Burnt Out At Work: What It Is And What To Do About It

By Matthew Zane - Dec. 3, 2020
Articles In Life At Work Guide

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Everyone is entitled to a tough day or lousy week at work, but when those bad weeks start to become bad months, you ought to take a hard look in the mirror to decide if you’re burnt out. Anxiety is a natural part of work, but if you find that coping with workplace stress is a struggle, you might be at high risk of burnout.

Addressing the root causes of burnout will help you get out of your funk and feel like your old self again. But before we get to that, let’s cover what burnout is exactly, how to identify it, and some of its most common causes.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is a reaction to work-related stress that is prolonged or chronic and is characterized by exhaustion, a negative perception of one’s work, and reduced quality of work. Burnout is not classified as a medical condition. Rather, the WHO defines it as an “occupational phenomenon” that results “from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

The three dimensions of burnout are:

  • Exhaustion. Your tank is depleted, and you have insufficient energy to complete your regular tasks at work.

  • Cynicism. You have no enthusiasm for work. There’s a mental distance between you and your work, or you feel pessimistic about your tasks or your company’s values as a whole.

  • Inefficacy. You are no longer able to perform at the same level as you once did. You’ve lost confidence in yourself and your capacity for successful work.

Note that you don’t need to be experiencing every aspect listed above to be suffering from burnout. Even if you’re just exhausted but still feel positive about your work and maintain your efficacy, you can still be burnt out. No two cases of burnout are identical, so consider what dimensions apply to you and how chronically.

While burnout is strictly related to workplace stress, other factors can contribute. For instance, those who are perfectionists or pessimists are at higher risk of burning out.

We spend most of our waking lives at work, so if you dread work and fail to gain any satisfaction out of it, your overall quality of life will suffer.

Symptoms of Burnout

That’s all fine and well from a theoretical standpoint, but identifying burnout can be tricky for the individual going through it. We’ll cover some of the biggest red flags, so you won’t have to wonder whether it’s just a tough week or you’re burnt out.

  1. You don’t enjoy any aspect of your job. Look, not every part of every job is going to be fun. But for most, a job will bring some level of joy (even if it’s just the thrill of solving a problem). If you’re entirely uninterested and unenthusiastic about your work, it’s a giant warning sign for burnout.

    In especially bad cases, your indifference might extend to other parts of your life. If you can’t sustain interest or enthusiasm in other areas of your life that once brought joy, you might not just be burnt out but also depressed. In those cases, seek the advice of a mental health professional.

  2. You’ve become cynical or critical at work. Anyone who asks themself, “what’s the point” at work is showing early signs of burnout. It doesn’t really matter why you’re asking that question (unappreciated by your boss, no faith in the company’s overall mission, etc.); the fact that you feel your efforts are pointless is the critical part.

    You might also feel cynical if layoffs are on the horizon and that you have no control over your future.

  3. You’re exhausted. Getting out of bed takes a monumental effort, and when you do get to work, you have no energy to complete your tasks. You have trouble concentrating, and you’re overloaded with job demands. Put simply; you’re worn out and mentally exhausted.

    Burnout is more than feeling a little tired; it’s feeling positively overwhelmed, with no fuel reserves left to keep you going. You might have trouble saying no to piling more tasks onto your already full plate. This can also extend to your life outside of work, as your work-life balance starts tipping too far in favor of work.

  4. You’ve stopped caring or trying. No surprises here; if you’re entirely apathetic about doing a job that brings no joy and you don’t have the energy for, then you’re likely to stop putting in the effort

    You show up to work and do the bare minimum to get by. If deadlines slip by and you don’t bat an eye, or you receive your boss’s warnings about your subpar work without a care in the world, that’s an early warning sign of burnout.

  5. Your performance is slipping. Without enthusiasm, effort, or energy, you’re bound to see a dip in your performance. You simply don’t care enough about doing things the right way.

    You might have difficulty concentrating and perform tasks ineffectively. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, but if it’s becoming a chronic problem, then that’s a sign of burnout.

  6. Work brings no satisfaction. Maybe you have a monotonous job that you can’t get excited about. Or you’re overworked to the point where you can’t catch your breath and celebrate your achievements.

    Whatever the cause, if your job fails to satisfy you, you might be burnt out. Your motivation is completely gone because you fail to see any reward for your efforts. This includes intrinsic (from within) and extrinsic (from without) motivation – you don’t feel good after completing your tasks and/or your company doesn’t recognize your accomplishments.

  7. You’re irritable. Who wouldn’t be irritable going through all the above symptoms? If you catch yourself becoming increasingly impatient with management, coworkers, or clients, that may be a sign you’re feeling burnt out.

    Again, this might extend to your personal life as well. Relationships can suffer if you’re constantly irritable due to workplace stressors.

  8. You’re suffering from physical ailments. When you fail to listen to the warning signs of burnout, your body might step in and make it abundantly clear to you. You might suffer from insomnia, chest pain, headaches, or stomach pains, to name a few of the most common physical symptoms.

    Of course, there are several reasons you may develop these problems. However, if you’re experiencing them in conjunction with any of the above signs, it could be the cherry on top, directing you to address the root causes of burnout.

