Burnout: Signs, Causes, Consequences and How to Change It?

overworked employee having a breakdown

Burnout, also known as job burnout or occupational burnout, is physical, emotional and mental exhaustion in the workplace.

Symptoms of Burnout

When you are burned out, you may feel like you have lost the sense of control over your daily lives, getting overwhelmed by trivial matters;

You may also feel drained and cynical about your job;

You may resent your work tasks and colleagues;

You may feel irritable and reluctant to do work, like you just can’t complete anything or you are being dragged to do something at work; you may become forgetful and can’t focus well at work;

For those who are doing people jobs, such as healthcare workers or service workers, you may start to lose empathy, treat patients, clients or customers as just another number, or a routine task to finish.

In addition to mental and emotional symptoms, you may also have physical symptoms such as poor sleep quality, headaches, muscle tension, chest pain, reduced sex drive, vulnerability to diseases, backaches, bowel problems, low appetite, and fatigue.

The Difference Between Burnout, Stress and Depression

Burnout and stress share some common symptoms. However, someone who is stressed can still feel motivated to do things, whereas people with burnout are reluctant to do their job and feel helpless and hopeless about their work.

Currently, burnout is not seen as a medical condition. But depression is widely recognized as a clinical mental health diagnosis.

People with depression have a group of symptoms such as the inability to enjoy activities they used to love; it takes them a lot of energy to do simple things like shower or eat; an overwhelming sense of sadness and hopelessness; intense self-criticism; significant low motivation; sleep too much or too little; in severe case, they think about ending their life and those symptoms tend to last for at least for 2 weeks. People don’t typically feel significantly better when they are not working.

People with burnout can also feel sad, fatigued and reduced job performance. However, people with burnout usually feel much better when not at work.

Causes of burnout

Meaninglessness of work – you don’t love what you do, or your job can’t meet your practical needs, you routinely feel meaningless with your current job.

Overwork – when you have a workload beyond your capacity, you are likely to always be under pressure and stress.

No appreciation – you get very little appreciation or reward for what you have done; your boss, colleagues and clients don’t think you did a good job.

Lack of autonomy – you don’t have much say in your work-such as you can only receive the arrangements of your schedule, assignments or workload without any possibility to negotiate. As a result, you feel like you are just a tiny part of a big machine.

Vague job expectations – you don’t know what you need to do at work; you feel it is very easy to make mistakes in this circumstance.

Work values mismatch – you don’t like the products or services your workplace is producing or providing; you disagree with your workplace’s values, missions, and culture.

Toxic workplace culture or dynamics – your colleagues and bosses are manipulative, critical, and bullying. As a result, you frequently doubt your ability, intelligence and competence in this job, feel like you learned nothing from your previous jobs or school, and are like an idiot in this workplace.

Lack of social support – you feel isolated or don’t get enough support at work or in your personal life.

Work-life imbalance – work takes too much of your time; you are constantly working on weekday nights and weekends, and you rarely have time to do leisure activities or enjoy time with your friends and family members.

How to Change

Step 1:  Building awareness that you are burned out, and you need to take some initial actions to take care of yourself, such as taking sick leaves, reducing workload, learning more about burnout and workplace mental health, and distance from your workplace, colleagues and boss if necessary.

Step 2: Taking more actions to recover from burnout, such as practicing various relaxation and mindfulness exercises, developing a healthy lifestyle (e.g., eating healthy, sleep hygiene, physical exercises, etc.), doing leisure activities (e.g., travelling, gaming, knitting, music or anything that makes you relaxing), talking with people that can understand and support you.

Step 3: Evaluating your job. Carefully analyze what went wrong at your workplace, and address practical problems. The most important thing is to reflect deeply on your personal and career values; choosing a career is not just about doing a job but also about choosing a lifestyle. Ask yourself, what type of life or career do you really want? Is the current job consistent with your values? If not, what changes do you need to make? And how?

Step 4: Post burnout growth. After figuring out your life and career values, you must keep reminding yourself of them and constantly acting on them. If you decide to stay in your current job, because it still matches your personal and career values, you need to learn to adjust your thinking styles, learn coping skills, and improve your time management ability and job crafting. Job crafting refers to proactively changing some parts of your job to better align it with your personal needs, goals and skills.

Choosing a Career is Not Just About Doing a Job, But Also About Choosing a Lifestyle

Click here to have a 10-minute free phone consultation with Dr. Houyuan Luo, a registered counselling/clinical psychologist in Toronto, Ontario.