How to Identify and Prevent Burnout at Work

The problem of job burnout is so common that the World Health Organization has decided to include it in the ICD-11 International Classification of Diseases and Health Problems. This way no one can treat burnout as a whim or a drama queen thing anymore. See how to recognize and deal with burnout. The problem may also concern you and your loved ones.

What is work burnout and who can get it

Burnout is a disease that, contrary to what you might think, is not just caused by excessive fatigue and routine in a workplace.

Burnout is most often caused by the intense, long-term mental strain and stress that you experience in the course of your daily work. Stress and setting too high expectations for yourself make you constantly feel disappointed with yourself, which in turn affects your mental state.

The term “burnout” is pretty new. It was coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger, in his book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. He originally defined burnout as:

the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.
— Herbert Freudenberger

In the past it was believed that burnout only concerns help-related professions: doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, employees of educational and correction centers. Today it is proven that everyone can be affected by job burnout, not only health care workers, social workers or teachers.

What are possible causes of job burnout

Here are the most common causes of burnout, which psychiatrists and psychologists are increasingly diagnosing, even in very young people:

  • inability to achieve the intended goals despite the great effort,
  • excess responsibilities and time pressure in a workplace,
  • inability to meet excessively high or incorrectly formulated requirements,
  • monotony of performed activities,
  • lack of support from colleagues and management,
  • conflicts with colleagues and strong within-team competition,
  • lack of work-life balance,
  • disproportion between the workload and the overall satisfaction with life,
  • feeling that you have little or no control over your work,
  • too low remuneration or recognition for the job you do.

Do you know this feeling when you try like crazy, spend long hours at work, and all sorts of criticisms and failures intensify anyway? This workplace atmosphere can also lead to long-term stress and feeling of failure, and then - burnout. Anyone who feels constantly overworked and undervalued is at risk.

Note: Burnout is not always caused solely by stressful work or too many duties. Very often your lifestyle and personality are also “to blame”. No space for rest and socializing and not getting enough sleep mixed with high need for control and relentless perfectionism can lead to difficulties in any - even not toxic workplace really…

What are burnout symptoms and warning signs

Burnout has three main types of symptoms: physical, emotional and mental exhaustion.

Physical exhaustion can manifest as:

  • chronic fatigue,
  • sleep problems,
  • back pain and cramps,
  • eating disorders,
  • lack of motivation,
  • alcohol, drug and medication abuse.

Mental exhaustion:

  • general negative attitude,
  • loss of self-respect,
  • feeling inferior and negative self-image,
  • cynicism and aggression,
  • disregarding others and their problems,
  • feeling of incompetence,
  • breaking up with friends.

In turn, emotional exhaustion is:

  • agitation and problems with emotional control,
  • feeling of loneliness,
  • feeling of helplessness,
  • sense of lack of hope and prospects,
  • disappointment,
  • sense of emptiness and despair,
  • crying,
  • discouragement and listlessness,
  • depersonalization, i.e. a sense of separation and alienation from oneself and the world.

Stages of job burnout

Work burnout is a process that evolves more and more intensively if you don’t get necessary help. It has a specific and pretty logical scheme - take a look:

Honeymoon phase - it is often connected with starting a new job or taking up a new position. You give your best, you want to show your best self, and it is not a problem really since everything seems to be so exciting at this stage.

  • Stage 1 – an internal compulsion to prove one’s worth to others and to oneself.
  • Stage 2 – increased involvement in the performed work.

Initial phase - things start to go wrong. The red warning light lights up for the first time. It is not as bright as it was meant to be.

  • Stage 3 - you are neglecting your own needs, have difficulty concentrating, feel anxious and completely dissatisfied with your work.
  • Stage 4 - there is a disproportion between your needs and the requirements set by the environment.
  • Stage 5 - reevaluation. At this stage, your perception is already blurred and your sense of interpreting things becomes duller and duller. You avoid making decisions. You feel tired and keep forgetting stuff.

Chronic stress phase - A feeling of fatigue and failure dominates your life. Stress reaches levels that are hard to bear.

