In the past decade, the concept of resiliency has gained increasing prominence, especially in the workplace wellness context. Another concept that has been in the background for a while but is now coming to the forefront is workplace burnout.
In fact, the World Health Organization has just announced that it’s updating its definition of burnout in the new version of its handbook of diseases, the International Classification of Diseases — ICD-11: “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
What is burnout?
Perhaps the most basic way to define burnout is a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion brought on by excessive and prolonged stress. This definition agrees with the feelings of being overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to meet constant demands that accompany the state of burnout.
As the stress continues, people start to lose the interest and motivation which led them to take on a certain role in the first place. Instead, burnout reduces productivity, saps energy, and leaves a person feeling helpless, hopeless, cynical and even resentful.
These tell-tale signs and negative effects of burnout syndrome spill over into every area of life. When it infiltrates work life, it can also be referred to as professional burnout syndrome.
In professional burnout, a person is likely to feel complete mental burnout as well as emotional burnout where they feel unappreciated and their attitude towards their workload changes, so that in severe cases they stop caring about whether it gets done or not. In fact, people who are feeling burned out are fairly devoid of motivation and don’t really see any hope of their situation changing for the better.
What is workplace burnout?
The term burnout was first used in a clinical sense in the early 1970s, to refer to the stress and exhaustion experienced by professionals such as doctors and nurses. But work-related burnout is no longer only associated with medical work. If anything, it is seen as stemming from any job where workers feel overworked and undervalued.
Such employee burnout is a common problem in jobs where workers feel they have little or no control over their work. It happens in places where there’s a lack of recognition or reward for good work as well as in settings where the work becomes monotonous, unchallenging, chaotic or given to high pressure.
Of course, some jobs are definitely more associated with higher rates of burnout at work. The medical profession boasts some of the highest rates of workplace burnout, so much so that the term ‘doctor burnout’ is commonly used. The reasons for doctor burnout, surprisingly, aren’t to do so much with patient care as they are with other protocols that doctors are required to follow. Research shows that doctors are dissatisfied with how their time and skills are used while on the job. The demands of the Electronic Health Record system (EHR) leaves many professionals feeling that their work has become more focused on data collection than patient care.
Nurses also experience burnout at work almost as often as doctors. Common causes include extended hours spent at work, and having too many responsibilities (acting as front liners for direct medical care, advocating patient needs and providing medical education for others). They are also expected to make time for emotionally taxing conversations with patients and their families.
Teacher burnout and social worker burnout are also high on the professional burnout list. For teachers, it is, once again, the non-teaching issues that most contribute to the burnout (lack of administrative support, extreme amounts of paperwork, and a lack of resources).
For social workers, whose role is to help the client, burnout is based on compassion fatigue. Social workers try to keep a personal and emotional distance from the client, but it’s not always easy, or desirable, to be completely emotionally detached. The job can be frustrating given that despite the social worker’s best intentions, clients don’t always make progress. And being exposed to someone else’s trauma can be traumatic for the social worker as well.
For the most part, burnout symptoms are categorised as physical, emotional, and behavioural. The first and the most noticeable signs of burnout may well be the physical symptoms.
Physical symptoms of burnout
- Feeling exhausted and drained all the time
- Experiencing low immunity
- Frequent headaches and/or muscle pains
- Change in appetite and sleep habits
Emotional symptoms of burnout
- Sense of failure and self-doubt
- Feeling trapped, helpless and defeated
- Feeling detached and alone
- Loss of motivation
- Taking a cynical and negative outlook
- Low sense of accomplishment
Behavioural symptoms of burnout
- Withdrawal from responsibilities
- Substance abuse as a coping mechanism
- Taking out anger on others
- Skipping work/ coming in late/ leaving early
How to prevent burnout
Despite reaching epic proportions, burnout is not inevitable and can be prevented. Recognising the early signs of burnout can help you with timely burnout prevention.
How to prevent employee burnout
Although it may seem so, having a great team of top performers is often not enough to keep your organisation running at peak. You also need to make sure that your top performers thrive and don’t burn out. For this, you need to give them a conducive environment where burnout prevention strategies are always in place.
Here are some ways of preventing burnout at work effectively.
- Resilience training teaches employees to recover and bounce back from adversity and hardships.
- Organisational change allows an organisation to grow by changing. It helps develop and incorporate adaptability to change, so that the company can keep up with the changing dynamics of the business world.
- Fair treatment is an excellent way to prevent employee burnout. Nothing causes more dissatisfaction and a loss of motivation at work than when someone else receives preferential treatment or gets credit for the wrong reason. Even worse is unfairness that seems arbitrary. Considerations like pay inequality, random promotions or whimsical recognition can create animosity or despair in employees, especially in those who are already heading down the burnout path.
- Recognising success is another approach to preventing burnout in the workplace. Regardless of their position, every employee wants to feel needed and appreciated. Receiving recognition in front of peers serves a tremendous ego boost and goes a long way to preventing the onset of burnout.
How to recover from burnout
Once you’ve recognised the warning signs of burnout, the next step is to recover from burnout. At this point, it is important to remember that becoming aware of burnout won’t make it go away on its own. Instead, you need to implement a burnout recovery plan that gives you the tools to get back on track.
For instance, start off by identifying why you or your employees experienced the burnout. The cause may be more obvious in some cases than others. Consider the resentment you feel towards your work. Is it because you dislike your job or are your co-workers or superiors making you miserable? Given your circumstances, look at some ways to resolve the issue. Maybe you need to delegate some of your responsibilities elsewhere, add more autonomy to the job or work one day from home.
Dealing with burnout recovery can also involve reassessing goals. If the work is out of alignment with your values or doesn’t contribute to long-term goals, it can cause a lot of frustration. Identify your values and assess what gives you meaning in work. Maybe it’s time to change roles within the same organisation or to change organisations.
The abovementioned methods for recovering from burnout are important, but they all deal with changing external circumstances, which isn’t always easy or possible. The one area that you have more control over is what goes on inside your head. Burnout often causes people to slip into a cycle of negative thinking, and therefore, when overcoming burnout it’s important to work on reducing negative thinking. Mindfulness training is probably the most effective way to reduce negative thinking. It trains you to observe your thoughts without putting too much importance on them or jumping to negative judgments.
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