It’s rare to find a person whose work life is completely stress-free, particularly in today’s ‘hustle culture.’ Fortunately, for many, this ‘normal’ work stress follows a natural ebb and flow, which can usually be managed in order to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
However, for some, a continuously high-impact lifestyle, combined with not paying adequate attention to their health and well-being (for example, through regular exercise, a healthy diet, and quality sleep), means stress levels are constantly building – week after week – and exceeding the body’s capacity to handle them.
If you’re experiencing long-term periods of high stress without any relief, and feel continuously overwhelmed by your workload and the pressures of life, you’re likely in a state of burnout – or certainly in danger of heading that way.
What exactly is burnout?
Burnout can happen to anyone, but increasing numbers of business owners, entrepreneurs, and high-level executives are reporting symptoms and seeking treatment.
The World Health Organization (WHO) included burnout in the International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision (ICD-11) as ‘an occupational phenomenon.’
While not currently classified as a specific illness or medical condition, burnout is described as a factor influencing health status and contact with health services.
Burnout is defined in ICD-11 as follows:
“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three 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.
Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
How does burnout affect our health?
Research shows that chronic workplace stress and burnout can significantly impact our mental, physical, and emotional health. Our minds and bodies are simply not equipped to cope with the stress response being switched on 24/7.
Burnout has been linked to a wide range of conditions, including mood disorders, depression, and anxiety disorders; diseases such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes; addiction to alcohol and/or drugs; and behavioural addictions such as the internet, gambling, and/or food.
Burnout isn’t something that will go away on its own, and there are no quick fixes. Instead, its effects on your health will only worsen unless you address the underlying issues causing it.
Most common job factors that contribute to employee burnout
Typically, a combination of internal and external factors will influence the probability of burnout occurring.
Internal factors can include your attitude to stress, lifestyle, underlying health issues, and personality traits. External factors include your experiences in the workplace, structural and organizational elements, which can play the most significant role.
Common workplace factors that contribute to burnout are:
1. Excessive and/or unrealistic workloads that don’t match employee’s capacity
Stress levels at work will naturally rise when we have too much to do and not enough time in which to do it. This is exacerbated when we are given work tasks that exceed our skill set and/or we lack the resources and support needed to succeed.
Under this kind of constant pressure, people are more likely to make mistakes, make poor decisions, and create a cycle of overwork that can spread throughout the whole organization.
2. Working without clearly defined boundaries
To maintain a healthy work-life balance, boundaries must be defined around working hours, and clear expectations of what is required from us must be set.
Being bombarded with work emails in the evenings or during weekends means there’s no ‘downtime’ to completely switch off from work to rest and restore our bodies and minds. Likewise, if job requirements are constantly changing or challenging to understand, we’re kept in constant ‘alert’ mode without ever knowing if we’re doing a good job.
Without clear boundaries and well-defined job requirements, stress levels can be high; we can start to lose confidence, have little job satisfaction, and are at higher risk of burnout.
3. Concerns around job security
High job insecurity is another factor that can increase our day-to-day stress levels, paving the way for burnout syndrome.
As many of today’s organizations are making large-scale changes to stay in business – like restructuring, downsizing, mergers, and acquisitions – job security has become a big concern for many employees.
Flexible employment contracts also factor along with career management responsibility shifting from organizations to their employees. Trying to manage our own careers in such uncertain times and lacking any sense of job security are burnout risks.
4. Perceived lack of job control/lack of autonomy
When we’re restricted and unable to exercise any level of control over our environment and daily decisions at work, we can feel powerless and trapped. This lack of control can also extend to workplace relationships and career growth options.
For example, working for an overbearing micromanager or one who allocates the work but offers zero support creates interpersonal issues at work that are emotionally exhausting and can often be at the root of burnout.
We all need to have some control over our work and flexibility around how we get it done – in addition to having access to the resources needed – to feel motivated, proactive, and engaged.
5. Insufficient time off
Working non-stop is counterproductive and harmful to our health, but we can often feel afraid to take a vacation or take any time off from work – or simply find our jobs are too demanding to find the time. Alternatively, we may take time off but then use it to catch up on more work or learn new work skills.
The fact is, taking time off – and leaving your work at work – dramatically reduces the adverse health effects of work-related stress and is essential to re-energizing our bodies and minds. Regularly stepping away from the job can help to prevent burnout.
6. Big consequences for failure
Perfectionism runs rampant in today’s society, including the workplace. However, the added pressure to reach unattainable standards and avoid mistakes at all costs can seriously enhance stress and anxiety about performing any task.
An intolerant workplace, where failure is not an option – and the consequences are dire – combines fear and pressure to be perfect, which will almost certainly lead to burnout over time.
