All jobs bring some level of stress, but for many workers, this stress takes a significant toll on their quality of life. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 83 percent of workers experience work-related stress, and over half of those surveyed say that it affects their life outside of work. Experiencing prolonged periods of workplace stress can eventually lead to burnout, causing the individual to feel exhausted and unable to cope with everyday life.
Burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real or doesn’t have an effect on the individual’s physical and mental health. In fact, some mental health experts see a link between workplace burnout and mental health conditions such as depression.
Signs of burnout vary from person to person, but there are a few symptoms to look for. These include:
- Digestive problems
- Loss of interest or enjoyment in hobbies and activities
- Chronic fatigue
- Difficulty sleeping
- Getting sick more often
- Changes in appetite
- Aches and pains
- High blood pressure
- Difficulty focusing on tasks
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Depressed mood
Having a high-stress job doesn’t guarantee that an individual will experience burnout, and there are ways people can learn to manage unavoidable stress so that it doesn’t impact their quality of life. However, there are some workplace factors that carry a greater risk of employee burnout. A recent Gallup study that looked at about 7,500 full-time workers found five factors that were most likely to lead to burnout:
- Unfair treatment, which may include bias, favoritism, or mistreatment, as well as unfair compensation or corporate policies
- Unmanageable workload
- Lack of a clearly defined role and job responsibilities
- Lack of managerial support or communication
- Unreasonable time constraints
What Happens if Workplace Burnout Isn’t Treated?
Living in a state of burnout isn’t sustainable long-term, and neglecting to address it can lead to serious consequences. The Maslach Burnout Inventory is the tool most commonly used for measuring burnout. It measures the three dimensions of burnout, including cynicism and detachment, reduced job performance, and emotional exhaustion.
Avoiding Work-Related Activities
Once someone reaches the point of burnout, they often perceive work-related activities as increasingly difficult or stressful. They may grow increasingly frustrated and cynical over working conditions, the injustices they face, or the coworkers, customers or clients they see every day. This may cause them to avoid work-related responsibilities, further increasing the job-related stress they experience.
Reduced Job Performance
Individuals experiencing burnout may have negative feelings about job-related tasks and experience difficulty in putting forth the effort required to do well at work. They may also have a hard time applying the level of focus and creativity their job requires. As a result, the quality of their work may decrease.
Burnout often brings emotional exhaustion, causing the individual to feel as though they’re tapped out with nothing left to give. This makes it difficult to cope with regular responsibilities and unexpected challenges that crop up throughout the day.
Measuring Workplace Burnout: 10 Questions to Consider
- Are You Seeing a Drop in Productivity? When someone experiences burnout, their drive to succeed at work typically wanes. Symptoms such as exhaustion and difficulty focusing can make it very difficult to maintain their normal level of productivity. Instead of being truly engaged, the individual may just be going through the motions, leading to cynicism and poor performance.
- Do You No Longer Experience a Sense of Achievement from Your Accomplishments? Workers experiencing burnout typically have a sense of detachment from their work. Even if they previously took pride in the impact of their hard work, they may no longer enjoy the same sense of achievement they did when they were new to their job.
- Do You Feel More Critical at Work? After living with chronic stress, little nuisances can become big frustrations that reinforce the idea that the individual’s workplace isn’t a good environment. Workers experiencing burnout may feel more critical of management, customers or clients, workplace policies or colleagues.
- Is It Difficult to Concentrate at Work? Staying on task and maintaining focus is difficult for the burned-out worker. As the individual becomes increasingly overwhelmed by their job, it gets harder for them to keep their attention on their tasks. This is likely due to the fact that when an individual is living under chronic stress, their brain sends out more dopamine and norepinephrine. This can impair the brain’s ability to assess complex situations and make decisions.
- Do You Feel Disillusionment Regarding Your Job? Burnout generally happens to people who were highly invested in their jobs and felt passionate about the work they did. As that job begins to take a toll on their mental health and quality of life, their opinion about their field may change considerably.
- Have You Experienced Changes in Your Sleep Patterns? Despite the overwhelming exhaustion that burned-out workers experience, sleep can be difficult to achieve. For some, racing thoughts keep them awake. Other workers avoid sleep because when they wake up, it’ll be time to face their job once again.
- Are You Experiencing Physical Symptoms such as Headaches or Digestive Issues? While the impact that stress and burnout have on mental health is easily apparent, some people are surprised to learn that it can also have a significant impact on their physical health. Tension headaches, nausea, and digestive issues can all stem from burnout.
- Do You Have Difficulty Getting Motivated to Do Your Job? For many burned-out workers, there’s a disconnect between what they’re doing and what they truly want to be doing. When a job is no longer fulfilling or a source of pride for the worker, finding the motivation to stay on task is difficult.
- Are You Becoming Impatient with Coworkers or Clients? Once a worker reaches the point of burnout, they’re using all the mental energy they can muster to perform the necessary tasks at work. They may not have a high threshold for interpersonal challenges or interactions, which may lead to them becoming impatient with coworkers and clients.
- Are You Misusing Food, Alcohol, or Drugs to Deal with Uncomfortable Emotions? Workers experiencing burnout are at an increased risk of self-medicating with food, alcohol or recreational drugs. Because these things can trigger a reward response in the brain, the individual may use them to temporarily alleviate uncomfortable emotions after a long day at work.
What to Do If You Are Experiencing Workplace Burnout
The good news is that burnout is reversible, though it typically requires making some changes. Some workers have the option of speaking with the company’s human resources department or a supervisor regarding their role’s unrealistic demands. If a pay cut is manageable, some workers benefit from taking a demotion with fewer responsibilities or expected hours. In more extreme cases, the individual may consider switching to a new job altogether to recover from burnout.
Work-related stress may be unavoidable even if the individual is working their dream job, so it’s important to proactively manage stress by developing clear, actionable strategies. Maintaining a healthy diet with meals at regular intervals, getting enough sleep and incorporating daily exercise are simple ways to reduce some of the effects of job-related stress. It’s also helpful to adhere to regular work hours and take all the vacation time available.
Studies have suggested that burnout may stem from or result in mental health issues such as depression and substance use disorder. Taking a holistic approach to your wellness, which may include getting professional help with a mental illness, can help you find strategies for managing stress and feeling your best.