Job burnout occurs when a person’s working environment is so stressful that they can no longer see value in their job. A person experiencing burnout may become fatigued or cynical about their job. If left alone, these symptoms are likely to get worse over time.
The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) describes job burnout as a syndrome, which is a group of symptoms which often occur together. While job burnout is not considered a mental health diagnosis, it is a real phenomenon which can seriously affect one’s well-being. If you are experiencing burnout, you may benefit from seeing a therapist.
**Author’s Note: Although the term “burnout” is used in many contexts, for the sake of clarity, this page will only use “burnout” in the context of workplace issues.
Signs of Burnout
According to the ICD-11, there are three dimensions of job burnout:
The first is increased negativity toward your job. This can show up as:
- Lost motivation or enthusiasm
- Obsessing about how you should have a different or “better” job
- Worrying about work even during off hours
- Existential dread; feeling as if your job is pointless or that you have lost yourself
- Resentment toward coworkers or the company
The second dimension is physical and emotional exhaustion, which may show up as:
- Feeling sleepy or fatigued more often than not
- Abusing caffeine to get through the day
- Chronic headaches or muscle pains
- Neglecting hobbies, relationships, or self-care because you don’t have the energy
- Lashing out at friends and family due to increased irritability
Negativity and fatigue can reduce your job performance. Burnout can manifest at work as:
- Consistent tardiness at work
- Missing deadlines
- Feeling unable to concentrate for extended periods
- Making simple mistakes and turning in sub-par work
- Getting into conflicts with coworkers or clients
Burnout symptoms can be mild at first. You may not even recognize anything is wrong at this point. But these symptoms are unlikely to disappear on their own. If you try to willpower your way through them, your burnout will probably get worse.
Burnout can have serious consequences down the line. If you let your job performance slip for long enough, you may get in trouble with your manager. Emotional distress and fatigue can reduce your quality of life outside of work as well. Severe burnout can lead to feelings of rage, hopelessness, self-loathing, or even suicidality.
If your burnout has progressed to the point of crisis, please call your local emergency hotline.
What Causes Job Burnout?
Burnout does not discriminate—it affects people from all backgrounds. You can be affected by burnout no matter your occupation or financial situation. A 2008 Gallup study surveyed 7,500 full-time employees. Around two-thirds of respondents reported feeling burnout at work. Over one in five said they felt burnt out “very often” or “always”.
You are more likely to experience job burnout if:
- You don’t have the resources to do your job properly. Perhaps the company has left your department understaffed. Perhaps you are expected to do 50 hours’ worth of work in a 40-hour week. These problems can greatly increase feelings of inefficacy, cynicism, and stress.
- You feel as though you “can’t” take a break. You may work in a hypercompetitive office and fear that if you don’t give “110%”, you will be replaced. You may face overt or subtle judgment for taking vacation days or turning your phone off after work.
- You have to deal with toxic workplace dynamics. These could include sexual harassment, office gossip, a hostile manager, and other distractions. You may feel as if you spend more time protecting your job than actually doing it.
- You have unclear job expectations. You might spend significant time and emotional energy determining what your boss expects of you. Some people may compensate with this uncertainty by becoming perfectionistic or controlling. Others may lose motivation, believing that their work won’t matter in the long run.
- You feel as though you are not compensated fairly. You might feel underpaid or overlooked for a promotion. If you believe the company does not value your work, then you may stop seeing value in it as well.
- You feel as if your work has no purpose. Some people may feel constrained by bureaucracy and micromanagement, as if they have no control over their job. Others may feel isolated and wonder if their work actually makes a difference in their community.
Job burnout is a very common issue that can happen to anyone. It is not a result of personal “weakness” or “laziness”. A burnout episode could have any combination of triggers, but the underlying cause is almost always chronic stress. Addressing this underlying stress is essential to recovering from burnout.
How Employees Can Deal with Burnout
Perhaps the easiest way to deal with burnout is to rest. This could take the form of a guided meditation break, a day off, or a full-blown vacation. The longer you have been burnt out, the more rest you will likely need.
If burnout has left you completely unable to function, you could be eligible for medical leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks off to recover from a serious health condition, including severe stress. Your workplace may fall under the FMLA if you work for a school, a government agency, or a private company with at least 50 employees. If you work for a smaller, private company, then you will likely have to work out an individual arrangement with your manager.
If you are unable to take time off work in the near future, you may consider some of these self-help strategies to support you in the short term.
