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: ‘It turns from a whisper into a voice, and a voice into a scream’: How to recognize job burnout — and seek help

While the end of the year is billed as a time of rest and reflection, more than half of Americans find their stress levels increase during the holiday season — with or without a global pandemic and the rapidly spreading omicron variant.

A few years back before the world had never heard of COVID-19, Tessa White was driving home from a long day at the office when she realized something had completely skipped her mind: It was her son’s birthday. 

“I called the bakery on the way home … trying to get a cake with his name on it, trying to order balloons and calling family members in a mass hysteria trying to get them to come to the house to look like I had remembered and planned for my son’s birthday,” she recalls.

And then, in a moment of what White calls “complete shame,” she called her son and offered him 20 bucks to spend however he wanted instead of trying to throw together a last-minute party. “And I did it as a bribe, and I knew he would take it,” she said. 

“It was just one of those moments of shame — parent shame — because I knew the reason I had done it is because I was trying to buy off my child, so I didn’t have to put this together,” she added.

“And that was kind of a real salient moment in my career where I went, ‘This has got to stop. Like, I am putting work first every single time, [and] I’m working 60-hour work weeks at the cost of the most important relationships in my life,’” White said.

It finally dawned on her just how much her work-life balance was out of whack and how burned out she was. 

When it comes to job burnout, White said, “you get the whisper at first when you start saying, you know, ‘Boy, I’m tired or I’m feeling burned out,’ and then it turns from a whisper into a voice, and a voice into a scream — and then thumps you upside the head.”

“‘Even though I could see that I was getting sick, I was not feeling well and I was overwhelmed, I kept going.’”

— Nina Nesdoly. who has degrees in neuroscience and business management and is currently working on a Ph.D in management.

For Nina Nesdoly, that “thump upside the head” came a little too literally. In 2017, she had taken on extra credits to complete her degree, was working and had a sick parent in the hospital. She passed out in a yoga class, hit her head and ended up with a severe concussion.

“Even though I could see that I was getting sick, I was not feeling well and I was overwhelmed, I kept going,” she said.

Ironically, she was taking the class in an attempt to make some time for self-care. Nesdoly had to take time off work, cut back on her degree and take time to recover. “Basically, if you don’t give yourself time to rest, and you set really unrealistic expectations for yourself, your body will stop you one way or another, be that through burnout or, in my case, a concussion.”

In her case, she wasn’t experiencing burnout in the traditional sense, she said. “But it was certainly a consequence of pushing myself too hard and taking on too much, and that really contributed to my interest and pursuit of stress management and managing workload and preventing burnout.”

Nesdoly has degrees in neuroscience and business management and is currently working on a Ph.D in management.

Both White and Nesdoly now work with businesses and employees to help workplaces and workers avoid job burnout — White as the Job Doctor and Nesdoly through Workplace Clarity. And with 76% of workers saying they’ve experienced job burnout, it’s clearly a problem.

Here’s what job burnout really is

We use burnout in everyday language to describe when we’re feeling stressed out and tired, but job burnout is a specific experience defined by the World Health Organization as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” 

The three main dimensions of burnout are feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from work — including feelings of cynicism or negativism about your job — and reduced job efficacy, according to WHO.

There are five main causes of job burnout, according to a Gallup poll, including feelings of unfair treatment at work, an unmanageable workload, a lack of clarity on your role at work, lack of communication and support from your manager, and unreasonable deadlines and pressure on time.

Burnout doesn’t necessarily depend on the number of hours an employee is working, but more so how they are engaging with that work.

Often, workers who are burned out will end up working even more, because they feel they’re behind on work due to that reduced efficiency, according to Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and a management expert. Burned-out people will work into the evening and on weekends and lose that delineation between work and personal time.

“That cycle of burned out employees working even more are only worsened during the pandemic, as boundaries between work and home-life become more blurred.”

“There’s this really terrible cycle that starts to be experienced where the days and weekends blur into one another, and the sense of inefficiency becomes more and more and more — and it’s very difficult to kind of start climbing out of that experience,” David told MarketWatch.

