Causes, Symptoms and Prevention of Job Burnout

Are You Just Sick of Your Job or Are You Suffering From Burnout?

Depressed woman
Can't get out of bed in the morning? It could be job burnout.. Tetra Images / Brand X Pictures / Getty Images

At some point in your career, you will experience burnout. Regardless of how much you like your job, there will come a time when you just don't feel like doing it anymore. If you could choose between being sick enough to stay home (and not just lying about being sick) and going to work, you would actually choose to be sick. It would be far less aversive than facing your boss, your co-workers, your clients, and your desk.

What Is Job Burnout?

So what exactly is burnout? It is defined in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary as "exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration." Who's stressed and frustrated? Many people. Mass layoffs are making workers very nervous. Many are afraid of losing their jobs and are therefore working harder and longer hours to prove their worth. Survivors of layoffs have to work harder to fill the gaps left by their departed colleagues.

Then there are those who work hard and don't receive the gratitude they feel they deserve from their bosses. They go to work everyday, work hard, and don't feel they are rewarded properly. Raises aren't forthcoming, and promotions aren't either. People who seem to work less, but have more political clout, seem to do better. Sounds frustrating to me.

Being in the wrong career is also very stressful and can be frustrating.

Many people are in the wrong career. They either tire of a career they once liked or they chose poorly in the first place. Others are in the right career but in the wrong job. Either way, a change may be in order. It may involve a career change or simply a change in where you work. So, as you can see, there are many factors that cause people stress and frustration with their jobs.

I'm sure you can name some yourself.

Burnout Isn't Just Stress or Frustration

Burnout doesn't happen only to those who are stressed or frustrated, though. Notice the definition says burnout usually happens as a result of stress and frustration. I don't think the stress that causes one to experience job burnout has to be terribly obvious. Work may be going along smoothly. There are no apparent problems — no issues to resolve. You get along well with your boss, co-workers, and clients. Then suddenly one day you feel a little knot in your stomach when you think about going to work. Or, you can't come up with any fresh ideas. You let your inbox fill up. You cringe when your phone rings. You just can't figure it out. Yesterday you loved your job and today you hate it. What could have caused this to happen?

Many of us work long hours because we actually like our jobs. We have work that needs to get done, and we choose to spend ten hours a day doing it. Then one day we realize that many months have passed since we had a vacation, a full weekend off, or even a relaxing evening at home.

There's an old saying that goes "On their death bed, no one ever said, 'I wish I had spent more time in the office.'" As an aside, the man who coined the term "burnout" was a psychologist named Herbert Freudenthal. Dr. Freudenthal, himself, had a reputation for working extremely long hours but did not experience burnout.

Signs of Job Burnout

Stress has many physical symptoms. Some are obvious, some are not. Obvious symptoms include fatigue, irritability, crying jags, anxiety attacks, and loss of appetite or weight gain due to lack of exercise or overeating in reaction to stress. Less obvious symptoms are teeth grinding or increased drug, alcohol, and tobacco use, insomnia, nightmares, forgetfulness, low productivity, and an inability to concentrate ("Job Burnout." Vhihealthe).

These physical symptoms can have very serious effects on your health. According to the American Psychological Association, if allowed to progress, burnout can result in depression, anxiety, and physical illness. Drugs or alcohol are often a problem. After an extended period of time burnout can cause physical and mental breakdowns, which include suicide, stroke, or heart attack ("The Road to Burnout." American Psychological Association HelpCenter ).

Before burnout gets to the point of causing severe mental and health problems, it will affect how you do your job. Absenteeism and lateness are two of the effects. Doing the bare minimum, in other words "mailing it in" is another. It's ironic. You work your tail off to avoid losing your job. You burn yourself out and you're unable to do your job well, if it all. Then you lose your job. The cost of burnout is high, both to workers and to employers. So, it's time to start exploring ways to keep burnout from progressing.

How to Save Yourself From Job Burnout

The earlier the stage of burnout you're in, the easier it will be to remedy the situation. The most obvious way to cure burnout is to quit your job. Now, someone in the early stages of burnout may find that a luxury, while someone on whose health burnout has already taken a toll may find it a necessity. If you're in the early stages of burnout there are several ways to alleviate it. But first you need to figure out what's causing you to feel this way.

Identify the Cause Then Solve It

Let's look at the simpler situation first. This is burnout not caused by stress or frustration, but rather by working too hard and too many hours by choice. This situation sometimes fixes itself. You work too hard and then start burning out, so you slow down. If you find yourself unable to slow down, you have to force the matter. Find out how much vacation time you can take and then take it. Make a point of leaving work on time. Don't take work home with you. Start slowly if you have to. Leave work on time one day a week and then increase it to two days. Make sure you spend the night relaxing — rent a movie, or read a good book.

It's a whole different matter when your burnout is caused by stress or frustration. Usually it's an outside force causing you to feel this way, i.e. a difficult boss, more work than you can handle, or impending layoffs. A difficult boss is a tough one because if you work for someone who is just not a nice person, there's not much you can do to change that. However, you may consider sitting down with him or her to discuss how you can forge a more productive working relationship.

If you have more work than you can handle because of a smaller staff, you have to learn how to better manage your time. One person cannot do the work of five people regardless of how good he or she is and how hard he or she tries. You'll have to figure out what is most important and work your way down from there. It's imperative that you stay organized so things don't get lost in the shuffle. You should also stay calm and remember that the world won't end if you don't get everything done.

If you feel you must work extra hard to avoid getting laid off and this is what's causing your burnout, then maybe you have to accept the fact that you can't do anything about what might happen. "Preparing for a Layoff" tells you what to do when you think you may get laid off.

Last, but not least, you're in a career that you've discovered isn't for you. You hate doing what you do and that's causing you to experience burnout. If you can afford to quit your job then you should consider it. But you should be prepared to be out of work while you explore your options. You should not enter into a new career without careful planning or you'll wind up right back where you started. You must take the time for a complete self assessment which will help you find out what careers you should explore. Then you must investigate each career until you're reasonably sure you've found the one that's right for you. There may be training or some other preparation required before you can start looking for a job. This will take quite a bit of time. If you decide to continue at your current job, you can still begin the career planning process. You may even feel less stressed about your job as you begin to realize there are other options out there.

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