Burnout was recently recognised as an "occupational syndrome" by the World Health Organisation. Ignoring it can have serious consequences, including long-term mental and physical distress.
As we move towards a society where mental health is increasingly openly discussed, what can we do to ensure we avoid burnout?
What is Burnout?
Burnout is caused by chronic workplace stress over a period of time. It usually develops gradually, and in a lot of cases the symptoms worsen so slowly that people only consciously notice them when they're already extreme.
Although different people respond to burnout in different ways, as with all medical issues, the following symptoms may be signs someone's heading towards it:
- Change in mood – for example, feeling low, anxious, or more irritable than usual
- Difficulties concentrating and sleeping
- Increased negativity, especially towards work
- Feelings of emotional "distance" from work and other activities
- Getting physically ill more often
These symptoms can also be signs of other issues, especially depression. In fact, there's some debate around the question of whether burnout is a form of depression. There is certainly a lot of overlap, and people displaying these symptoms should consider seeing their doctor, whether they think they have depression or burnout.
The fight against burnout falls into two categories: steps we can take as individuals, and steps employers can take to protect their workers from it.
For employers, it boils down to creating an environment where overwork is discouraged, people are free to take their breaks and leave on time, "switching off" in the evenings and during annual leave is the norm, and workers are empowered to ask for help when they're struggling. Managers have an important role to play. If they model a routine where healthy boundaries between work and off time are in place, their staff will feel like the same is expected of them.
Stressors such as workplace bullying and incivility should not be tolerated. When they arise, they should be dealt with fairly and promptly. Nobody should have to come to a working environment where they're fearful or treated badly, and employers who tolerate it have to deal with staff illnesses, high turnover, lower productivity and even legal consequences if the bullying crosses over into discrimination. It's a moral duty to tackle this behaviour.
Employees tend to be happier when they see their work as meaningful and appreciated. They are also less likely to burn out if they have control over their work and how it is performed, so in all roles, people should be given as much flexibility as possible.
Stress is the chief cause of burnout, and excessive workloads are a leading cause of stress. Since there's a direct correlation between overwork and burnout, employers need to be vigilant about placing too many demands on their staff.
On the employees' side, there's plenty that individuals can do to minimise their risk of experiencing burnout:
- Realise you have options and power. When people are under extreme stress, they can feel powerless and start to believe they have nowhere to go to improve their situation. But often a conversation with your line manager can help enormously, especially if you've already analysed what's causing the stress. It might be possible to change your hours to better accommodate your life outside of work, for example, or change your workload. If this isn't possible, changing your job is always an option.
- Talk to your support network. Burnout is a very common problem and it's likely you know several people among your family and friends who have experienced it, even if they haven't spoken about it openly. Though it can be a struggle, try to truly switch off from work concerns when you're socialising or enjoying family time, and give your loved ones your full attention.
- Speak to a doctor. If your symptoms are worsening, it might be time to talk to your GP. Mental health issues are one of the most common reasons people visit their doctors and one of the leading causes of time off work, so even though it can be nerve-racking to discuss your issues in a medical setting, they will certainly be used to dealing with similar concerns.
- Relax! Relaxation takes different forms for different people; one person might meditate, another may prefer to climb a mountain at the weekend. Physical activity can help in many cases, as can rediscovering a creative passion such as writing, painting or music. Reconnecting with friends can be enormously beneficial to somebody struggling with burnout. Make time for sleep and ensure you have at least a few minutes every day where you don't have to do anything except relax.
Burnout is a serious issue and it seems to be a growing problem. However, with the growth of the problem comes greater discussion and a stronger focus on the steps both employees and employers can take to guard against it.