That cycle has only worsened during the pandemic, as so many employees have worked from home and the boundaries between work and home-life become more blurred.

And while burnout is typically associated with a lack of engagement at work, data is suggesting the opposite during the pandemic, according to Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

Whether it’s because they want to help their company stay afloat during the pandemic or because they are afraid of losing their job at an already precarious time, burned-out employees are also still quite engaged at work, she said.

“We’re really exhausted, and we’re pushing ourselves through it,” Whillans said. “I think it’s really important to recognize that we’ve been sprinting for almost two years now to deal with all of the different demands on our time that have come up as a result, or the changes to our work that have come up as a result, of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The toll of burnout on work and personal life

Job burnout often begins to spill over into your personal life, David said, because you start feeling like you have nothing left to give at all — in terms of both work and relationships.

“When people are feeling so depleted, they are both depleted in their work, but they’re also depleted in how they are able to be present with their children, with the people in front of them, in their relationships, in their capacity to develop levels of connection,” David said.

“There really is a mass-scale impact where the experience that you’re having at work starts to encroach on almost all other aspects of life,” she added.

“‘There really is a mass-scale impact where the experience that you’re having at work starts to encroach on almost all other aspects of life.’”

— Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and a management expert

Burnout can be a precursor to mental-health issues, Nesdoly said, and can lead to people needing to take long breaks from work to recover fully. 

It can also take a toll on your physical health due to prolonged stress and a lack of energy to exercise, David said.

Employees who say they are often burned out are 63% more likely to take a sick day, and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room, according to Gallup. In terms of work performance, burned out employees are half as likely to discuss how to approach job goals with their managers, 13% less confident in their job performance and nearly three times as likely to leave their current employer.

Employees that are disengaged at work cost the U.S. economy $483 billion to $605 billion a year due to lost productivity, Gallup found. 

David has done research on the opposite of burnout, where employees feel engaged, energized and connected to their workplace. In those work environments, there was an 11% lower turnover rate, and at one organization, those who felt high levels of connection had $110,000 more in revenue per person than those who were moderately engaged.

Exhausted? Feeling a lack of control? Those are signposts of what you value in your work, and can help you ensure your next role will be one that values them as well.

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Practical steps to address job burnout

A lot of the time, people will recommend you practice self-care when you’re burned out. But putting on a face mask, lighting a candle and soaking in a bubble bath won’t fix the way you fundamentally engage with your work. Because burnout can look different for everyone, it will require individual solutions.

In terms of what you can do practically if you’re on deadline or can’t take a real break from work and are experiencing burnout, Job Doctor Tessa White recommends a 15-minute hard stop to “reboot your brain.”

Take 15 minutes away from your computer and do something entirely different. Call a friend, take a walk around the block, meditate, sit in silence, write a gratitude note — just stop working for a quarter of an hour. 

“If you keep trying to work the same problem, your brain will go slower and slower until it just shuts down all together, so the time is not well spent,” she said. “Just like an IT person tells you to turn off your computer and turn it on again and then it works again — usually it’s magical, your brain will start to work again.”

“Take 15 minutes away from your computer and do something entirely different. Call a friend, take a walk around the block, meditate, sit in silence, write a gratitude note”

Another practical tip is to know when your energy is highest and your brain is working it’s best. It’s normal to have certain times of day when your brain just feels like it can fire faster, and knowing when that is and working the hard problems then can improve productivity, White said.

But in reality, burnout is oftentimes not that simple. “It’s to do with your work environment, [and] how you’re interacting with your work environment. So if you are only focused on taking time for yourself to recover and not how you interact with that work environment, one or two days off without any kind of adjustments at work is often not going to be enough,” Nesdoly said.

So while taking time off and spending time with family and exercising is important, Nesdoly said there are steps you can take at work to help with burnout. Getting clarity about your role and your manager’s expectations can help combat burnout by “making sure you’re putting your time, energy and attention into the right thing.”

That can mean having conversations with your leaders about your goals and priorities so your energy is going into work that will contribute to your career growth.

Setting boundaries around your time is also crucial, Whillans said, as is advocating for yourself at work. 

