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Signs of burnout: When work impacts well-being

Burnout is a term we hear used on a regular basis for any kind of chronic work-related stress and mental exhaustion. It seems like everyone is “burned out.” But what are the signs of burnout?
signs of job burnout and mental exhaustion

Signs of burnout

The signs of burnout include:

  1. Feelings of depleted energy or mental exhaustion. This includes thoughts like “I’m not sure how much longer I can keep going,” or even feeling consistently down and discouraged. Compassion fatigue might arise, and feeling like you are no longer available for others.
  2. Increased mental distance from a job, or feelings of negativity and cynicism towards it. This is also called depersonalization. A person might feel consistently irritable, angry, edgy or resentful.
  3. Reduced professional effectiveness. You begin to doubt the meaning and value of the work you do, or might begin to worry about making significant mistakes because it’s harder to be “present” mentally and emotionally.

“Burnout is not a medical condition, but an occupational phenomenon that occurs when demands chronically outweigh resources,” said Dr. Kristin Whitaker, Marshfield Clinic Health System family medicine physician. “You could consider it the stress of chronically living in a gap where internal and external demands are greater than the internal and external resources available to us. While some stress is necessary to keep us motivated, and while most of us can handle a lack of resources short-term, it’s the chronicity that wears people out.”

The concept of burnout has been around for decades. The World Health Organization officially recognizes it as an occupational phenomenon. The first scientifically-developed measure of burnout was published in 1981. The Maslach Burnout Inventory characterizes it as a legitimate occupational experience, marked by three factors.

The fueling factors

The contributions to burnout are generally lumped into two major categories: systemic and personal.

Personal factors that can contribute to burnout include things like perfectionism, high standards, work ethic and even underlying attitudes and beliefs about where your own value and worth come from.

Systemic factors are organizational by nature and may include intangibles like corporate philosophies and communication. They may also include more tangible things like staffing ratios and day-to-day work expectations. Systemic factors are harder to change, but there are coping strategies.

“Learning to speak up, communicating with your supervisors, and, if you are someone who takes work home, learning how to lay down boundaries on work time,” said Dr. Whitaker. “Choosing to walk away from the phone, email and computer are good places to start. I’ve personally learned that work expands to fill all the available time I give it, so I try to give it less time.  Also, learning what you can control in the work world, and what really is out of your control are helpful to recognize.”

Consequences of burnout

Stress effects each person uniquely. Many of us recognize that stress can show up in common ways like headaches, back aches, reflux, weight gain, poor sleep, or feeling “off” and not knowing why. Burnout can even begin to look like depression and anxiety. You might find you are making more mistakes at work, or are less effective at what you do.

There is even a concept now called ‘quiet quitting.’ It is not new, but current culture is beginning to put a name on it.

“Quiet quitting refers to the idea of choosing not to go beyond the required basic tasks of one’s job,” said Dr. Whitaker. “You still do what is required, but you no longer engage in citizenship-type behaviors like attending non-mandatory meetings, or doing an extra task, helping someone out, or showing up early or staying late on occasion.”

How to address burnout

The first step is really asking yourself if this is something you might be struggling with. If so, is there something specific you can do to address it?

It can be as simple as choosing to take better care of yourself. You can do that by prioritizing sleep, getting more consistent exercise, or doing more of the things you love. The solution might be more challenging like beginning to place boundaries on work, having a difficult conversation with a supervisor or strategizing with co-workers on how to improve the workload. It may even mean considering a job change, asking for some time away from work or getting some counseling for help sorting out what’s going on. Employers often have counseling available through employee assistance programs that one could access without cost.

No matter the case, Dr. Whitaker says one thing always rings true.

“You matter,” she said. “You may not hear it enough or even at all but you have value and worth as a unique individual.  There’s no one else like you.  Taking care of yourself is not selfish or wrong, but part of the way you can show up as healthy for yourself, as well as to your family, your workplace, and your community.”

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