Feeling burnout is more common than we know – it’s an actual global phenomenon. Can you identify when you’re feeling burnout? Do you know strategies for managing burnout? Learn more about how to identify it and how to handle it when you do.
Over the last couple of months, I have been mentoring a current graduate student in my alma mater’s higher education program. We’ve talked about his current assistantship. His professional goals. How to start a career in diversity and equity.
But in our last conversation, he asked me how I avoid feeling burnout.
It struck me as an odd question. Not because a recent college graduate and new graduate student is asking about burnout. But because not enough do.
I gave what I thought was a good answer during a Zoom meeting, but it made me want to look into: what is burnout, how can we identify it, and how do we manage it or avoid it altogether?
What is Burnout?
It is important to note that burnout is not a medical diagnosis. While many of its symptoms can mirror other medical or psychological disorders, burnout itself related to stress. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.
“Burnout” isn’t a medical diagnosis. Some experts think that other conditions, such as depression, are behind burnout. Some research suggests that many people who experience symptoms of job burnout don’t believe their jobs are the main cause. Whatever the cause, job burnout can affect your physical and mental health. Consider how to know if you’ve got job burnout and what you can do about it.”
Or more simply, from Burnout Symptoms and Treatment, “Burnout is a reaction to prolonged or chronic job stress and is characterized by three main dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism (less identification with the job), and feelings of reduced professional ability.”
Recently, “burnout” was officially recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an occupational phenomenon. So if you’ve ever felt the symptoms of burnout, know that you’re not alone and it is very real.
The types of jobs people hold may impact their susceptibility to experiencing burnout. According to Jennifer Moss in Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People, “Passion-driven and caregiving roles such as doctors and nurses are some of the most susceptible to burnout, and the consequences can mean life or death; suicide rates among caregivers are dramatically higher than that of the general public — 40% higher for men and 130% higher for women.”
How Can You Identify Burnout?
How do you know if you’re experiencing burnout? In Burnout Symptoms and Treatment, the authors suggest that burnout can be identified by evaluating four different areas:
- Alienation from work-related activities: Individuals experiencing burnout view their jobs as increasingly stressful and frustrating. They may grow cynical about their working conditions and the people they work with. They may also emotionally distance themselves and begin to feel numb about their work.
- Physical symptoms: Chronic stress may lead to physical symptoms, like headaches and stomachaches or intestinal issues.
- Emotional exhaustion: Burnout causes people to feel drained, unable to cope, and tired. They often lack the energy to get their work done.
- Reduced performance: Burnout mainly affects everyday tasks at work—or in the home when someone’s main job involves caring for family members. Individuals with burnout feel negative about tasks. They have difficulty concentrating and often lack creativity.
Burnout shares some similar symptoms of mental health conditions, such as depression. It is important to note that people with depression experience negative feelings and thoughts about all aspects of life, not just at work. Depression symptoms may also include a loss of interest in things, feelings of hopelessness, cognitive and physical symptoms as well as thoughts of suicide. If you are feeling the additional symptoms of depression, please consider finding a therapist or other medically trained professional to help you.
Start With Asking Yourself the Tough Questions
Additionally, the Mayo Clinic suggests asking yourself a number of questions:
- Have you become cynical or critical at work?
- Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
- Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
- Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive? Find it hard to concentrate?
- Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
- Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
- Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
- Have your sleep habits changed?
- Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?
I have worked in a number of challenging work environments over the past 20 years. But I can only recall two experiences where I could answer “Yes” to these questions in those jobs. And in both of these jobs, I knew I had to make drastic changes.
How Do We Manage Burnout or Avoid It Altogether?
When I experienced burnout in one of my jobs. I made the decision to quit and return to graduate school. The decision was not made lightly; in fact, it took me weeks after receiving my admission letter to decide to leave my job. But after answering the Mayo Clinic questions honestly, I realized that there was little I could change in my current job to bring me satisfaction or impact my motivation to continue it for another year.
In my other experience, I was able to identify that the expectations that overwhelmed me were of my own creation. It was a tough conversation to have with myself, but ultimately, it helped separate what my supervisor was responsible for changing and what I was responsible to change.
Six Suggestions to Handle Burnout
- Evaluate your options. Discuss specific concerns with your supervisor. Maybe you can work together to change expectations or reach compromises or solutions. Try to set goals for what must get done and what can wait.
- Seek support. Whether you reach out to co-workers, friends or loved ones, support and collaboration might help you cope. If you have access to an employee assistance program, take advantage of relevant services.
- Try a relaxing activity. Explore programs that can help with stress such as yoga, meditation or tai chi.
- Get some exercise. Regular physical activity can help you to better deal with stress. It can also take your mind off work.
- Get some sleep. Sleep restores well-being and helps protect your health.
- Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the act of focusing on your breath flow and being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling at every moment, without interpretation or judgment. In a job setting, this practice involves facing situations with openness and patience, and without judgment.
In Burnout Symptoms and Treatment, the authors suggest it is “helpful to develop clear strategies that help you manage your stress. Self-care strategies, like eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercises, and engaging in healthy sleep habits may help reduce some of the effects of a high-stress job.
“A vacation may offer you some temporary relief too, but a week away from the office won’t be enough to help you beat burnout. Regularly scheduled breaks from work, along with daily renewal exercises, can be key to helping you combat burnout.”
Feeling Burnout and Moving On
The one piece of advice I can share about feeling burnout is to trust your gut. Dr. Dale Archer, in Life After Burnout, suggests, “If you wake up each day and feel like something just doesn’t feel right, or people you know well are saying you don’t seem like your “old self,” run through these questions and make a plan. Even if you discover it’s already too late, you’ll bounce back from burnout a lot quicker if you recognize it for what it is.”
But once you do recognize it, commit to the changes that will make the most difference in your quality of life. And move on. Whether it’s mentally moving on, or in my own case moving on to a new adventure and job. The commitment to your own well-being will be worth it. And I hope that feeling burnout is no long part of your life, but instead part of your history that you can teach to others.
Career Coaching for the Mid-Level Career Professional
I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals, and those supervising professional staff, for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop this new skill.
Schedule an introductory meeting so we can discuss a plan that works best for you.