Workplace burnout: How to know if you have it

Creative crisis and stress. Glasses and broken light bulb on a pink background. The concept of lack of ideas and inspiration.
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Workplace burnout, which is getting more serious attention as of late, has immense physical and emotional consequences. Though most people understand that being burnt out makes you more irritable and unmotivated, there are serious physical health risks as well. In fact, the majority of doctor’s visits are at least somewhat connected to stress, which — even if it doesn’t fully cause the original problem — makes many physical issues much worse. From high blood pressure to the common cold, heart issues to binge-eating, insomnia to backache, headache to gastrointestinal distress — they all are made worse by stress, and for most people, the workplace is consistently one of their leading stressors.

Burnout also puts you at higher risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse. It can damage relationships both at work and at home. Even worse, it can spread within an office — when one employee is struggling with low morale, it is hard for others not to be affected.

But what exactly is it?

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Burnout explained

Burnout is more than just having a stressful week. It takes longer to develop, but it involves feeling “done” to the extreme: motivation, engagement and even hope feel gone. A person no longer cares about the work they are doing and even dreads or panics about going in to their workplace. They typically feel unrelenting physical and mental exhaustion, and a sense of cynicism and helplessness about their job. They often have difficulty concentrating and making decisions. They may isolate themselves and even lash out at coworkers, bosses or customers.

It appears that workplace burnout is growing more common, which makes sense, as the average American worker not only works longer hours than in the past, but they are also less likely to use all their vacation time and are more likely to be working even when they’re not technically supposed to be.

Technological advances have made most of us more mentally tied to our jobs, even during evenings, weekends or vacations. And it’s so much harder to mentally escape when your boss’s email is sitting in your inbox — which you can access via the smartphone in your pocket. This makes it even less likely that you’ll get the true mental space needed to get an emotional break from the constant stress of being “on.”

Is your workplace doing long-term damage to your health?

Particular risk factors include constant conflict with coworkers, a lack of a sense of purpose in your work, unclear or conflicting expectations, a lack of trust in management, feeling trapped without advancement opportunities, a lack of autonomy and feeling micromanaged. Workplace stress, of course, exists on a spectrum, but the more those conditions exist, the higher your risk of burnout.

Techniques to avoid workplace burnout

To help prevent burnout, it’s imperative to establish clear-cut boundaries and expectations about your level of responsiveness while “off.” (And yes, take those vacation days.)

Delegate more when you can. Increase your communication when tasks or responsibilities are murky. Cultivate supportive relationships with your colleagues. Try to think of the bigger picture in terms of why your work matters: You may “just” be filling in a spreadsheet, but is it for the sale of a product that changes lives? You may be “just” proofreading copy for a press release, but is it to spread an idea that you really believe in?

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Finally, make sure to attend to self-care in other ways: sleep, healthful eating, exercise, social time and making time for creative pursuits outside of work all go a long way toward making you more resilient. Consider mindfulness meditations or at-your-desk stretching exercises that can help calm your central nervous system down from high alert.

And finally, if nothing changes, and your workplace just seems like a bad fit, or — worse yet — a toxic place that is bound to keep causing the same misery, then sometimes the best treatment for burnout is to move on altogether.

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