mentioned above, it’s no wonder that you would also struggle to do your work efficiently. When our performance at work suffers, we begin to take notice, and unfortunately, we may become our own worst enemy. To us, burnout becomes our own personal failing. We might begin to miss little mistakes (or even big ones) that we would have caught otherwise. Lowered office morale is also another common symptom. Because if you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, chances are your coworkers are too.
I remember the last time I felt this part of burnout. I have come to know myself as a pretty decent multitasker and took enormous pride in my work and the fact that I was able to have multiple open projects, meet all the deadlines, and produce quality work. Flash forward to a job with unreachable deadlines and unrealistic expectations. I caught myself saying aloud to multiple people, “Maybe I am just not cut out for this position.” I was bringing my work home, getting very little sleep, and my anxiety was through the roof. It’s a miracle I stayed as long as I did.
It makes me sad to remember how much I doubted myself and had forgotten all of the traits I once loved about my work ethic. Looking back, it’s evident that more realistic expectations and quality support would have helped me excel in the position.
Support in the form of coworkers, who you can feel psychologically safe speaking with, can boost morale and happiness. If you are comfortable doing so, consider talking to a higher-up about how you feel. For the best chance of being heard, try to avoid blaming and bring some possible solutions for the problems you’ve identified.
Although change in the form of a new occupation is sometimes needed to eradicate burnout entirely, some forms of self-care can partially alleviate stress and anxiety. Guided or solo meditation can help to bring us closer to a place of mindfulness and may help us identify the root of anxious thoughts and understand why we feel anxiety. Learning to sit with uncomfortable feelings in a productive way may bring a sense of calmness within the chaos. I recommend meditation once a day (more if you can and want to).
If you’re able to bring this practice into your work setting and possibly turn off the lights and close your door for even five minutes once or twice a day, this may help bring your stress level down and help you regroup in those anxious moments.