Maintaining a healthy, successful career
It's the beginning of the week, and Mia is already longing for the weekend.
For the past few months she's been feeling out of sorts at work, and she's not quite sure why. For instance, she's always tired, she feels disengaged and unmotivated most days, and she's constantly checking how long it is until she can go home.
Mia is also snapping at her colleagues (something she never used to do), and she feels that there's never enough time to get everything done. This leaves her feeling perpetually behind and demoralised.
What is burnout?
Two important definitions of burnout are:
- 'A state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations.' – Ayala Pines and Elliot Aronson.1
- 'A state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.' – Herbert J. Freudenberger.2
Between them, these definitions embrace the essence of burnout, with the first stressing the part that exhaustion plays in it, and the second focusing on the sense of disillusionment that is at its core.
Anyone can become exhausted. What is so poignant about burnout is that it mainly strikes people who are highly committed to their work: you can only "burn out" if you have been "alight" in the first place.
13 warning signs that you're heading for burnout
Specific symptoms of burnout include:
- Having a negative and critical attitude at work.
- Dreading going into work, and wanting to leave once you're there.
- Having low energy, and little interest at work.
- Having trouble sleeping.
- Being absent from work a lot.
- Having feelings of emptiness.
- Experiencing physical complaints such as headaches, illness, or backache.
- Being irritated easily by team members or clients.
- Having thoughts that your work doesn't have meaning or make a difference.
- Pulling away emotionally from your colleagues or clients.
- Feeling that your work and contribution goes unrecognised.
- Blaming others for your mistakes.
- You're thinking of quitting work, or changing roles.
Stress & burnout
So, what's the difference between stress and burnout? Although the two share some characteristics, there are distinct differences.
Stress is often relatively short-term, and it is often caused by a feeling that work is out of control. You might experience stress several days in a row, especially when you're working on a large project or under a tight deadline.
However, once the situation changes, stress often lessens or disappears entirely. (Stress can affect you over the longer-term, however, if you're consistently experiencing these things.)
Burnout often takes place over a longer period. You might experience it if you believe your work is meaningless; when there's a disconnect between what you're currently doing and what you truly want to be doing; or when things change for the worse – for example, when you lose a supportive boss, or when your workload increases beyond a sustainable point.
You go through "the motions" instead of being truly engaged. Over time, this leads to cynicism, exhaustion, and, sometimes, poor performance.
Causes of burnout
People experience burnout for a variety of reasons.
Lack of autonomy is a common cause, so you might experience burnout if you don't have much control over your work, or if you feel that you never have enough time to finish tasks and projects.
Another common cause is when your values don't align with the actions, behaviours, or values of your organisation, or of your role.
Other causes include:
- Having unclear goals or job expectations.
- Working in a dysfunctional team or organisation.
- Experiencing an excessive workload.
- Having little or no support from your boss or organisation.
- Lacking recognition for your work.
- Having monotonous or low-stimulation work.
Consequences of burnout
Clearly, the consequences of burnout can be severe. Your productivity can drop dramatically, and this not only impacts your career, but it negatively impacts your team and organisation as well. Your creativity will also be affected, so you're less likely to spot opportunities (and you don't have the interest or desire to act on them), and you may find excuses to miss work or take days off sick.
Career burnout can also spill over into your personal life, negatively impacting your well-being and your relationships with friends and family.
Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While these stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over stress-related illnesses or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.
How to avoid burnout
When feelings of burnout start to occur, many people focus on short-term solutions such as taking a vacation. While this can certainly help, the relief is often only temporary. You also need to focus on strategies that will have a deeper impact, and create lasting change.
Let's look at specific strategies that you can use to avoid burnout:
1. Work with purpose
Do you feel that your career has a deeper purpose, other than just earning a paycheck? Most of the time, rediscovering your purpose can go a long way towards helping you avoid burnout and keeping stress at bay.
Look at the deeper impact of what you do every day; how does your work make life better for other people? How could you add more meaning to what you do every day?
These are important questions, so spend time thinking deeply on them. You could also use the PERMA Model to bring more meaning and happiness to your life.
If you think that you're in the wrong role or career, develop a career strategy to help you plan for a career that's better for you. Or, use job crafting to shape your role, so that it fits you better.
2. Perform a job analysis
When you experience work overload day in and day out, you can start to feel as if you're on a treadmill and that you'll never catch up. This is demoralising, stressful, and often leads to burnout.
Perform a job analysis so you can clarify what's expected of you, and what isn't. This tool will help you identify what's truly important in your role, so that you can cut out or delegate tasks that aren't as essential.
If you feel that your boss is assigning more work than you can handle, then schedule a private meeting to discuss the issue. Let him or her know that your excessive workload is leading to burnout. Come prepared with some options that could be considered for shifting certain tasks or projects to someone else.
You can also make life easier by learning how to manage conflicting priorities and deal with unreasonable demands.
3. 'Give' to others
One quick and easy way to add meaning to your career is to give to others, or to help them in small ways.
When you do this, it makes you feel good. Even the smallest act of kindness can re- energise you and help you find meaning in your work.
4. Take control
You can avoid or overcome burnout by finding ways to create more autonomy in your role. Try talking with your boss to see if he is willing to let you have more control over your tasks, projects, or deadlines.
You'll also feel more in control of your work if you manage your time effectively. Learn prioritisation techniques, and make use of To-Do Lists or an Action Program to take control of your day. Then tie these in with daily, weekly, monthly, and
yearly personal goals.
5. Exercise regularly
Exercise can help alleviate stress and create a sense of well-being. You will also experience increased energy and productivity when you exercise regularly. What's more, regular exercise will help you get a good night's sleep.
Get more exercise by getting up earlier, or even by exercising at lunchtime. You might also be more motivated to exercise by teaming up with colleagues, or by setting up an office fitness challenge.
6. Learn to manage stress
When not managed well, short-term stress can contribute to burnout. This is why you should learn how to manage stress effectively.
There are several strategies that you can use to cope with stress. For instance, you could keep a stress diary to document what routinely causes you stress. Practicing deep breathing, meditation, and other relaxation techniques can help you calm down when you're experiencing stress.
You can also manage the way you think – this can contribute to stress. By monitoring your thoughts and practicing positive thinking, you can change unhelpful reactions and manage your emotions through a stressful situation.
Burnout is a mixture of professional exhaustion, and disillusionment with other people, the organisation, or the career, over the long term.
Symptoms of burnout include low energy, a loss of interest in your work, and irritability with colleagues or team members. As such, it can cause low productivity, high absenteeism, low creativity, and even health problems.
To avoid burnout, follow these tips:
- Work with purpose.
- Perform a job analysis, and eliminate or delegate unnecessary work.
- Give to others.
- Take control, and actively manage your time.
- Get more exercise.
- Learn how to manage stress.
1 Pines, A. and Aronson, E. (1989) 'Career Burnout: Causes and Cures,' New York: Free PR.
2 Freudenberger, F (1983) 'Burn Out,' New York: Bantam.
Mayo Clinic (2010) 'Job Burnout: Spotting it – and Taking Action.' [Online] [Accessed March 20, 2012].
Berglas, S. (2005) 'How to Avoid Stress and Burnout,' CIO, December 5, 2005. [Online] [Accessed March 20, 2012].
Lacovides, A. et al. (2000) 'The Relationship Between Job Stress, Burnout and Clinical Depression,' 3rd Department of Psychiatry, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, General Hospital AHEPA, Thessaloniki, Greece.