Job burnout

Feeling Stressed, Overwhelmed, Angry or Frustrated? Like 1 in 4 Others, you Could be Experiencing job Burnout.

A few years ago, I experienced job burnout.

I had a good job with a well-respected brand, and I was killing it – regularly receiving awards and praise. I pride myself on my can-do attitude, and I was often the person called upon to get stuff done, the more important and immediate the task the more likely it was to come to me. I felt appreciated and important, and I was relishing it. Life was good.

Then it wasn’t.

I started getting colds and flus all the time, but I never felt that I could take the time to fully recover. There was just too much to do!

I put on weight, mostly because I didn’t have time to prepare meals (so I’d eat take-out), and I stopped playing sports because I couldn’t guarantee that something urgent wouldn’t come up at work and I’d have to bail.

I felt like I was always racing against impossible deadlines, forcing me to work into the evening or weekends. I’d always chosen to work late before – almost feeling proud of the extra hours I was putting in to get the job done well – now I felt cornered into it. I’d lost control, and always felt snowed under. I noticed I was starting to get resentful, and I was always stressed. In fact, it became my new answer when I’d walk into the office in the morning.

“How are you?” my colleagues would ask while not looking up from their computers.

“Oh you know, a bit stressed, but OK,” I would answer as I started up my laptop, brushing it off but also secretly hoping someone would say, “oh really, how can I help?”

They never did.

Most concerning to me, I was exhausted but I couldn’t sleep. Not since my university days had I lay in bed awake stressing about all the things I had to get done the next day. The difference was that at university, I knew there was an end to exam week. It was a couple of weeks of intense prep and sitting the exams, then it was all over (with a holiday to follow!). But this just wasn’t ending. In fact, it was only getting worse!

I tried writing my to-do list for the next day before bed, I tried deep breathing to calm my mind, I tried over-the-counter sleeping tablets. Nothing was working.

So, I did what any strong, 21st century women would do….

I jumped ship.

Around that time, I was offered another job in another team, and it was the circuit breaker I needed. I got lucky, but not everyone has such a convenient alternative waiting for them when things get too tough.

(yep, I know, I know – I learned nothing and I’m sure this will come back to haunt me later).

2019: the Year of Burnout

Burnout means we’re constantly feeling busy, under pressure and like we have no time. We feel harassed by our technology and social media feeds always pinging. We feel pressured to reply to work emails on our phones at 8pm or on Sunday mornings, just to keep up with our other colleagues who may actually be in the office at that time… and our bosses are answering emails then anyway. It’s a constant, unrelenting stress. This is burnout.

Although there has been increasing discussion about mental health in the workplace and for years the world has been fighting to de-stigmatise mental health issues, it wasn’t until 2019 that the world stood up and took notice of the burnout problem.

In May, the World Health Organization (WHO) added burnout to its list of globally recognised diseases, then later re-labelled it as an “occupational phenomenon” caused by chronic stress in the workplace. WHO estimates that one in five children or teenagers and one in four adults will experience burnout in their lives. This was further supported by the World Economic Forum labelling burnout a “mental health pandemic” and saying it was the new “21st century disease.”

Deloitte weighed in on our ‘always on’ work culture and a Gallup study showed that there is a global epidemic of burned-out workers who are experiencing (1) mistreatment, (2) unmanageable workloads, (3) a lack of role clarity, (4) a lack of support from their management, and (5) unreasonable time pressures.

Mental health was even a hot topic at Davos this year.

Executives are especially susceptible to mental health struggles such as depression, loneliness and addiction, contributing to an “epidemic of mental illness.” (…) As one psychiatrist at a local clinic told Bloomberg, “The working conditions in our globalized, capitalized society favor burnout. The numbers are increasing, even though there’s been a lot invested in companies’ health management.” “

Arianna Huffington, My Weekly Thoughts newsletter, 27 January 2020

Workaholics Beware

Job burnout happens after prolonged job-related stress, and it can affect your mental and physical health. According to the Mayo Clinic, job burnout can include the following risk factors that you should look out for:

  • identifying strongly with work
  • lacking balance between your work life and your personal life
  • having a high workload, including overtime work
  • trying to be everything to everyone, or trying to do everything
  • working in a helping profession, such as health care
  • feeling you have little or no control over your work
  • having a monotonous job

Unfortunately, we still reward people who put in the extra hours – the people who are first to arrive and last to leave. But with the rise of flexible working, the workday now starts at 7am and goes until 9pm. Also, now that many people have a work phone, the lines between work and home have blurred, meaning we’re only a phone vibration away from that latest email your boss sends at 10pm because he’s also trying to catch up. For some, this means that unless they’re sleeping the day never really starts or stops.

If you’re a high achiever or simply passionate about what you do, you are at higher risk of burnout. And if you’re a workaholic, then watch out!