7. Insufficient recognition/feeling unappreciated
Working hard, meeting deadlines, and going the extra mile at work are all well and good, but when we aren’t recognized and appreciated for our efforts, morale can take a nosedive.
Regular recognition and rewards for work accomplishments, including public praise, awards, bonuses, and other tokens of appreciation, go a long way to maintaining employee engagement, productivity and satisfaction at work. They create pride and loyalty and can be the best antidote to a stressful week. Without them, burnout becomes a significant risk.
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8. Feeling isolated/disconnected from the team
Since the pandemic, remote working has become widespread. While it offers some benefits, like a lack of office interruptions and more control over how and when we work, it can be incredibly isolating. It’s human nature to seek connection, and we’re hardwired to pursue interaction with others – to feel included, valued, and supported.
A lack of workplace camaraderie can feel very stressful for many people and lead to depression and overwhelm. In fact, unmet needs for positive connection are partly responsible for fueling The Great Resignation.
For those who still go into a workplace, disconnection can still apply if effective communication is lacking. This includes planning projects, sharing ideas, accessing support, solving problems, and feeling connected as a team. As we spend such a large portion of our days at work, feeling isolated there can eventually lead to dissociation, discontent, and burnout.
It’s important to understand that burnout is a natural response to chronic workplace stress, not a personal weakness. It has much more to do with an organization’s culture, management, and workload distribution.
So, while being aware of these potential work triggers for burnout is essential for you as an individual, it’s also your employer’s responsibility to support you and create a positive, healthy work environment that prioritizes the physical and mental well-being of all employees.
Common signs and symptoms of burnout include:
Unresolved job burnout harms our bodies and significantly impacts our mental and emotional well-being.
Burnout is a cumulative process, so we must learn to recognize the warning signs as soon as possible and take action to prevent any severe, long-term damage.
Physical signs of burnout include:
- Feeling drained and tired all the time, lack of energy
- Lowered immune function – with frequent illnesses like headaches, digestive problems, colds, and flu
- Jaw-clenching and teeth grinding
- Muscle tension and pain, increased inflammation
- Changes in appetite and sleep patterns
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Panic attacks
Emotional signs of burnout include:
- Persistent feelings of overwhelm
- Depressed mood
- Feeling trapped, helpless, and/or defeated – can’t see a way out
- Diminished sense of purpose and/or identity
- Detachment/disconnection, feeling alone in the world
- Loss of motivation, increased procrastination, and cynicism
- Compulsive dreaming/fantasizing about a drastic change – dissociation
Behavioural signs of burnout include:
- Withdrawing from responsibilities at work, home, and socially
- Difficulty relaxing or taking time out, even when support is available
- Irritable or frustrated with clients, customers, and colleagues
- Isolating from others, with decreased interest in people, places, and activities that previously brought joy
- Neglectful of self-care/personal needs
- Increasing self-doubt and low self-esteem
- Using food, alcohol or drugs to cope, to feel better or numb feelings
Taking action to manage burnout
It’s clearly important for organizations to recognize their role in the issue of burnout and take proactive steps to address it.
If this is unlikely to happen where you work in the foreseeable future, there are plenty of steps you can take personally toward recovery and prevention – so you can start enjoying the healthy work-life balance you deserve.
At your workplace
- Set clear boundaries around work hours (keep your evenings and weekends free and take all your annual leave).
- Learn to say no and delegate when you can.
- Set (and stick to) realistic work limits.
- Improve your time management skills.
- Determine your main stressors and work towards changing them or reducing your exposure to them.
- Seek support from co-workers, your manager, or your supervisor.
- Find out about and take advantage of any employee assistance programs.
In your personal life
- Take an extended break, if possible, to reset and gain perspective for the way forward.
- Learn stress management techniques like yoga, mindfulness, and meditation.
- Open up to a trusted family member or friend about how you’re feeling (if this isn’t possible, start writing a journal).
- Join a new class or start a hobby that takes your mind off work.
- Allocate ‘timeouts’ each week, dedicated to enjoying activities with friends and/or family.
- Get regular exercise.
- Improve your sleep.
- Eat a balanced diet.
- Reduce your intake of harmful substances, such as alcohol and cigarettes.
- Seek professional help through a therapist or residential treatment centre.
There is no one-size-fits-all cure for burnout, but given time and the right resources, you can recover and prevent it from reoccurring.
How White River Manor can help
If you’re experiencing burnout symptoms, the most important thing you can do for yourself is take some time away to recover fully.
If you’ve been struggling with burnout and need support for your recovery, we are here to help. At White River Manor, we have a holistic approach to burnout recovery that involves body, mind, and spirit. We will help you to reclaim your life, find the wellness you deserve, and equip you with the tools you need to cope with future challenges.
Please contact us today to learn more about our wellness programs and how we can support you.