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Feeling burnout? Here's how to manage

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If you’ve ever experienced burnout at your job, then you know that it’s aptly named; burnout can make you feel sort of charred and brittle; one gust of wind away from disintegrating into ashes.

And while it emerges in the context of work, burnout can affect every aspect of your life – when you’re feeling like a piece of charcoal, it’s hard to stay on top of your usual responsibilities, take care of your health, maintain your relationships, or engage in hobbies.

Defining burnout: A systems problem
Burnout is typically defined as involving three main things: feeling exhausted, feeling cynical and detached, and not feeling effective or accomplished at your job. It also tends to come with a constellation of other experiences, like low motivation, sleep disturbances, appetite changes, headaches and muscle pain, frequent illness, a sense of failure and helplessness, and withdrawal from work, social activities, and so on.

Some research has previously focused on burnout as either an individual issue – a problem that can be fixed by addressing things about the person experiencing it – or an organizational issue – a problem that can be fixed by addressing things about the organization the person is in. Current research, however, considers it to be a systems problem, meaning that both aspects of the job or organization and aspects of the person interact with each other to cause burnout.

Factors that lead to burnout 
Research suggests that these are just a few of the factors that may make it more likely for a person to experience burnout:

Organizational Factors:

  • Demanding workload in terms of volume / complexity / intensity / time pressure
  • Limited control over projects and day-to-day priorities
  • Resourcing constraints - having to do more with less
  • More distant or impersonal connections or a lack of a sense of community (e.g., due to remote work or other issues)
  • Job insecurity
  • Issues related to communication, recognition, support, fairness, etc.

Individual Factors:

  • Tending to be highly perfectionistic or self-critical
  • Being a ‘workaholic’ – investing in work at the expense of life outside of work, having difficulty setting boundaries or maintaining a healthy work-life balance
  • Tending to be less optimistic and more pessimistic
  • Tending to be less proactive and more passive
  • Sensitivity and reactivity to negative emotions
  • Preexisting mental health concerns
  • High levels of stress or responsibility outside of work

How to deal with burnout
Depending on the situation, different factors may be more or less relevant. In some situations, burnout might be driven more strongly by factors within your organization. In other situations, burnout might be driven more strongly by individual factors.

If you’re feeling burned out right now, the first step is reflecting on which factors might be making you feel burned out. Then ask yourself: which of these are in my control and can be changed, and which aren’t? In general, research suggests that burnout prevention requires both kinds of factors to be addressed for long-lasting change.

For workplace factors, change might look like building connections with like-minded colleagues or setting up a meeting with your management or HR department to advocate for yourself or for organizational changes. Where organizational changes aren’t possible, focusing on addressing any individual factors may be a good first step.

For individual factors, change might look like setting clearer boundaries at work (e.g., what time you start and stop working, blocking out lunch breaks, turning off e-mail notifications on evenings and weekends, saying no or providing reasonable time estimates on projects, etc.), prioritizing self-care and work-life balance, taking a leave of absence, or seeking support from friends, loved ones, or a professional when things are feeling unmanageable.

A final thought
When you’re feeling burned out, these strategies can feel daunting. Most of them require energy and effort, two things which tend to be in short supply. Start small, be patient with yourself, and reach out early if you’re starting to feel crispy around the edges.

If you’re struggling, you can access our therapy programs by visiting our Virtual Mental Health Therapy Clinic. If you are part of our Workplace Mental Health Program, please visit your company page for access to services covered by your workplace. We’re only a few clicks away. 

Selected References

  • Awa, W. L., Plaumann, M., & Walter, U. (2010). Burnout prevention: A review of intervention programs. Patient education and counseling, 78(2), 184-190.
  • Aydemir, O., & Icelli, I. (2013). Burnout: risk factors. In Burnout for Experts (pp. 119-143). Springer, Boston, MA.
  • Fye, H. J., Cook, R. M., Baltrinic, E. R., & Baylin, A. (2020). Examining Individual and Organizational Factors of School Counselor Burnout. Professional Counselor, 10(2), 235-250.
  • Garner, B. R., Knight, K., & Simpson, D. D. (2007). Burnout among corrections-based drug treatment staff: Impact of individual and organizational factors. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 51(5), 510-522.
  • Green, A. E., Albanese, B. J., Shapiro, N. M., & Aarons, G. A. (2014). The roles of individual and organizational factors in burnout among community-based mental health service providers. Psychological services, 11(1), 41-49.
  • Song, Z., & Baicker, K. (2019). Effect of a workplace wellness program on employee health and economic outcomes: a randomized clinical trial. Jama, 321(15), 1491-1501.
  • Wigert, B. & Agrawal, S. (2018). Employee burnout, part 1: The 5 main causes. Retrieved from: https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237059/employee-burnout-part-main-causes.aspx

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Stronger Minds content is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to establish a standard of care with a reader, you should always seek the advice of your mental health professional, physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. If you think you may have a medical or mental health emergency, call your doctor, go to the nearest hospital emergency department, or call emergency services immediately. You should never disregard or delay seeking medical advice relating to treatment or standard of care because of information contained herein. Medical information changes constantly. Therefore the information herein should not be considered current, complete or exhaustive, nor should you rely on such information to recommend a course of treatment for you or any other individual. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk.