Girl looking stressed

Burnout – Signs, Causes and 5 Ways To Manage It

According to Suzi McAlpine, an award winning author and blogger, articles found on the Internet about burnout address it as an individual problem. Burnout is not an individual problem, but rather an organizational one. According to her, it is like treating sick fish when it is the water that is really contaminated. In this article, I will outline to you what burnout really is, the 3 signs of burnout, the 5 main causes of burnout and the 5 main ways to manage it.

What is burnout at work?

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) has called burnout an organizational problem.
  • Burnout is costing us a lot globally, not only to the individual, but to organizations and the healthcare system.
  • Burnout is a phenomena where people are not able to recover, feel better, or reduce their level of stress after a weekend away. Their batteries do not recharge after a short holiday, because burnout is something that goes much deeper and involves many other factors.
  • WHO also said that burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

The 3 main or top signs of burnout (How you know when you have burnout)

Girl feeling burnout
Girl sitting alone and staring out at her surroundings
  • Persistent or long-term fatigue or exhaustion. You lose the bounce back factor. As mentioned above, one does not feel rejuvenated or recharged after a few days’ worth of holiday.
  • Becoming increasingly cynical and negative. You become emotionally detached or distanced from your colleagues, friends and also loved ones. Case in point – I was doing well at work, achieving my KPIs, but I no longer felt proud of my achievements or looked forward to chatting with my colleagues. I wanted to be alone. At home, I was tuned out to my 3 year old’s baby talk – something I used to cherish and looked forward to. There were times where he asked for hugs and I would just walk away. His face revealed the rejection he suffered, but it would happen several times before it dawned on me that I was hurting my child because I was suffering burnout at work.
  • Reduced professional efficacy. Things that you once used to achieve effortlessly, now you find them challenging to do. This sign is especially obvious in overachievers. Instead of feeling confident, they start to feel (on top of the fatigue) hopeless and on the verge of giving up. They stop seeing the point in chasing all these standards for the company or the organization that they’re working for.These are the main signs of burnout and can lead to emotional and mental health issues.

The 5 main causes of burnout – with examples

Girl feeling stressed and deep in thought
Girl feeling stressed and deep in thought
  • Overwork. Research has shown that if you work over 55 hours a week consistently, your chances of getting burnout increase. At the same time, your productivity decreases. So those extra 15 to 20 hours per week that you’re putting in gives you very little return for your efforts. Overworking is when you do not have the resources necessary to carry out the job or the task, leading to you putting in more hours to make up for the lack of resources.
  • Feeling unfairly treated. Despite your effort and the sterling results that you are producing, you are bypassed or unacknowledged when it comes to pay increment, appraisal marking, perks and promotions. One of the most glaring sign of a burnout or an impending burnout is when you start to question “Is my voice even heard or not?”
    I had questioned the very same thing months before I left my job – usually I would be able to keep these feelings to myself and stay professional, but after many rounds of achievement and success, followed by many months of the lack of acknowledgement for the same said results, I started to wonder if I was invisible. Here I was, very much a senior in the company, hitting KPIs without fail, but not once did anyone say ‘Great job!’ or asked my opinion on anything. Worse, when I gave my opinions they were mostly dismissed. After years of such treatment, I began to question if my company really valued what I was bringing to the table.
  • Lack of reward and acknowledgement. Similar to the statements above, sometimes it only takes a ‘thank you for your hard work’ from your superior to make it all worth it, because you know someone appreciates the effort you’ve been putting in.
  • Lack of control. Feeling helpless and powerless. In some cases, micromanaging bosses can be part of the problem, or sometimes it is just a gap between superiors/those managing operations and the workers. A cause of burnout is usually when you feel as if you have no power of the decisions that affect you. You may be writing in and giving your opinions, but they are unread, unanswered and unacknowledged. The new rule or decision will roll out anyway, despite what you say. There is no interest in staff feedback by the company.
  • Difference in values. Burnout happens when you keep making tradeoffs and try to convince yourself that what you’re doing (in the best interests of your company) aligns with your values, when it actually doesn’t. This eventually leads to mental stress, emotional pressure, and a deep rooted feeling of unhappiness. You no longer feel as if you’re happy working for that company, never mind the salary. You start to shake your head in disbelief at the things you’re doing.

The top 5 ways to manage burnout

Managing burnout, having appreciation for your staff and team
A group of people meeting and happily communicating

If you’re a leader or an employer

  1. Ask about your subordinates. Ask them “How was your week? Your day? Your checkup?” but be really present for the answer. It cannot be just an ask-and-forget duty.
  2. Set a day aside weekly as Wellness Day. A day where you get vulnerable with your team and share your challenges, which in turn enables them to share theirs.
  3. Stop wearing stress as a badge of honor. A lot of leaders nowadays (especially during the pandemic) are proud to show that they are overworked, always busy, always on the go and looking hassled. This is not the way to go – when we as human beings need to rest and recuperate.
  4. Set zoom-free zones if your subordinates are working from home. Before sending out notice after notice for another zoom meet, try to think through if that meeting is really necessary. Set days and times where zoom meets are disallowed, so your employees know that these hours are really theirs for the taking.
  5. Say thank you and show that you acknowledge their work. Sometimes a simple thank you really goes a long way and keeps your employees and staff/team happy and feeling appreciated.

For more information on how you can manage burnout as a leader or an employer, you can check out Suzi’s blog called The Leader’s Digest.
If you’re an employee or a team member

Socializing and sharing your troubles before a burnout
Two young women friends are talking and laughing happily at home.

  1. Be sensitive to the 3 main signs and symptoms of burnout that I have listed above. Recognize the symptoms when they appear and take a step back and evaluate where you are going with this and what you want your next steps to be.
  2. Set realistic goals. Organize your work and know how much you can actually do and achieve in a specific period of time. Accept the fact that what cannot be finished isn’t your fault, and can be remedied another day.
  3. Prioritize. Many times we feel as if we need to finish all 101 tasks, but sometimes many of these can wait or can be delegated. Start with what you do best and utilize your strengths to finish what you need to first.
  4. Ask for help and socialize. If you are feeling overwhelmed and fatigued, instead of withdrawing into yourself and treating it like a weakness, open up and seek help and support from your colleagues and trusted ones. It may surprise you how many of them actually feel the same way and talking is a form of therapy. You may even be able to brainstorm ideas on how to get work done together.
  5. Speak up. It is easier said than done. I actually did speak up several times, but was not listened to. It can be because I was not speaking up effectively nor said all the things I wanted to say. In retrospect, a simple email detailing my frustrations would have done me a world of good, and would have had helped me manage my burnout much better.

To read more about burnout and how to manage it, check out this Job Burnout article by Mayo Clinic.

Is it depression or burnout?

One way to know if you’re suffering from burnout and not depression is that the feelings of exhaustion, cynicism and fatigue are chronic and persistent. They happen everyday, as opposed to depression, where you may be feeling fine one day and wake up completely anxious, depressed and low on energy the other.
This article from NCBI will show you more information about differentiating between depression and burnout.