Career Advice

How to Spot Burnout Before It’s Overtaken Your Life

Hard work is as American as apple pie. We pride ourselves on pulling 12-hour days — getting in a workout before heading to the office before running to the PTA meeting and making it home in time for the evening news. Being stellar at the office, exceeding expectations, and climbing the ladder are all a part of the American dream. Until suddenly you hit a wall.

You’re mentally and physically exhausted. Going through the motions day in and day out, forgetting self-care and ignoring pleas from friends to “slow down.”

You are burned out.

Stressful jobs contribute to 120,000 deaths each year and cost U.S. businesses up to $190 billion in health care costs, according to a 2016 paper from researchers at Harvard Business School and Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. And stress isn’t just crippling degreed professionals. The study found that “workers with less education are more likely to take jobs with more workplace stress, such as those involving shift work, experiencing frequent layoffs, or demanding long hours.”

In another study, more than four in ten working adults (44%) say their current job has an impact on their overall health, and 43% report that their job has a negative impact on their levels of stress. Whether you’re 21 or 81, American workers are reporting higher levels of stress as many are unwilling to take vacation time, concerned about job security or simply trying to keep up with the demands of a 24/7 work world.

“Burnout is primarily caused by systemic factors in workplaces,” says Chicago-based clinical psychologist Dr. Adia Gooden. “Jobs that put more pressure on employees without support and useful feedback are more likely to see employee burnout.”

To help you manage your stress and find a bit of balance, we spoke with Dr. Gooden to find out how to spot burnout before it causes serious damage. Take a deep breath, and read on.

Step 1: Know the Signs

It may sound cliche, but recognizing there is a problem is the first step to solving it. Some of the common signs of burnout, according to Dr. Gooden, are constant feelings of irritability and frustration at work. Beyond just the normal grumbles and gripes about a heavy workload or a nagging co-worker, Dr. Gooden insists true burnout could “look like getting annoyed at any request you are asked to do that falls within the scope of your job. Feeling ineffective and disconnected from the reason you took a job is another sign of burnout. Additionally, if you are in a helping profession, compassion fatigue, no longer being able to empathize with the people you serve is another sign of burnout.”

Research shows that burnout has three dimensions:

  • Emotional exhaustion: Feeling used up and spent; sometimes physically and mentally, as well. You may have trouble sleeping, get sick often, and become irritated at the drop of a hat.
  • Depersonalization: Feeling alienated and disconnected to others at work.
  • Reduced personal accomplishment: Feeling apathetic and losing confidence in yourself and your abilities at work. Your capacity to perform is compromised.

Step 2: See How the Office or Work Environment Impacts You and Others

Instead of feeling as though the issue lies with the individual, there are environmental factors that can exacerbate stress and contribute to burnout. After all, numerous studies show that job stress has escalated progressively over the past few decades. Workers who report the perception of having little control but lots of demands have been demonstrated to be associated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension, and other disorders. “Unclear expectations for work productivity and output and inconsistent evaluations also lead to anxiety and stress,” insists Dr. Gooden. “Additionally, when workers do not have agency over their work and decision-making processes that affect them, this can increase stress and burnout. Further, when employees feel invalidated or unappreciated for their work, this contributes to burnout. Finally, heavy workloads that prevent employees from engaging in consistent self-care can lead to stress, anxiety, and burnout. 

Step 3: Consider How Technology Plays a Role

Unplugging or disconnecting from technology has been a trending topic among workplace therapists, but so few employees manage to do it. “We take better care of our smartphones than we do ourselves,” said Arianna Huffington at a Glassdoor event last year. “I speak from personal experience. I made every mistake in the book. I collapsed from sleep exhaustion in 2007, when I awoke in the hospital I asked myself: Is this what success looks like?”

Dr. Gooden agrees and suggests that employees who feel on the brink of burnout need to seriously rethink their interactions with technology, from laptops to smartphones. “Not setting boundaries around your work or being in a work environment that discourages boundaries can certainly lead to burnout and is ultimately harmful to employees and the organizations they work for. When employees feel they must constantly be ready to respond to an email or take a work call, this prevents them from being able to relax during their time away from the office. Taking breaks from work including times when we don’t respond to email gives us space to rest and get rejuvenated. These breaks allow us to be more effective workers when we return to work.”

Step 4: Know That Workouts Only Help But So Much

One of the go-to suggestions for people experiencing depression, anxiety, or stress is to hit the gym. However, that solution isn’t for everyone. “It is important for people to find self-care activities that work for them that they can incorporate into their daily or weekly schedules on a regular basis,” says Dr. Gooden. “Engaging in consistent self-care, which involves eating healthy foods regularly, sleeping enough (7-8 hours), having personal time, connecting with loved ones, and exercise, is something that can help prevent and address burnout.”

At Salesforce, CEO Marc Benioff deals with the stress of running a multi-billion-dollar company by practicing mindfulness. “I have a mindfulness practice, and I try to practice mindfulness formally a few times a week,” Benioff said. “It’s a meditation type practice, just being able to sit quietly and spend time trying to let go of the stress that I collect during the week running a big business.”

Step 5: When to Speak to Management

In some instances, employee burnout needs to be flagged to the boss. Dr. Gooden isn’t advising that you send a staff memo or notify your CEO, however, she does recommend that your direct manager be looped in if your productivity and well-being are being compromised. “When talking to a manager about burnout, employees should highlight their commitment to the job and desire to work effectively and efficiently,” says Dr. Gooden.

Next, it’s important to set expectations with your boss so that you are set up for success. “For example, not responding to work emails after 7pm, taking real lunch breaks, and requesting constructive feedback about their work.”

If you notice that your burnout is manifesting itself in ways that make you feel unappreciated at work and detached from the team, Dr. Gooden advises, “it may be helpful to have a conversation with your manager about how your work fits into the overall goals and mission of the organization.”

Step 6: Seeking Professional Help

Whether you’re new to a job and feeling a little overwhelmed or so knee-deep in burnout that you don’t know what to do, seeking professional help is warranted. “In general, it is better to seek out therapy sooner rather than later,” says Dr. Gooden. And the good news is that seeing a therapist is often covered by your health insurance. “Having difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much, having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning and engaging in daily functioning, feeling hopeless, feeling sad and/or not enjoying things anymore, and having headaches, are all symptoms of depression. Additionally, worrying all of the time, having racing thoughts, your heart racing, having stomach problems, and difficulty concentrating are signs of anxiety.” If those symptoms sound familiar, consider scheduling an appointment with a psychotherapist or physician.

Not ready to take that step? Consider alternatives. “Talk therapy can help address depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns and can also be very helpful if you are questioning your career path and trying to figure out how to reconnect to your sense of purpose in life.”

One of the best ways to prevent burnout is to “take time to reflect and reconnect to your purpose,” says Dr. Gooden. Step back from the craziness of the work week and take a deep breath. Take stock of how you feel and how you want to feel, then take actionable steps towards better work-life balance.