While working hard to pursue and build a meaningful career is important, we don’t often hear about how our cultural commitment to working — and working hard — can cause burnout.
The term "burnout" is a relatively new one coined by Herbert Freudenberger in his 1974 book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. According to Freudenberger, burnout is “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”
In modern parlance, burnout is defined as a response to long-term job stress that results in three characteristics: exhaustion, cynicism, and loss of confidence in your ability. While we may use the term casually to refer to a number of things, burnout usually relates specifically to work-induced negative symptoms.
Our generation is coming to learn just how plagued we are by burnout. A Gallup study found that out of 7,500 full-time employees, nearly a quarter felt burned out “very often or always,” and close to half described experiencing it “sometimes.” And some professions, such as that of a physician, have alarmingly higher rates of burnout.
The report describes five primary reasons why someone may experience burnout: unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of communication and support from a manager, and unreasonable time pressure.
With that in mind, how do you know if you’re actually experiencing burnout? While many of the symptoms can be attributed to other causes, taken in the aggregate they can point cases of burnout. Below are some ways to identify if you’re experiencing burnout at work.
Loss of interest in your work
We all have days when we stumble into the office (usually on a Monday or Tuesday morning) and don’t have the energy to tackle our work with gusto. While it’s completely normal to experience this from time to time, if we start feeling this way more often than not, then we might need to pay closer attention. This is especially true if we previously enjoyed a sustained interest in our work.
Of course, there will be seasons throughout our careers when we have work responsibilities that we don’t find as engaging. But if you experience a sudden loss of interest that continues for many weeks or months then this could be a symptom of burnout.
Fatigue and lack of energy
If you feel tired, fatigued, or downright exhausted almost daily at work, then you might be experiencing burnout. Of course, it’s important to make sure these feelings of fatigue aren’t the result of poor sleep hygiene, stress from non-work factors, taking care of young children, or a chronic physical condition. Like most burnout symptoms, they have to be taken in the context of other symptoms as well as circumstances outside of work.
Physical pain or discomfort
Are you having headaches, stomach aches, or digestive problems? Are you feeling achy all of the time? Do your shoulders and back constantly feel stiff? Burnout can cause physical symptoms as well — emotional stress can often manifest in physical symptoms. When combined with other factors, pain and discomfort may indicate burnout.
Loss of ambition or enthusiasm
While this symptom is similar to losing interest in your work, it’s a bit more serious because it includes the wider endeavor of your career and professional direction — your vocation. Burnout can cause you to lose enthusiasm for finishing larger work projects about which you were previously excited.
While too much ambition can be detrimental, of course, a healthy sense of ambition in your professional life and enthusiasm about your career is important. Passion is key to your vocation. If the thought of receiving a promotion, working on new projects with coworkers, or remaining in your current role brings apathy — or even dread — then you might be experiencing burnout.
A sustained dip in performance
This is a helpful symptom because it’s more objective than the others. Because burnout can make completing work more difficult, strip your energy, and affect you physically, it makes sense that this will likely translate into a decrease in job performance. If you notice a sustained decrease in your performance — or if your coworkers and managers do — then it’s possible you are experiencing burnout.
Again, there are outside factors that cause people to experience a decrease in job performance that have nothing to do with their jobs. But if you have previously performed well and cannot trace obvious reasons for your dip in performance to something beyond work (personal distress, illness, depression, etc.) then it could very well be the result of burnout.
Remember, at some point or another, we will likely feel one or more of the symptoms above related to our work. Experiencing some of these symptoms every once in a while is normal. But if you are experiencing two or more of these symptoms for several weeks or months at a time, it might be time to consider if there are dynamics at play in your work setting that are leading to burnout.
What if you are experiencing burnout?
The good news is that burnout doesn’t have to be a permanent state. There are many ways to combat it and manage stress levels: exercise, counseling, mindfulness meditation, spending adequate time away from work, engaging regularly with friends and family, cultivating gratitude, and more.
But as indicated by Gallup’s list of five primary reasons for burnout, sometimes doing these things is not enough. In these cases, it’s worth doing what you can do to address the negative external factors at work. This may involve speaking honestly with coworkers and managers or even roping in human resources managers to address your concerns. You may find that certain stressful expectations or toxic work environments can be remedied with a few intentional conversations.
Still, there may be instances when the only option to overcome burnout is to leave your work situation altogether. Shifting to a different work context might start to make you feel better as you take concrete steps toward moving forward in your career in a new direction. It’s important, though, to make sure you have tried everything you can to improve your work situation before deciding to leave.
Lastly, if you are indeed experiencing some or all of these symptoms, it’s possible they have nothing to do with your work situation. If you’re experiencing stress in your personal life or suffering from a psychological disorder such as anxiety or depression, such things will likely also affect your work. That’s why, whether or not you’ve identified some of these symptoms as resulting from burnout, it’s a good idea to seek a trained medical expert or counselor to determine the best way to move forward and recover.