How to manage burnout at work

How to manage burnout at work

A stressed man with his head buried in his desk and his laptop covering the back of his head

It’s been called a sign of our times and a significant public health problem – and for good reason. Job burnout is widespread in today’s world of work, where long working hours and higher levels of work pressure have become the norm.

Burnout involves long-term, enduring stress, but there are ways you can reverse course if you are heading towards – or have already become – burned out.

What is considered burnout?

Firstly though, what is burnout? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and is characterised by: 

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

Burnout is considered a work-based syndrome. In fact, the WHO explicitly link it to the workplace. It results from stress at work that occurs over a long period of time and becomes all-consuming.

Why is work burnout so prevalent today?

Burnout is a situation many people are now confronting. Research by Willis Towers Watson found 42 per cent of workers have suffered from stress or mental health issues at some point, and one in three believes their job impacts negatively on their mental wellbeing. But why is workplace burnout so widespread?

One of the key reasons for burnout is the impact of technology. In today’s world of work, where smartphones have blurred the lines between work and life, giving us a constant connection to work from almost anywhere, anytime, many people have found that the traditional working day now spills into their out of work hours. However, you can only burn the candle at both ends for so long before it impacts your health.

The excessive workloads and high expectations that many professionals find themselves facing at work are another factor. Being overworked and regularly pushed to perform at a level past your ability to cope inexorably leads to burnout.

Our latest Hays Salary Guide found that overtime increased in 31 per cent of organisations over the past year. This comes at a cost, with rising overtime impacting the physical, mental and financial health of employees, particularly if it becomes excessive. With existing teams being asked to do more work with the same number of heads, employee burnout is a common end result.

A toxic workplace has also been identified as contributing to burnout. If your workplace consists of poor leaders, demanding colleagues and constant complaints – with scarce recognition of your contribution and successes – then sooner or later this negative environment will have an impact on your mental wellbeing.

A globalised workplace where employees work across time zones, an organisational culture where taking regular breaks is frowned upon, and a wider trend for people to work longer hours in general are other common contributing factors behind burnout.

How to recognise burnout

Given all this, it’s no wonder so many of us find ourselves hurtling towards job burnout. So how can you tell if you’re on the verge of burnout?

One of the most common signs is feeling angry or resentful about your job, workplace, colleagues or customers.

Another is feeling less committed or indifferent to your job. For example, lacking a sense of achievement or accomplishment when you reach certain milestones or successes at work.

Perhaps you’ve lost your spark and become far more cynical about work than you once were or have even started to dread going into work each day.

You may also be more emotional than normal. For instance, you may find yourself shouting or crying for no clear reason. Or it could be that you no longer enjoy activities that once brought you joy.

Another red flag is feeling less energetic or social. For example, perhaps a family member or friend has commented that they haven’t seen much of you recently, or you’ve stopped going to the gym or attending a regular gathering.

Tellingly, has a family member or friend sat you down and told you that you need to find a better balance between your work and life? 

What to do if you're experiencing burnout

If you think you are experiencing burnout, it is essential that you find time to focus on your health and wellbeing. Don’t say you don’t have the time; if you’re headed towards burnout – or already there – you need to prioritise your wellbeing now.

There are several steps you can take to help counteract burnout. Here we’ve grouped them into three distinct components – each just as important as the other in beating burnout:

1. Daytime adjustments

One change you can make immediately is to add short breaks to your working day. For the most time-poor of us, blocking out two five-minute breaks every day is an achievable starting point. You can scale up the length of these breaks over time; what’s important to begin with is that you set – and adhere – to your break times so that you disrupt your old habits and form a new routine of stepping out for short respites throughout your working day.

In a survey of ours, just 28 per cent of people said they take their full designated lunch break. Furthermore, when asked what helps keep them fresh at work, 65% said getting away from their desk to eat lunch. This was followed by short 5-minute breaks for fresh air (56%) and a lunchtime break from all devices (50%).

So, another simple change you can make is to step away from your workspace to eat your lunch. This short break can improve your mental wellbeing, energy and focus, while helping to minimise the mid-afternoon slump.

Exercise has also been shown to help relieve stress, keep you grounded and improve your mental health. So too have mindfulness, mediation, yoga and other similar relaxation strategies, which can help calm your nerves, minimise stress and regulate your emotions. Finding time for such activities, even if it’s only a few minutes a day, will help you bounce back from burnout and lower the chance of it occurring again.

2. Establish work-life boundaries 

Next, during the evenings, it is important that you establish – and stick to – clear work-life boundaries. For example, try to avoid checking your work emails at night. If you find yourself unable to switch off from work completely, set yourself a reasonable deadline for when you will log off.

In 2017, French workers won the legal ‘right to disconnect’ from emails outside business hours. The policy limits the encroachment of work during non-working hours by legally giving those employees who work for companies with 50 or more staff the right to turn off digital devices and technology.

While such a resolute policy does not exist in this part of the world, it is important to find a balance between your work life and your personal downtime.

It’s also imperative that you get enough sleep. Various studies have shown that the average person requires eight hours restorative sleep each night. Without regularly getting enough sleep, you’ll feel fatigued and less able to cope with stress at work.

In addition, it’s crucial that you don’t blame yourself. Burnout is not a sign of a personal weakness or your ability to do your job. Remember, burnout is a work-based syndrome and many people who have been at the top of their field have suffered from it. By recognising that you are burned out and by taking steps to adjust your workload and better manage your work-life boundaries, you’re taking positive steps to improve your situation.

3. Get support from your employer

While these are all essential ingredients in beating burnout, self-care in isolation isn’t enough. Employers need to shoulder some responsibility too, since high workplace expectations are a huge contributing factor in an employee reaching burnout.

Depending on your relationship with your direct manager, it is therefore advisable to talk to them and make them aware that you are experiencing burnout. Perhaps they are genuinely unaware of how many hours you’ve been putting in or are unaware of growing client demands.

It’s also worthwhile accessing your organisation’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Many EAP’s offer free and confidential counselling services for employees, which are designed to support your wellbeing and mental health.

You could also consider discussing with your manager the possibility of employing an additional team member. If you’ve been working a lot of overtime recently, and it’s been going on for some time, there could be a good business case for adding a new permanent employee to your team or utilising temporary staff to cope with this period of peak workload. Approach your boss and ask if additional support can be brought into the team to help relieve pressure on overtime hot spots.

If there isn’t the budget to recruit additional help, an alternative approach is to copy out your to-do list and book a meeting with your manager to prioritise each item. Clearly identify what duties must be completed now and what can be put on hold. If the tasks you are required to complete cannot be managed in a standard working week, you need to give precedence to the most business-critical tasks and postpone the less essential duties to make your workload more manageable and reduce your levels of stress.

Your manager has an important role to play in this, since they should set realistic goals for you, which can be achieved in standard business hours with the resources that are available to you.

If your employer does not respond positively to any of these appeals, and nothing changes, it might be time to look for a new job elsewhere.

Remember, burnout is a common work-based syndrome, so by being aware of the tell-tale signs and taking appropriate steps in response, you’re more likely to succeed and thrive in your world of work.

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