Causes of Burnout

Identifying the signs of burnout is a good first step, but addressing the problem requires us to discuss the causes of burnout. There’s no one definitive cause that will automatically burn you out, but usually, a combination of those listed below will make burnout more likely.

  • No control. If you can’t influence decisions directly related to your job and its responsibilities, you’re more likely to feel burnt out. Whether it’s scheduling, what assignments you work on, or just the sheer volume of work you have on your plate, a lack of autonomy is harmful to your workplace satisfaction.

    You might also feel out of control if your company fails to provide you with adequate resources for getting your job done.

  • Dysfunctional workplace. We’ve all met “that guy” at the office, who makes everyone else’s experience a nightmare. If you’ve got an office bully, a condescending coworker, or a micromanaging boss, you’re set up to experience burnout.

    The same can be true in an environment where nobody pays you any attention whatsoever, contributing to those “what’s the point” feelings we discussed above.

  • Unclear expectations. Feeling comfortable at work begins by knowing what you’re meant to do. If you don’t know your level of authority, what tasks are top priority, or who to collaborate with, you’ll likely feel overwhelmed.

    When expectations are unclear, you might feel that half of your time at work is spent figuring out what the heck to do. That’s a lot of wasted energy – energy you don’t have to spare.

  • Activity extremes. People most commonly associate burnout with an unmanageable workload – basically, having more work to do than the hours in the day allows. This time pressure acts as a constant stressor, especially when there’s no end in sight.

    On the other end of the spectrum, employees who work monotonous, boring jobs might also experience elements of burnout. They’re less likely to feel exhausted, but cynicism and inefficacy might manifest.

  • Poor leadership. When leadership is terrible, all employees are set up to feel burnt out more. That’s because all of the above causes stem from poor leadership. A good leader works to instill autonomy in subordinates, create a pleasant work environment, set clear expectations, and make reasonable changes to adapt to extremes of activity.

    A good leader also communicates well and actively listens to the needs of their employees. They support those needs and allow each employee to work to their fullest potential, without overwhelming them.

  • No work-life balance. If you rely on work to get all or most of your satisfaction out of life, you’re setting yourself up for burnout. Other areas of your personal life require attention and energy. When you’re directing all of those resources to work, your tank is depleted for your friends, family, and hobbies.

  • Job doesn’t align with your values. You can be energetic and performing at a high level and still become burnt out. Remember the “cynicism” symptom? Well, suppose you’re working for a company that produces a product or states values that you feel strongly against for whatever reason (moral, environmental, etc.). In that case, you’re more likely to feel alienated from your work and become burnt out as a result.

6 Ways to Deal With Burnout

If you’re reading all this and thinking, “yep, I’m burnt out,” don’t worry. There are ways to beat burnout and get back to feeling like yourself. Be warned, though; there are no quick fixes for burnout. Ironically, it takes a lot of work to get over feeling overworked.

  1. Identify your options. First, develop a list of what factors are contributing to your burnout. Then, discuss those specific elements of your work with your supervisor. Together, you can come up with some options to address those issues.

  2. Reduce your workload. You might have to reduce your workload to tackle burnout. Maybe you’ve started taking on tasks that don’t strictly fall under your role’s duties, or you’re covering extra work in the wake of layoffs. Whatever the reason, if you feel overworked, talk to your boss about reducing your workload.

  3. Alter your thinking. Easier said than done, we know. But studies have shown that perfectionism is closely linked with burnout. Stop imposing pressures on yourself to be perfect 100% of the time. It’s this “all-or-nothing” feeling that contributes to burnout.

  4. Practice self-care. Whether it’s yoga, meditation, exercise, or just a good night’s sleep, take care of yourself, first and foremost. Be mindful of what you’re feeling throughout the workday, without judging yourself or feeling guilty for your thoughts.

  5. Institute regular breaks from work. People tend to think about work in binary terms. At work, you work, and at home, you relax. Try to incorporate some relaxation into your daily schedule. When you take a break at work, make it a real break. Don’t check your email; just unplug for ten minutes and return to work renewed.

  6. Find a new job. Sometimes, there’s nothing to be done for burnout except finding a new job. For example, if you attribute your burnout to feeling alienated from your work because your values don’t align with the company’s, then no change to your workload or attitude will fix the problem. Be realistic with yourself and determine if you can get out of the rut or if the entire job is nothing but a rut.

If you’re reading the above list and think we forgot to include “take a vacation,” we didn’t. While vacations are a great way to recharge your batteries, they don’t address any underlying issues that lead to burnout. When you get back to your job, you will still have the same stressors you left behind.

Final Thoughts

Burnout doesn’t go away because you made it to the weekend or you’re faithfully chugging away at your to-do list. You need to take control of your relationship with work and address unworkable elements of your job. We’re sure that if you take time for self-reflection and put in the effort, you’ll find new energy, enthusiasm, and productivity at work.

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Matthew Zane

Matthew Zane is the lead editor of Zippia's How To Get A Job Guides. He is a teacher, writer, and world-traveler that wants to help people at every stage of the career life cycle. He completed his masters in American Literature from Trinity College Dublin and BA in English from the University of Connecticut.

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