Job Burnout Symptoms

Burnout is a slow progressing state that you get to over time which can leave you feeling physically and emotionally exhausted as well as cynical and detached. Symptoms of burnout include:

  • excessive stress
  • insomnia
  • fatigue
  • sadness
  • anger or irritability
  • alcohol or substance misuse
  • high blood pressure
  • decreased immune function leading to an increase in illnesses, among others.

If you’re experiencing any of these job burnout symptoms, you’ll definitely want to get that checked out by a professional (talk to your doctor). If you’re not experiencing these symptoms, but are nodding along to those risk factors, you might want to reassess your current behaviours.

So, What’s the Ideal State?

A Yale university study recently examined engagement levels in 1000 employees and found that 2 out of 5 were engaged and had positive emotions about their work and workplace. Another 2 out of 5 were disengaged, so they were at higher risk of leaving the company. The last group, 1 out of 5, were engaged but burned-out – reporting high levels of interest, stress and frustration. Surprisingly, people in this group had a higher turnover rate than those who were disengaged.

To extrapolate, high performing talent is coming into organisations, burning themselves out, then moving on.

It stands to reason for both employers and employees that the ideal state for workers is to be highly engaged, but not to the point of job burnout. Workers need challenging work, sure, but they also need support to achieve that work.

In short, managers need to stop asking one person to do more than one person’s worth of work for long or indefinite periods. And employees need to stop treating constant overtime as a reasonable request (easier said than done, I know!).

Also, if asked to do a short-term stint of long nights and weekends, workers need time off afterward to re-balance. As Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan wrote in Harvard Business review, “resilience is about how you recharge, not how you endure.”

Balance. That old Chestnut.

While recovering is important in high stress jobs, it’s also important to put time and thought into how not to get too stressed in the first place. And you guessed it, it’s all about balance.

There are three focus areas you should be aiming to find balance across:

  • Purpose and Meaning;
  • Strong Social Bonds; and
  • Healthy Mind and Body.

With small but powerful changes in these areas, you can regain the balance in your life and stop your job from leading to burnout.

How to Bring Balance and Resilience Back Into Your Life

  1. Put work in its place – it is one part of a balanced life

Remember, work is only one part of a balanced, happy life. Many studies have shown that we need to have purpose or meaning in our lives, and in today’s day and age we generally get that from our jobs. In fact, because our jobs take up so much of our times nowadays, they often become the main thing that gives us purpose and they often are inextricably linked to our sense of identity. Think about it, what we do is very often how we introduce ourselves to others. It’s also often tied to how we see our place in the world.

So, yes jobs are important, but they’re not everything, and like with nearly all things in life, it’s about balance. You need balance between what brings you meaning and purpose, and also between the other aspects of your life: your social connections and your mental and physical health.

If you have a job you’re passionate about, but your job has recently taken over your life (the red circle is the only or largest circle), then you should start by setting some boundaries and learning to say “no” while you are getting yourself back onto your feet. Talk to your boss about needing to find balance between work and personal life and agree that you won’t take on new tasks or responsibilities for a while until you can get back to a manageable workload. Also, take back your out-of-office life by agreeing on times you can turn off your work phone or silence alerts outside of work hours – then do it!

  1. Prioritise your mental and physical health

Often, one of the first things that goes when we get busy is our physical health. With this one, start small if you want to make long-term change – the easiest way to fail at change is to try to do too much all at once.

So, here’s some good news: studies show that as little as one-hour of exercise per week, regardless of intensity, can show benefits. So, why not sign up for a 6pm gym class or sports league once per week. Tell your colleagues and boss so they can support you to leave on time that day. You could also find ways to get outside during your workday. Try walking meetings, or you could actually take your lunchbreak (gasp!), and when you do, find a park to sit in and eat lunch. Lastly, why not go for a hike with friends or family on the weekends – the benefits of being in nature are many.

Mental health is just as important as physical health, and they’re both intrinsically tied. There is a lot of information out there, such as be mindful, grateful, kind and generous. But if you’re recovering from burnout, or trying to, you may wish to focus on resting and recovering – also now known as self-care. So, take your holidays, get enough sleep, have long baths, Netflix to your heart’s content. Whatever it is that helps you unwind, make it a priority in 2020. Here’s some additional inspiration if you need it. Like with all things, you don’t want to overdo it (it’s all about balance!), but when things get busy it’s easy to forget we need to rest and recover too.

  1. Prioritise relationships outside of work

What do people remember on their deathbeds? People.

They remember the people in their lives and the experiences they shared with them.

Make sure you are prioritising your relationships outside of work, both at home and with friends. Find time to do activities with your friends and family, preferably face-to-face, such as taking holidays, going for walks, or having meals together. The benefits of having strong social connections are endless, and include living longer, being happier and being more resilient to illness, just to name a few. The great news is that you can roll #2 and #3 together sometimes for a double whammy.

If you don’t have many close friends and would like to have more, just remember, you need to invest the time. There is no quick fix here. The latest science shows that it takes about 200 hours to become a close friend with someone. So, try looking for a class or long-term activity that you can commit to that could help ease the awkward period between acquaintances and friends.

Why not make 2020 the year of balance?