What is Burnout?
Feeling emotionally drained and exhausted? Have you been distancing yourself from work, growing numb to occupational tasks, or experiencing reduced job performance?
According to an article published in the US National Library of Medicine, you may be suffering from burnout, a term coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s to describe the symptoms of severe stress and high ideals in the workplace.
Common Causes of Burnout
Prioritizing Work Over Wellness
When we focus all of our time and energy on work, it’s easy to forget to attend to our own needs. For example, becoming so absorbed in our work that we “forget” to eat is such a common experience that it has become a recurring theme on television.
Pushing our brains and bodies to their limits while sacrificing sleep, food, and self-care inevitably has negative consequences. The upside of this is that resolving burnout can sometimes be as simple as remembering to attend to those needs.
The Mayo Clinic recommends exercise as an effective way to both get your mind off of work and to de-stress. Exercise causes your body to release endorphins, which are essentially “feel-good neurotransmitters,” giving you a mood boost. Working out is also known to decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression.
If you hate dragging yourself out of bed to work out or can’t motivate yourself to exercise when you get home, try visiting a nearby gym during your lunch break or engaging in one of these desk exercises. Concentrating your mind and body on a workout will help you release stress and put you in a better mood.
As we discussed in our recent blog post on sleep and the brain, getting enough rest is also essential to maintaining your wellbeing, as it helps you form new cells, consolidate memories, and heal brain injuries. Not only that, but it might improve the quality of your work—Harvard researchers have found that getting a good night’s rest can make you more attentive and better at concentrating and retaining memories.
Finally, make sure to get all the nutrients you need by eating a healthy lunch. Stuck for ideas on what to cook? Eating Well suggests you try out these healthy “pack and go” recipes.
Dr. Michael Harari, whose study on overqualification was recently published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, defines an overqualified individual as someone who “possesses knowledge, skills, abilities, education, and/or experience in excess” of what their job or task requires. According to recent studies, half of all college graduates are overqualified for their jobs. The rate is even higher in immigrant populations.
Being overqualified has a lot of downsides. For one, Dr. Harari notes, overqualified individuals are less likely to be satisfied in their positions. Instances of burnout, depression, and anxiety are high among these individuals—a recent study of over 21 countries in Europe found that overeducated individuals have an increased risk of developing depression. This in turn can lead to lower morale and productivity and increased work deviance (arriving late, for example).
Luckily, there are ways to make our work environments more positive for highly qualified individuals. A report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that a sense of autonomy is the number one contributor to self-designated “happiness.” For this and other reasons, Dr. Harari recommends that highly qualified employees politely request more control over their work, such as greater independence on individual projects or more freedom in designing their schedule.
Additionally, taking time to remember how one’s current position will lead to new and more challenging career opportunities can also be an effective motivator. A study by Quantum Workplace found that professional growth is one of the highest drivers of employee engagement. That growth can be financial, professional, or even personal—what matters is that employees have something to actively strive for. It makes perfect sense. Why would we put in effort if we didn’t think we were going to get anything out of it? Thinking about opportunities for promotions or advancing towards a position that fits our lifestyle needs can remind us why we took a job in the first place.
Finally, we can rely on our sense of altruism to get us working. Dr. Harari notes that remembering how our work benefits others can motivate us to work harder. According to the APA, this may be because humans developed prosocial (altruistic) tendencies in order to provide care for our young, making altruism evolutionarily advantageous. Other researchers believe we aid others because prosocial behavior creates beneficial social bonds. No matter the reason, knowing that our work is helping others can inspire us to get our jobs done.
The Mayo Clinic notes that feeling isolated at work is often associated with higher feelings of stress. Indeed, loneliness increases our levels of circulating stress hormones as well as our blood pressure, which is perhaps why lonely people report higher levels of stress when exposed to the same stressors as their non-lonely counterparts.
Making friends in the workplace can reduce the stress associated with the above issues. In an article about making friends in the workplace, Time magazine suggested first seeking people out with whom you can develop a rapport. Start small—pursue “safe” conversations, i.e. conversations that won’t risk making anyone uncomfortable. Try to find the common ground on which to base further interactions. It takes time, but eventually these small connections can lead to full-fledged friendships.
Like loneliness, social dysfunction in the workplace, such as exposure to an office bully or a strained relationship with a supervisor, can lead to burnout.
If you’re dealing with a difficult coworker, The Balance offers tips for confronting them. Describe the behavior the other person is exhibiting, and then describe how it negatively affects you. For example, say, “You seem to make a lot of comments about the quality of my work. It makes me self-conscious, which makes my job more difficult to complete.”
Set limits with the coworker by saying something like, “In the future, please don’t comment on my work unless I ask for your feedback.” If the negative behavior continues, document it for future reference and continue to enforce your boundaries by not engaging with the coworker when they refuse to respect your limits. If they continue to disrespect you, it’s fully appropriate to report the situation to HR or your manager.
Workplace burnout is worth taking seriously. When left untreated, it can lead to serious mental health conditions like depression, panic attacks, and more. In those instances, professional guidance can make a world of difference.
If you’re struggling with burnout and looking for support, or if you successfully navigated a burnout situation and would like to offer your advice, feel free to contact us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter or Facebook. We value your feedback.
Lilly McGee is Viva’s Director of Operations and Communication and supervisor of the Resilient Brain Project. A published poet, she enjoys writing about mental health, literature, and identity. Other blogs include How to Survive (and Thrive) in an Unhealthy Work Environment and The Power of Gardening to Improve Mental Health.