Mental 

Burnout in the Workplace: Signs, Symptoms and Solutions

December 17, 2020 6 min read

Gloomy photo of the side of an office building

It's no secret that stress can have a profound impact on the body. But did you know stress in the workplace comes with its own set of negative side effects? Over time, these can lead to a form of physical and emotional exhaustion known as burnout syndrome. This condition can result in sadness and feelings of reduced personal accomplishment. According to estimates, this condition affects between four and seven percent of the working population at any given time (1). 

Along with negatively impacting your work performance, burnout can affect your personal life. Research shows that employees suffering from burnout may have trouble participating in hobbies or spending time with family and friends. Additionally, burnout syndrome can increase your odds of developing long-term health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, and depression (2). By familiarizing yourself with the symptoms of burnout, you can assess whether you or a loved one may be at risk for this condition and take steps to safeguard your health in the coming years.

Signs and symptoms of burnout

The World Health Organization recently expanded the definition of burnout to help healthcare providers better determine whether patients may be suffering. Although burnout is not generally considered a medical diagnosis in and of itself, the condition contributes to other serious health issues (3). Burnout may cause the following symptoms:

  • Exhaustion and fatigue
  • Lack of energy
  • Negativity or cynicism toward one’s job
  • Lack of pride in one’s work or accomplishments
  • Lack of focus on goals
  • Feelings of frustration toward coworkers
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle pain and tension 

If you’re experiencing one or more of the above burnout signs, you may want to visit your doctor to see if this condition could be the cause.

What causes burnout syndrome?

Any working professional can suffer from burnout. However, the syndrome is more common among people in certain professions. Healthcare workers are particularly vulnerable to burnout due to stress and overwork (4). Additionally, experts believe that the trend toward telecommuting may contribute to burnout by allowing employees to stay connected at all hours of the day (and night). 

Burnout is also more common among employees in toxic work environments. If you feel like you have too much on your plate or a boss who doesn’t appreciate and acknowledge your efforts, you may be more likely to experience this syndrome (5). Working alongside rude or disrespectful colleagues can also increase your likelihood of feeling burned out on the job. 

Here are some of the most significant issues associated with burnout syndrome:

Heavy workload

If you have a lot of work to do and an insufficient amount of time to do it, you might find yourself dealing with burnout. The problem arises when workers lack the opportunity to rest and recover after a stressful day. In the long run, workers may start to feel that their work-life balance is lacking (6).

Vague job requirements

Having enough time to complete tasks is only half the battle. Workers also need to understand their duties and responsibilities. If employees don’t know what supervisors want from them, they may grow frustrated, stressed, or uncomfortable in their positions. 

Lack of control

Autonomy is a prominent factor when it comes to career satisfaction. If you don’t have a say in daily tasks or access to opportunities for professional growth, you may start to feel burned out. 

Unjust environment

Employers sometimes treat workers differently based on their race, gender, or other factors beyond their control. If you feel like your contributions aren’t being recognized, or that you’re being mistreated, you may be more likely to experience burnout syndrome. 

Woman writing on paper at work suffering from burnout

Tips for Treating Burnout

Burnout is a serious condition that can negatively affect your quality of life. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to combat this condition and get back to enjoying daily activities. 

Set limits

Setting limits and boundaries is one of the most important steps you can take to avoid burnout. In an effort to get ahead in the workplace, employees often say “yes” to every task that comes their way without considering the effect it will have on their mental health. 

Whether you’re prone to burnout or already suffering from this syndrome, make an effort to limit the number of commitments you’re accepting. Rather than saying “yes” to a request or task right away, take time first to consider whether you genuinely have time to help (7). 

Those suffering from burnout should also make an effort to set boundaries when it comes to taking work home with them. If work-life balance is a struggle for you, try to avoid checking your email or completing tasks after logging off for the day. You may also want to talk to your supervisor about your need to set limits and safeguard your mental and physical health. 

Prioritize and delegate

Even the most talented and dedicated employees can’t do everything on their own. If you want to avoid burnout, make an effort to improve your skills in prioritizing and delegating. 

Start by assessing which tasks are most important and which ones can wait. Then get comfortable delegating tasks to other members of your team. A therapist or life coach may be able to help you improve your skill in this area.

Be mindful

Along with treating depression and anxiety, mindfulness can be a useful tool in alleviating burnout. When you start to feel stressed or overwhelmed by work responsibilities, take a break to breathe and focus on what you’re seeing, hearing, and feeling in that moment. The goal is to approach job situations with patience and avoid passing judgment onto yourself or others. 

Go back to your hobbies

Burnout can make it hard to participate in activities you once loved. After all, it’s hard to go for that jog or attend that book club meeting if you’re exhausted every day. 

However, one of the best ways to fight burnout syndrome is to make an effort to incorporate more joy into your daily routine. If your old hobbies feel too draining, consider less stressful options such as taking a long bath or going on a walk with a friend.

Get help

If burnout impacts your ability to work or enjoy life, it might be time to consider professional help. Depending on where you work, your company may have an employee assistance program to help workers who are struggling. Additionally, many therapists have specific training in helping people with burnout and other workplace-related issues (8).

Woman laying by the window looking at the trees to destress from burnout

Should you find a new job?

Individuals who are suffering from burnout often think that changing jobs will alleviate their symptoms. In some circumstances, finding a new position can help. For example, if your workplace is toxic or you don’t enjoy the type of work you’re doing, it might be time to reconsider your job. However, for most burnout sufferers, switching positions does little to ease the problem (9). In fact, your symptoms are likely to follow you to your next role if you don’t start making significant lifestyle changes.  

Instead of quitting your job, look for ways to improve work-life balance by altering your current circumstances. Start by reading the job description for your role. In many cases, employees who do this realize the job they were hired to do doesn’t resemble the one they’re currently performing. Moreover, their salary has not been adjusted to reflect those changes. 

If your responsibilities have changed or expanded, it might be time to talk to your supervisor or HR representative about how the job can be adapted to meet your needs. 

In summary

Burnout syndrome often starts out small, with signs like fatigue, headache, and irritability. However, as time goes on, sufferers may begin to experience more serious symptoms that impact their ability to work and even enjoy life. In the long run, individuals with burnout may be more likely to develop heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other issues that can affect their health.

While anyone can develop burnout syndrome, the issue is more common among workers in certain professions and industries. Though healthcare workers are particularly vulnerable to this condition, burnout is also a problem among those with toxic offices or ambiguous job responsibilities. Additionally, people who feel they have little control over their jobs or professional future may be prone to burning out. 

The good news is that burnout syndrome is treatable. If burnout is affecting your quality of life, you may want to work with a therapist or life coach to learn how to set limits and boundaries on the job. Prioritizing and delegating tasks can also help you minimize stress and restore work-life balance. While switching jobs is not usually recommended as a treatment for burnout, you may want to speak to your supervisor about adjusting your responsibilities. 

By staying informed of the causes and symptoms of burnout, you can identify whether you’re at risk for this syndrome and take the necessary steps to preserve your physical and mental health. 

April Maguire - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice 


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