- Streamline your to-do list. Maybe you have a thousand things to do, but chances are that some of those tasks are more important than others. Figure out what you absolutely need to do today. Save the rest for tomorrow or outsource tasks that can be done by other teammates.
- Get a change of scenery. This could involve working outside, rearranging your desk, or simply changing the wallpaper on your computer. Even small changes to your environment can make work seem a little less routine.
- Ask yourself why you took this job. Yes, you probably needed the money, but what drove you to this job specifically? Do you want to help others? Make the best product on the market? Gain experience for your dream job? Focus on any work tasks that support this goal.
- Prioritize sleep. Don’t underestimate how much sleep can affect your mood. People who get fewer than six hours of rest a night are more likely to get burnt out.
- Schedule something to look forward to after work. The day may pass quicker if you are working toward something rather than counting the minutes until your shift ends.
A licensed counselor can help you cope with symptoms of burnout. They can also support you in negotiating with your supervisor for time off. Therapy is completely confidential—your workplace has no way of knowing you are in counseling unless you tell them. This holds true even for employee assistance programs—whatever happens in the therapy office stays in the therapy office.
How Employers Can Prevent Burnout
Preventing burnout is generally in an employer’s best interest. Burnt out employees are generally not productive employees. Research shows employees who are “often” or “always” burnt out are:
- 2.6 times more likely to leave their current employer.
- 63% more likely to take a sick day.
- 50% less likely to strategize with their manager about how to reach performance goals.
Each organization is different. Some companies will have more flexibility to make changes than others do. But in general, employers can prevent or reduce burnout by:
- Adequately staffing teams. While small teams tend to have lower payroll costs, they are also more vulnerable to disruption. If a department goes into lockdown every time someone has a day off, then employees may come into work sick or skip necessary breaks.
- Giving employees some autonomy over their workflow. Employees may feel more confident and motivated if they have control over their jobs. Some people prefer to work in brief sprints and rotate between projects. Others work best when they sit down and focus on one task until it is done. When possible, let employees decide the rhythm of their day.
- Evaluating employees based on factors within their control. Sometimes an employee can do everything right, but outside variables (another team, a technical malfunction, etc.) cause a project to fail. If an employee’s evaluations depend on others’ efforts or random chance, they may grow anxious or cynical about their work.
- Minimizing noise and interruptions. Most people feel better at work if they have a sense of psychological privacy. Research suggests open office spaces tend to decrease, rather than increase, collaboration and face-to-face interaction. Open office plans tend to reduce focus, satisfaction, and average mood as well.
- Making sure your policies match your ideals. Inspirational posters and emails about self-care won’t do much on their own. If you truly want to promote work-life balance, make sure your employees are not punished for taking breaks. Even passive penalties can have a serious effect. If your company only considers people for raises if they work 50 hours a week, then many employees will feel obligated to work overtime, even if there isn’t an explicit “punishment” involved.
If you would like personalized help in improving your employees’ well-being, you may wish to hire an industrial organizational psychologist for a consultation.
- Bernstein, E. S., & Turban, S. (2018, July 2). The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 373(1753). Retrieved from https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rstb.2017.0239
- Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. (2019, May 28). World Health Organization. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en
- Fact sheet #28: The Family and Medical Leave Act [PDF]. (2012). U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved from https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs28.pdf
- Gerry, L. M. (2013, April 1). 10 signs you’re burning out—And what to do about it. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/learnvest/2013/04/01/10-signs-youre-burning-out-and-what-to-do-about-it/#360ad086625b
- Rampton, J. (2017, March 31). 8 ways to get over job burnout (without quitting). Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/john-rampton/8-ways-to-get-over-job-burnout-without-leaving.html
- Suggett, P. (2019, June 26). 10 ways to deal with work burnout. Retrieved from https://www.thebalancecareers.com/how-to-deal-with-work-burnout-4142144
- Three stages of burnout [PDF]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/qf/burnout_qt/3stages.pdf
- Wigert, B., & Agrawal, S. (2018, July 12). Employee burnout, part 1: The 5 main causes. Retrieved from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237059/employee-burnout-part-main-causes.aspx
- Wigert, B., & Agrawal, S. (2018, July 18. Employee burnout, part 3: How organizations can stop burnout. Retrieved from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237185/employee-burnout-part-organizations-stop-burnout.aspx?g_source=link_wwwv9&g_campaign=item_237059&g_medium=copy
Last Updated: 08-28-2019
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