A few years ago, I finally achieved my dream of being a full-time writer. But after some time had passed, I realized I could not enjoy it. Something in me had turned off. After writing blog posts for my job, I went home and vegetated on the couch. I lost the energy to work out or cook meals or get drinks with friends. I still performed the duties of my job each day, but I forgot what drew me to writing in the first place.
With hindsight, I know that I was burnt out from an overwhelming workload of churning out words on ideas that were not challenging. But back then, I didn’t have the language for why I couldn’t focus. I thought I was just sleep-deprived and could fix my malady by resting more and working harder.
I was not alone. According to a 2018 survey of 1,000 U.S. employees, one in five highly engaged professionals is feeling burnout. Recently, the medical community caught up with calling burnout for what it is: a major work-prompted health concern and legitimate diagnosis.
The World Health Organization’s new handbook for medical providers, the International Classification of Diseases, or the ICD-11, included the word burnout as a category in its previous edition in 2003. Its latest edition, released this May, it provides more details on how burnout is an “occupational phenomenon” and how it results from chronic workplace stress.
1) You’re tired all the time.
According to the ICD-11, one of the main criteria for burnout is “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.” This is an exhaustion that no good night’s rest can fix.
“It’s taking a whole weekend off and still going back into work on Monday feeling no more rested and energized,” said Melody Wilding, a licensed social worker and executive coach. “It’s feeling empty and tired and run down even when you’re with friends and family.”
2) You’re not engaged in the work you’re doing.
“Increased mental distance from one’s job” is another official criteria of burnout. You now finish the day without a sense of accomplishment and find yourself “phoning in” deadlines.
“It’s really feeling just this lack of motivation and procrastination towards tasks that used to come very easily,” Wilding said.
For goal-oriented over-achievers, burnout can also look like doing the work at a high level, but being engaged for all the wrong reasons. For them, “the intention and the motivation behind putting in 100% is more draining than anything else,” Wilding said, “Because it’s not coming from a place of excitement and invigoration and feeling invested. It’s coming from this place of guilt and obligation and ‘I just have to keep up.’”
3) You are more cynical and bitter about your work making a difference.
Negativity and cynicism are another one of the dimensions that characterize burnout, according to the ICD-11.
When you are burnt out, your outlook on life sours. You lose sight of purpose.
“Not really being able to see how your job makes a difference, when before, you were able to” is how this cynicism can show up in professionals who see their job as a calling, said Joy Harden Bradford, an Atlanta-based licensed psychologist and host of the podcast Therapy for Black Girls.
A pioneering researcher into the psychology of burnout, a graduate professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, Christina Maslach found that perceptions of fairness at work were a tipping point for whether or not a professional would experience burnout. “If people were experiencing problems with fairness in the workplace such as favoritism, unjustified inequities, or cheating, their early warning pattern was likely to develop into burnout over time,” her 2008 co-authored study stated.
You may see enemies in potential allies, jumping to the worst conclusion about people and situations without all the facts. You no longer feel like you have a voice at the table where decisions are made.
“I think [burnout] can happen in situations when you are very energetic and you have lots of great ideas, but for whatever reason, maybe upper management is not paying attention, or they never implement any of the things that you suggest, so after a while, you can feel like, ‘Okay, why even bother?’” Bradford said.
If you feel neglected by your workplace, this can result in a sense of learned helplessness where you lose motivation and become more passive. “It’s really a sense of powerlessness where people feel like, ‘Why should I try to change anything because it won’t do anything at all,’” Wilding said.
4) You’re worse at your job.
Being less efficient at your job is another category of burnout, according to ICD-11. Absenteeism, turnover, and carelessness can increase without engagement to keep you going.
“A lot of the times it takes you longer to get things done because your concentration and your energy, and just the emotional investment is not there,” Wilding said.
5) You keep getting sick.
You may push through your emotional exhaustion, but the body keeps score. If you keep falling ill or feeling lousy, it might be your body’s way of telling you to pay attention to your unhealthy work environment.
These poor health symptoms can manifest in a multitude of ways. As Maslach’s 2008 study on the early predictors of burnout stated, “Burnout is a stress phenomenon that shows the expected pattern of health correlates, such as headaches, gastrointestinal disorders, muscle tension, hypertension, cold/flu episodes, and sleep disturbances.”
How to address burnout
The work of solving burnout should not be left only to individual employees. Managers that make unreasonable demands on their employees’ time and energy shoulder the responsibility, too. But there are individual solutions that can help you put on your oxygen mask in the meantime, so to speak.
Seek professional help. Pay attention to how long you have been feeling out of sorts. Treat burnout as seriously as you would any other illness and talk to a mental health provider about what changes in your mood and body you have been feeling. “When you realize you have more bad days than good days, that’s when it’s time to examine your patterns much more closely,” Wilding said.
Recognize that you are not your job. If you feel like a good day depends on your workday going well, you may need to get a new perspective on your career’s importance to your life.
If your work is where you feel good about yourself, diversify your self-esteem, so that you can build a sense of identity in other places of your life, Wilding said.
Learn a new language on your lunch break, take a fitness class, learn to bake. “Throw yourself into something else where you can feel a sense of progress and mastery and momentum because you’re not having that met at your job,” Wilding said.
Get support from your workplace. Once you identify pain points in your workflow, talk to your manager and see if you can shift responsibilities. Bradford suggests asking yourself if you can you be reassigned to a new project that might give you more energy, or if there is somebody you need to talk to about making some changes.
If delegation is an option, get real about your work priorities. “A lot of people are doing things that don’t even need to be done anymore,” Wilding said.
If you’re under-challenged and experiencing burnout, make it easier for your manager to say yes by coming to them with a plan about what skill you want to learn or a stretch project you want to get on, Wilding suggested.
Journal it out. When you start to feel disengaged from your job, it may take recording daily mood logs about your workday to notice a pattern of burnout. “If you can pay attention to the patterns, you can maybe even go back to the day where you started checking out,” Bradford said.
Slow down and take time off from work. “Give yourself permission with burnout to take a break and slow down,” Wilding said. Be with yourself, so you can see how your habits have contributed to the burnout symptoms. “Getting to trust and listen to yourself again is something that a lot of people don’t do, they just dive into another job to try to fix it,” Melody said.
Know that you can also discuss the option of taking time off with the Family and Medical Leave Act with your mental health professional. “There’s a reason that we have those provisions in the workplace,” Bradford said. “This is not just like, ‘Oh, work kind of sucks right now.’ It’s ‘I’m in danger of going down a slippery slope if I don’t take care of this.’”
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