Work Burnout: What It Is and How to Deal With It

The intensity of today's work culture can feel crushing—which is why it's essential to protect your mental health.

Overwhelming stress from work responsibilities may lead to burnout, which is characterized by exhaustion, disenchantment, and irritability. Basically, it's a workplace affliction that's so rampant it has both employers and healthcare providers concerned.

In a January 2022 American Psychological Association (APA) Work and Well-Being Survey of 1,501 participants, results indicated that stress in the workplace affected 79% of adult employees. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledged the issue, calling it a global "occupational phenomenon" in a May 2019 International Classification of Diseases news brief.

Here's more about burnout and how to get through it or avoid it altogether.

What Are the Consequences of Burnout?

The effects of burnout may be psychological, physiological, behavioral, and organizational, according to a 2022 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study.

"Burnout cuts across socioeconomic status and career types, and the cost are dire," said Parneet Pal, chief science officer of Wisdom Labs, a consulting firm focused on mental, emotional, and social well-being in the workplace. "It not only undermines your sense of efficacy and engagement at work, but it also damages your health."

Further, the APA study found that "nearly three in five employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26%) and lack of effort at work (19%). Meanwhile, 36% reported cognitive weariness, 32% reported emotional exhaustion, and an astounding 44% reported physical fatigue—a 38% increase since 2019."

Alex Sandoval

How to Avoid Burnout in Different Work Situations

Burnout has more than a significant impact on working individuals. The good news is that there are things you can do that might help you feel happier at work. No matter the type of work environment you are in, there are ways to protect yourself from becoming too stressed out.

What to Do If You're on Call

As technology blurs the lines between work and home life, many of us are reachable around the clock—and that insidious job creep can be draining. Just feeling like your boss expects you to be available after hours via email or instant messaging causes emotional strain, according to a 2018 study in the Academy of Management Proceedings.

"Nonstop connectedness means you never get to fully relax," said Doreen Dodgen-Magee, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and author of Deviced! Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World. "Device-free downtime, where you're isolated from the demands of your job, is essential for maintaining focus, energy, and engagement at work."

If the thought of shutting down your phone makes you panicky, take baby steps. Make a rule (either privately or explicitly with your colleagues, clients, and boss) that you don't return emails between certain hours—8 p.m. to 8 a.m., for instance. Leave your device in the trunk when you're driving. Designate phone-free zones in your house (like the kitchen and the bedroom), and switch to airplane mode while you're having dinner with your family or binge-watching your favorite show.

"If you feel the urge to check your texts or email during off-hours, wait 60 seconds, take three deep breaths to trigger the calming branch of your nervous system," said Dodgen-Magee, "then remind yourself that gaining the upper hand with technology will help you cope with the challenges of work and enjoy your time at home."

What to Do If Your Work Is Deadline-Based

In work culture, many of us are racing from one target to another, which can become debilitating. "It's exhausting to be perpetually under the gun," said Pal, "and it can make you feel like you're chronically falling behind."

You may or may not be able to control your deadlines, but most of us can optimize our schedules so we use our energy—and, as a result, our time—more wisely.

Our ability to pay attention wanes over the course of the day, so schedule your most demanding or creative work in the morning and less challenging tasks, like emails and meetings, in the afternoon. Also, take breaks: Research shows that a short break every hour can boost performance.

"Go for a walk, listen to music, or call a loved one," said Pal. Or just find a place to sit and space out.

What to Do If You're Dealing With Uncertainty

It's natural to worry about job stability, especially in certain industries. And even if your position is secure, you may not be clear on what's expected of you at work sometimes.

Lack of control, in any form, can set you up for burnout. So what can you do? Aside from chatting with your boss to clarify as much as you can, make an effort to strengthen your ability to cope with uncertainty. One strategy: Take the time to notice and bask in positive moments, suggested Rick Hanson, PhD, psychologist and author of Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness.

"Even in challenging circumstances, good things happen to us every day," said Dr. Hanson. "You have a nice interaction with a barista, or the sky is beautiful, or your dog is excited to see you. Just noticing those moments pulls your attention away from the sense of helplessness and shows you that, while you may not be in charge of what's going on around you, you are in charge of what happens in your own mind."

Our brains tend to focus on the negative, so be on the lookout for the positive. Then help those moments sink in by staying with the happy feeling for at least three full breaths. "Positive emotions grow resilience," said Dr. Hanson. "If you routinely take the time to feel the sensation of joy or satisfaction in your body, you can strengthen the pathways for resilience in your brain."

Still, burnout can creep up on you, despite your efforts. Make sure to notice the first signs of stress and take care of yourself without delay. You'll feel better, emotionally and physically, and you'll be more productive too.

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