Burnout in the workplace, always an issue in our “more is more” world, became a crisis on top of a crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic. Health care professionals and food service workers alike not only faced serious health risks, but also long hours and staffing woes. Newly remote workers, especially parents, struggled to achieve work-life balance, the lack of separation between their home lives and their jobs causing them to work at all hours, and often long hours, while simultaneously juggling kids, household responsibilities, and the fear and anxiety of the pandemic. The disruptions to how we work and live are only just letting up, although they’re not over. Stress and anxiety have been through the roof for the past 15 months, and these levels of insecurity continue for most of us even as we inch our way to a new normal.
We’re beyond burned out, but still need to function. It’s possible to recover—but now more than ever, it’ll take all of us, from individual employees to corporate leaders and entire governments, to keep burnout in check.
Read more: 25 Tips for Dealing with Burnout
What is job burnout?
While neither the World Health Organization nor the Mayo Clinic classify burnout as a medical condition, it is a recognized occupational phenomenon and is included in the WHO’s ICD (International Classification of Diseases) handbook, where it’s described as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Using the inventory developed by Christina Maslach, a professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, there are three dimensions to job burnout:
cynicism and disengagement
a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of personal accomplishment.
This clarification has been a long time coming. The definition of burnout has been vague ever since psychologist Herbert Freudenberger published one of the first papers on burnout in the 1970s. In fact, an analysis of 182 studies on burnout from 1991 to 2018 found at least 142 unique definitions of the condition.
So, is burnout caused by working too much?
Career change coach Lisa Lewis Miller tells InHerSight that burnout is often tied to overwork, but there’s nuance to it. We can overwork for short periods of time, and with adequate coping mechanisms and time for recovery, bounce back completely.
“Burnout is what happens when you have chronic, consistent periods of work where you don’t feel replenished afterwards,” Miller says.
Even if you love your job, you can suffer from burnout. Everyone needs time away from work on a regular basis to recharge. Prioritizing your own needs can feel selfish, but by doing so, you can restore your equilibrium and mental health balance.
Recognizing the symptoms of burnout
You may be burned out and be too busy to even be aware of it. Miller says the way you’ll know you have burnout is if you consistently feel like you can hardly summon the energy or enthusiasm to do much of anything—and this can show up both at work and in your personal life.
“You might notice that activities or tasks you’d do happily (or at least willingly) now feel like a slog,” Miller explains. “You may also find that it takes you longer to do the same tasks you’ve done before because you can’t fully engage your attention or brainpower.”
Are leaky boundaries contributing to your burnout?
You may not work in an environment that allows you to control all of the factors that contribute to burnout. High-pressure jobs and shift work, for example, have built-in components that tend to be non-negotiable; however, the way you deal with other factors can help. For instance, if you’re the go-to person to switch shifts at short notice or stay late to help out with urgent projects, that’s within your ability to control.
Unfortunately, when you are already burned out, “it’s easy to become overwhelmed,” writes licensed psychotherapist Joyce Marter at Psychology Today. “As a result, self-care goes out the window.”
The time to take action is when you recognize that you’re on your way to burnout. That’s when you can “use assertive communication with supervisors to set boundaries with workload and expectations,” Marter explains. “Assertive communication shows respect for self and others. It is clear, direct, and diplomatic (not passive, aggressive, or passive aggressive). Learn to say no.”
Otherwise, you may suffer from “leaky boundaries,” says Miller. That’s when you tend to say “yes” to too many responsibilities.
Another contributor to burnout is when you don’t appropriately disconnect from work and never give your work brain time to be in “off” mode, Miller adds. “Noticing the environmental triggers that tend to push you towards burnout is an excellent first step to create new habits, boundaries, and rejuvenation activities to address them.”
Read more: How to Reach Your Flow State & Stay There
Burnout is different for women
Women minimize and write off burnout as “having a tough day” or “being low energy,” explains Miller. Burnout can manifest uniquely for women because of the gender-specific societal pressures on us.
Some of these, she says, are:
Lean in, but don’t rock the boat.
Speak up, but only when spoken to.
Strive for a corner office, but not at the expense of your ability to be an attentive mother.
Choose your own path, but don’t make the advancements of prior generations all for nothing.
It’s no wonder that women can feel caught in a sea of clashing expectations, and try to be all things to all people. And this is all before we layer on any additional societal expectations that might come with your ethnic identity, your religion, your body, or your marital status, says Miller.
Which workplace burnout solutions actually work long-term?
Strategy consultant, executive coach, and author of Entrepreneurial You, Dorie Clark says the standard advice of reducing the number of Netflix binges is “a preposterous suggestion for hard-charging professionals. We’ve already eliminated the fat from our schedules. We listen to audiobooks while washing the dishes, answer emails while standing in line at the grocery store, and return voicemails while driving home from work. There are no more efficiencies left to wring from the edges of our days.”
Instead, Clark says, you “have to learn how to say no to good things.” In order to do that successfully, you need to set professional priorities, realistically calculate the total time commitment involved if you do say yes, and then consider all of the costs (opportunity, physical, and emotional) of accepting more responsibility.
Successfully negating burnout long-term requires a two-prong approach.
As BBC’s Zaria Gorvett writes, “If people believe that they can influence their environment, they usually take the necessary steps to reverse the factors which got them [to burnout] in the first place.” Psychologist Stela Salminen tells Gorvett that while some part of the recovery needs to come from “individual changes and mental shifts,” chronic stress will continue unless there are changes to the work environment, such as reduced workloads.
Is burnout inevitable?
Burnout is not inevitable, but it’s certainly always possible. To keep it at bay, employees need to be proactive and, in order to be able to handle the stress that underlies burnout, need help from employers and governments, which will in turn help change societal expectations.
Iceland, for example, moved from trying shorter workweeks (with no reduction in pay) to implementing them permanently for 86 percent of the country’s working population. Not only was productivity unaffected or increased, but employee wellbeing and work-life balance was improved.
Strategies developed during the pandemic by companies across the U.S. trying to help employees keep from burning out should continue and expand, with more time off and remote or flex work options. A number of organizations, for instance, are holding mandated, company-wide shutdowns in addition to paid time off.
When asked about mandated breaks in a survey at Mozilla, employees reported favorably, says Mardi Douglass, the company’s senior director of culture and engagement. Responses included: “Having a day off when the whole company’s also off is actually the thing that makes me feel relaxed. I don’t feel guilty. It’s not piling up. I don’t feel like I’ve been slacking on emails.”
Arianna Huffington puts it this way: “Ending burnout requires buy-in at all levels. If HR is saying one thing but senior leaders are still incentivizing burnout, most employees will listen to the latter.”
Actions always speak louder than words, so even if management vocally encourages employees to prioritize their wellbeing and mental health, but they’re not setting the example by taking holiday time or practicing a healthy work-life balance themselves, then their influence is enormously reduced.
Recently Todd McKinnon, CEO at independent identity provider Okta, which offers employees unlimited, flexible paid time off, announced his own upcoming vacation plans at an all-hands meeting. He then asked everyone to email him with their vacation plans. He received some 1,000 emails from the company’s 3,500 employees.
“The lesson for other business leaders is two-fold,” writes executive wellness coach and consultant Naz Beheshti. “First, your employees will not feel free to use their vacation time to the fullest unless you model that same behavior. Second, you must treat vacation time as an investment in their wellbeing, thus in the company's wellbeing. In making a personal appeal, as opposed to letting HR handle the matter, McKinnon made it clear that time away is more than a benefit; it is vital to the company's long-term health.”