Chances are no one’s ever accused you of being allergic to hard work, nor should they. But these days something is…different. It’s not just the hours. It’s not just the endless meetings, or the incessant ping of emails hitting your inbox. It’s not even the pile of tasks that never seems to shrink. For some reason, every day feels like a dreadful, soul-sucking grind.
You aren’t broken and you certainly aren’t alone. You’re suffering from burnout.
The World Health Organization defines burnout in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases as “…a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- Reduced professional efficacy.”
A 2021 survey by the American Psychological Association found that 79% of employees had experienced work-related stress in the month before the survey, and that nearly 60% of employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress that sound suspiciously like the symptoms described in the WHO’s definition of burnout. The figures are alarming, but we aren’t here to talk about the systemic problems with America’s work culture.
We’re here to talk about what you can do to beat burnout.
Beating Burnout One Symptom at a Time
Look, there’s no way around it: burnout is an organizational problem, not an individual one. Your company has been negligent in its duty (unless you’re the big boss, in which case it is your fault. Sorry). Unfortunately, snapping out of burnout is your responsibility. You can’t expect a knight in shining armor to swoop down and save you from the unfair situation you find yourself in.
Here’s another unfortunate fact: your burnout is as unique as you are. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to curing burnout (assuming quitting isn’t an option).
The first step to recovery is to identify whether you’re experiencing persistent exhaustion, cynicism, a reduced sense of efficacy, or some combination of the three. Your experience will dictate how you address your situation.
The best treatment for exhaustion is rest. Take a few days off if you can. Actively engage in activities that energize you. Give yourself some space and perspective away from your usual draining routine. But don’t stop there.
R&R is great for treating fatigue, but it’s the self-care equivalent of putting an ice pack on a broken bone. Any relief will be temporary without treating the underlying condition. Think about it: how did you feel on your last day off (whenever that was)? Were you really able to relax and recuperate with the specter of the work waiting for you in the office?
The only true cure for exhaustion is material changes to your work situation. But given that is often a slow and difficult process in the American workplace, you may have to do the next best thing: self-care.
You’ve probably heard the term by now, but here’s a quick definition from the National Institute of Mental Health just in case: “Self-care means taking the time to do things that help you live well and improve both your physical health and your mental health.” So, you know, taking care of yourself.
Part of the advice is kind of obvious.
- Get regular exercise.
- Eat healthy meals and stay hydrated.
- Get enough sleep.
- Try meditating and practicing mindfulness.
- Reach out to friends and family.
And some of it is a little less obvious.
- Set goals and priorities: Handle open items one at a time. Learn to say no to new work when you’re already swamped. Try to focus on what you’ve accomplished at the end of the day instead of what you didn’t finish
- Practice gratitude: Remind yourself of things you’re grateful to have in your life. Go over them at night. Write them down if you have to
- Focus on positivity: Think happy thoughts. Seriously, it helps.
- Practice random acts of kindness: Be kind to strangers, friends, family members, coworkers, and yourself
What works for others may not work for you. Regardless, it’s all worth a shot. Who knows, maybe you’ll find something that helps a lot more than you expected.
Cynicism and persistent disengagement from your job may be rooted in a number of work-life factors. A paper in World Psychiatry (via the National Center for Biotechnology) that examined a range of conceptual burnout models describes six key types of organizational risk factors that contribute to burnout and notes that these have a clear impact on engagement/cynicism:
- Control: A lack of autonomy and feelings of helplessness that arise when you feel you have no influence over decisions that affect your work.
- Community: A lack of positive connections and trust among coworkers, which may also stem from unresolved conflict.
- Fairness: Feelings that arise when you perceive inequitable decisions made at work, particularly if you feel like you’ve received the short end of the stick.
Unfortunately, some of these factors are out of your hands — you may not have the authority to gain more control over your work or make your employers treat you more fairly, which leaves community as the main factor to target. It makes intuitive sense: people who like, trust, and rely on their coworkers naturally feel more attached to their jobs. There are a few ways you can address the issue:
- Start more conversations at work.
- Invite coworkers out to happy hours or other extracurricular activities.
- Focus on other interpersonal connections outside of work.
- Find or create a community of like-minded people in similar situations.
There’s nothing you can do about perceived unfairness unless you’re already calling the shots. And while you can’t do much about control, you can at least try to advocate for change.
- Ask your boss for more autonomy and/or to “own” more specific tasks.
- Propose new processes and policies when you see the need for improvement.
- Start by establishing your own domain of responsibilities and work your way up from there.
Some feelings of inefficacy are expected, even desirable at times. You should always feel like you can be better at your job; setting your sights as high as possible can be a great motivator. The problem emerges when you start thinking that you’re terrible at your job regardless of your actual performance. The article from World Psychiatry notes that these factors have the most influence over feelings of inefficacy:
- Work overload: Being constantly overwhelmed with work and blaming yourself for not being able to finish all of it in time.
- Control: Feeling like you lack the resources necessary to do a good job, particularly if your boss has no intention of rectifying the situation.
- Reward: Feelings that arise from (real or perceived) inadequate compensation and recognition, which can make you and your work feel less valuable.
Feelings of inefficacy stem entirely from organizational failures. If your company is giving you more work than you can complete, not giving you the resources you need to do your job, and/or not giving you the pay or recognition you deserve, well, that’s on them.
The good news is that it isn’t your fault. The bad news is that there’s very little you can do to fix it unless you have a lot of pull in the organization. You only have a few options for resolving the problem:
- Quit and find a job with a company that pays you fairly and aligns with your values.
- Advocate for yourself on a weekly — if not daily — basis until you are heard.
- Set boundaries. Only do what’s asked of you and tell your boss that you can’t handle any new work.
- Focus on your life outside of work. Participate in hobbies that remind you how talented you are.
Burnout Won’t Fix Itself
As much as employers like to deny it, the fact is that burnout is much more of an organizational problem than an individual one. If you’re feeling fatigued, cynical, detached, and ineffective, it’s not because you’re doing a bad job. It’s because your employer has internal issues and doesn’t adequately value you or your well-being (or your productivity/their profitability, either).
Alas, the only immediate path to curing your burnout is to quit and find a job somewhere that actually treats its people well. In the meantime, however, there are some strategies you can use to mitigate your burnout over time, if not cure it.