  • Stage 6 - you start to develop defense mechanisms and you procrastinate. You are overwhelmed by anger, aversion and apathy. You miss deadlines more and more often and see no sense in anything. You get sick and unwell regularly. You start to suffer from eating disorders - you can hardly eat or you struggle with bing eating. You consume more alcohol, drugs or tranquilizers.

Burnout phase - it happened - you have reached a state in which you really need a psychologist’s or psychiatrist’s help. Your life has turned into a nightmare.

  • Stage 7 - you feel hostile towards society and you withdraw.
  • Stage 8 - your behavior changes and you isolate yourself more and more from the world. All you can do is doubt yourself and your abilities. You are obsessive about work. You suffer from chronic headaches, stomach or intestinal problems. You’re thinking of quitting your job. The feeling of helplessness is overwhelming, as is the lack of hope for changes in professional life. You have resignation thoughts.

Habitual burnout phase - the most serious one.

  • Stage 9 - you forget that you have your own personality, the process of depersonalization is progressing.
  • Stage 10 - you get panic attacks. Different phobias may develop. You also get the sense of a total inner void.
  • Stage 11 - you are in despair, you get depressed.
  • Stage 12 - full-blown burnout. All the characteristics of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion emerge.

How to beat job burnout

The 3xR approach can prove helpful in dealing with work burnout.

  • Recognize - Watch out for the first signs of burnout. We have listed them above, so be vigilant.
  • Reverse - When you find something is wrong, restore your balance and take additional countermeasures - seek help, schedule a rest, and learn some techniques to deal with stress.
  • Resilience - prevent the likelihood of burnout reoccurring by prioritizing your mental and physical health. Work on your mental resilience to help you regain balance when experiencing difficulties in your daily and work life.

When you can’t cope anymore, don’t hesitate to seek help from a psychiatrist or psychologist.

How to prevent work burnout

Job burnout is a result of many factors and modern world’a rush and atomized society. You just have to take care of yourself and be attentive to the signals you’re getting from your body. Here are some basic things to keep in mind:

  • Separate your professional and private life to find your inner balance.
  • Do not make work the only foundation of your self-esteem. If it is based only on the role of a good employee, in case you have trouble at work, you have no other stable pillars to sustain it. Develop different roles in your life such as being a good friend, partner, caring parent, guitarist, cook, runner…
  • Learn to be assertive and to set boundaries.
  • Avoid overcommitting yourself to things that you aren’t being sufficiently rewarded for.
  • Regain the ability to rest and take breaks at work.
  • Get the support of other people who will just listen and understand with no judgment or good advice.
  • Beat perfectionism.
  • Work on the ability to adapt to changing conditions and try to develop a growth mindset. Remember that you shouldn’t get stressed by things that are beyond your control. And no, you have no control over everything - you are not omnipotent!

What the employer can do to protect his team from burnout

Your manager or employer can also help you avoid burnout. After all much depends on the workplace atmosphere and rules and the organizational culture.

  • Ditching strict deadlines. Whenever it is possible it’s better to get the project done in the Q3 or release the new product in June instead of making it June 6 at 4 pm.
  • Developing managers' skills with an emphasis on non-violent communication, empathy, sensitivity to conflicts and symptoms of burnout and depression.
  • Realistic and transparent appraisal and salary system (see Nozbe salary formula)
  • Organizational culture - wellbeing should not be manifested only in small initiatives and projects. It is a general way of managing work and relations in the company.
  • Increasing emphasis on the psychological health care program offered by companies - the mind is also a work tool (especially for knowledge workers) that should be invested in! (In Nozbe, for example, we receive a 50% subsidy for psychotherapy, etc.)
  • ‍Building trust in the team

Someone wrote on the Internet that CEO should stand not only for Chief Operations Officer, but also for Chief Emotions Officer 😎

Take a good care of yourself

Let’s repeat that burnout is not the domain of neurosurgeons and teachers. Stress, a sense of failure or conflicts with colleagues can affect anyone. If the situation is not handled in a timely and healthy manner, the “burnout mechanism” may be activated, and lead to serious mental and social problems.

One of the Nozbe team "dinosaurs" - #NoOffice practitioner since 2013. Extravert, neurotic & vegetarian feminist with 189 imperfections.