“If you do advocate on behalf of yourself and ask for more time if you need it, it’s not negatively perceived,” she said. “Managers see that as a signal of confidence, that you’re committed, that you want to do a good job. And so you’re more likely to be seen as more motivated and more powerful, as opposed to less competent.”

A common reaction when you’re starting to feel burned out is to lean into work more, and make yourself busier, David said. One of the first steps you can take when you start to realize you’re reaching burnout is to “start leaning into your humaneness,” she said.

“That is not about what we do, but it’s rather who we are being and being able to be present and connected and creative and spontaneous and joyful,” she said.

‘You’re not alone, and it’s not your fault’

It can also help simply to recognize that burnout “isn’t just an individual problem,” Whillans said. “Our organizations and society in general are pushing us to feel burnout and feel like we can’t take time off.”

“So it is worth recognizing that this issue is not just something that is under an individual’s control, but is rather determined by an organization’s culture, and by society,” she said. The “recognition that if you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, that you’re not alone and it’s not your fault is an important and helpful way to think about the larger problem.”

“‘This issue is not just something that is under an individual’s control, but is rather determined by an organization’s culture, and by society.’”

— Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School

David also notes that burnout can be a workplace culture problem. “We can’t keep on perpetuating an impossible expectation that it’s fine to put more and more and more and more and more load on people, and that it’s up to them to adapt. And if they can’t adapt, that it’s an individual weakness.”

Workplaces like this have a burnout culture, David said. Signs of this include lack of role clarity, overwhelming workloads, absence of community, absence of purpose, lack of recognition and lack of individual control.

“So as soon as you start to do these things in your organizational culture, you’ve got a burnout culture,” she said.

If you do look for another job, consider this first

If you are working in a burnout culture, decide that you can’t have those conversations with your leaders about making the culture better and determine it’s time to move onto your next workplace, there are some moves to consider first to ensure you’re not going out of the frying pan into the fire.

First, give yourself time to start laying the tracks for making a switch. Don’t quit out of frustration one day. “It translates, I believe, into a 10%-15% differential in pay when you are searching for a job without having that leverage,” White said.

Second, get to the root of why you’re burned out in the first place, David said. Ask yourself what the emotion is that you’re feeling. Are you bored? Exhausted? Feeling a lack of control? Those are signposts of what you value in your work, and can help you ensure your next role will be one that values them as well. Bored? Look for a role that allows for a lot of growth and learning. Emotionally exhausted? Look for a role that is more aligned with your values. Feeling a lack of control? Look for a role where you’re not being micromanaged and have more autonomy. 

“Emotionally exhausted? Look for a role that is more aligned with your values. Feeling a lack of control? Look for a role where you’re not being micromanaged and have more autonomy. ”

“A really important part of emotional health is trying to understand for yourself what your burnout is signposting to you and what your human needs are within that,” David said. “And when you start identifying what those human needs are, you’ll then be better positioned to know that the role that you’re looking for is matched at some level to actually meeting those needs.”

Third, you can do some research on LinkedIn or Glassdoor to see what current employees are saying about the work culture. 

Fourth, you can ask direct questions about burnout culture during your interviewing process. You can ask questions like: What gets rewarded at your organization? What do managers care about? What do they value?

You can also signal your values in your answers in interviews. If asked how you handle stress, and you say you can take on anything and push through stressful situations to get the work done, you’re setting yourself up for burnout, Nesdoly said. But if you say that you have some non-negotiable boundaries and personal priorities, but that you make sure to communicate with your manager when you’re stressed, you’re positioning yourself as someone who wants to work in a supportive environment, she said.

Fifth, David said to reframe how you think about burnout entirely.

“When you are burning out, you are in this messy middle — and there is real power in acknowledging it,” David said. Burnout can be a transitional period that allows you to take a beat and reevaluate what you value in your work.

“When you’re starting to recognize, to name and label and understand your needs and make small changes, you’re starting to create levels of what we call, psychologically, ‘self-efficacy,’ which is really important for people — and you can do that even within your current job.”

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