Working Out Burnout

An employee’s guide to understanding and preventing burnout.

As summer comes to a close and we head back to work after two-and-a-half years of pandemic living, an off-kilter work-life balance and scarce vacations, a topic that deserves our attention is: burnout. You too may have noticed friends or family members struggling more than usual at work. The figures are alarming: studies show that the pandemic has taken its toll on the workforce, with 3 in 5 employees at risk of burnout.

Burnout is a complex problem and preventing it is a shared responsibility between leaders and employees. This article explores what you can do to prevent heading for a burnout as an employee. See this article to understand how to manage away from burnout in your team as a leader.

Understanding burnout

According to the World Health Organization, burnout is a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” with three main dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

Especially striking is the fact that young people – despite having worked for the shortest amount of time – are suffering the most, with 59% of Gen Z workers and 58% of millennials reporting burnout in 2021. With increasing economic instability, a cutthroat job market, high costs of living, constant screen time, and large gaps in how effectively companies are navigating rapidly evolving workplace norms in the aftermath of the pandemic, it’s no surprise that employees are struggling.

So, what can we do about it? “Solving” burnout is a complex task. It’s a systemic problem that is usually rooted in a company’s work culture, and which persists until management takes a critical look at the unwritten rules that govern the workplace and addresses them head on. And while organisations and leaders must do all they can do to prevent burnout, there is much you can do as an employee to protect yourself. After all, we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to setting boundaries and deciding what we will and won’t accept at work. Becoming aware of the personality traits and behaviors that may be working against you is the first crucial step to addressing burnout. Armed with greater self-awareness, it’s then important to be able to identify the smoking guns of burnout and the phases of its progression so that you can course-correct before it’s too late and more extreme measures – such as clinical support, time off from work, or a change in job – become necessary.

Am I at risk?

Are you ambitious? A perfectionist? A team player? Constantly going above and beyond what is expected of you? If the answer to any of these questions is yes – as it is for most high-performing employees – you may be prone to burnout. From taking on heavy workloads and having a hard time saying “no,” to dealing with regular performance-related anxiety, the compulsion to prove oneself at work takes a toll on even the most resilient among us. 

You’ve likely been rewarded for these behaviors in the past and changing work habits may seem scary, but changing the way you work doesn’t mean lowering your standards or giving up on your goals. On the contrary: by learning to set clear boundaries, you’re protecting your time and energy so that you can sustain high performance in the long-term.

The three “smoking guns” of burnout

There are three main symptoms of burnout. We’ll break each down and explore questions you should ask yourself to figure out whether any apply to you. (For the complete self-assessment, see the Maslach Burnout Inventory.)

  1. Exhaustion

Exhaustion is at the core of burnout. While occasional tiredness is normal, long-term physical, cognitive, and emotional fatigue is not. 

Exhaustion is rooted in the constant demands of a high-pressure organisational culture, burdensome workloads, tight timelines, inadequate support, and a lack of agency in the “what, when, and how” of your work. To gauge whether you’re in your red zone, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I having more trouble concentrating than I used to?
  • Do I find it hard to see the big picture of my work? 
  • Have tasks that I once enjoyed started to feel challenging or frustrating? 
  • Am I struggling to get up for work or to switch off from work in the evening? 

If you answered yes to one or more of the above, there’s a high chance you’re also noticing elements of the second symptom of burnout, cynicism. 

2. Cynicism

Cynicism – or “depersonalisation” – is a defense mechanism. When you feel overwhelmed by work, whether due to workload, conflict, unfairness, or a lack of agency in decision-making, you start to distance yourself from it. Ask yourself the following: 

  • Have I stopped taking pride or enjoyment in my work? 
  • Do I feel frustrated and bitter toward my colleagues, sometimes without knowing why? 
  • Have I started to feel and act uncharacteristically?

Exhaustion and cynicism together inevitably lead to the third symptom of burnout, inefficacy. 

3. Inefficacy

Inefficacy is a feeling of incompetence and lack of achievement. When you’re struggling just to get through the day (exhaustion) and feeling disengaged and frustrated (cynicism), it’s hard to feel effective on the job. Getting things done is an uphill battle. Ask yourself:

  • Do I feel I have the resources and support required to do my job well?
  • Am I receiving constructive feedback?
  • Am I being rewarded and recognised appropriately for my work?
  • Am I performing at the same level as I used to?
  • Am I constantly anxious about the quality of my work and terrified of making mistakes?

Inefficacy is aggravated when you lack the support and resources needed to do your job well and when you’re not receiving constructive feedback or recognition. Having a supportive coach, being allocated enough time to do your work, receiving clearly communicated expectations, developing trusting relationships, and enjoying flexibility around the execution of your tasks are all essential components to a meaningful and healthy work life. If you identify strongly with each symptom listed above, it’s advisable to seek professional support.

What can I do to prevent burnout? 

  1. Tell your manager: while this may seem scary, things won’t change at work until the people who are best positioned to help you know what’s going on. If you feel comfortable enough, set up a meeting with your manager. If not, reach out to HR or a trusted colleague to see who else you can connect with in your management team.
  2. Develop self-awareness: being able to identify your mindset and behaviors will help you notice when you’re falling into harmful patterns and course-correct yourself. How?
    1. Practice mindfulness. Taking a walk in nature, meditating, and spending time alone and away from electronic devices gives your mind time to slow down.
    2. Write down your personal values, goals and priorities. Look back at them at the end of each week and identify which activities were aligned with them and which weren’t
    3. Identify which situations trigger emotions and behaviors that reinforce your “burnout profile” – notice when you display these and try to change your behavior in the moment
  3. Invest in your personal life: if, like many people, you unwittingly wrap most of your self-worth up into your career, your self-esteem will take a hit when something goes wrong at work. If instead you learn to lean into your value as a friend, a family member, an artist, an athlete or a volunteer, your self-esteem will remain stable when you face a professional setback. How?
    1. Dedicate time and effort to hobbies outside of work
    2. Cultivate meaningful social connections that have nothing to do with work
    3. Celebrate small wins in your personal life
    4. Spend time doing activities that uplift you 
  4. Prioritise your health: physical health is inseparable from mental health. If you’re heading towards burnout, chances are that your physical health doesn’t feel like a priority right now. But investing in your physical health is investing in your mental health, and it’s never been more important. How?
    1. Get enough sleep every night
    2. Eat nutritious, regular meals
    3. Move your body! Find a physical activity you enjoy and do it regularly
    4. Carve time out of your schedule to spend quality time with friends
    5. Get outside, go on trips, and try new activities 
  5. Set healthy boundaries: no one is born knowing how to set healthy boundaries but learning how is essential. Boundaries are the foundation of quality relationships, and contrary to how it may feel, setting boundaries doesn’t just help you – it helps others, too. Having healthy boundaries helps you build credibility as someone who doesn’t overpromise and encourages others to set limits for themselves, too. How?
    1. Identify your non-negotiable personal values
    2. Communicate effectively: learn to openly express your feelings and needs
    3. Every time you fail to set a boundary, notice it and think through how you’ll do it better next time
  6. Look for ways to increase your control: it’s exhausting, demotivating, and frustrating to lack agency over the “what, when, and how” of your work. While it may seem like these factors are outside your control, there’s usually more room to maneuver than you realise. Being able to tailor your work according to your interests and needs is fundamental to a more meaningful professional life. How?
    1. The “what”: let your manager know what aspects of your work you like best and ask if there’s a way for you to focus more on those 
    2. The “where”: do you crave more flexibility in your work environment? There’s never been a better time to explore your options – whether that means asking for the possibility to work from abroad for a while, resetting expectations around how often you’re required to go to the office, or simply making it a practice to take some meetings while out on a walk!
    3. The “how”: if you’re overburdened at work, explore with your manager what tasks you can deprioritise or reassign. Can you get additional support on a project you’ve been assigned? Can you negotiate an unreasonable deadline? Can you request flexible working hours to accommodate your personal life or peak productivity hours? 

When you’re heading toward a burnout, it’s normal to feel helpless, or even as though you’re the problem. Start by showing yourself compassion and remember that your needs are valid and that nothing about your situation is set in stone. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but by sharing how you feel with a friend and following the guidelines outlined above, you’ll soon find that you have more in your control than you realise, and that with the right mindset, tools and support, you’re well on your way to a healthy and meaningful work life. Even if you aren’t experiencing any burnout symptoms, reflecting on what you can do to make your life as sustainable as possible is important. Taking action before you notice any symptoms is your safest bet against burning out.  

Author: April Cavallaro is a consultant and works in our People & Transformation team in the Brussels office.

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