Work-Related Burnout: How to Spot it and Ways to Cope

May 30, 2019

By Joe Grasso, PhD

“I’m past the point of caring at work. I’m done!”

Sean, an early career software engineer and former therapy client of mine, had repeated the phrase “I’m done!” so many times that he half-heartedly joked about it being his mantra. But we both knew that the chronic job stress he felt was no joke. He often worried out loud that he was fundamentally inadequate — not smart enough or hard-working enough, even though all evidence pointed to the contrary. Instead, I suspected that the real culprit was burnout.

Life hadn’t always been this way for Sean. In therapy, we easily retraced his steps into a state of burnout. It started with Sean defining himself based on his work. Over time, his career had grown into a disproportionately dominant part of his identity. That led to him investing more of his time and effort in work in order to prove his value to his team, his managers, and himself.

Sean described a fast-paced onslaught of work that kept him busy into most evenings and weekends. As he invested more in work, it became harder for him to pull away from it mentally, even when he was physically away from his laptop and outside of business hours. While he believed in his company’s corporate mission, he struggled to sustain motivation as his role dramatically changed without his input, and recognition from his manager began to dwindle. The more he doubled down on work, the more frustrated he became by his lack of productivity. Soon the frustration gave way to a deep sense of apathy, which undermined Sean’s confidence.

It was at this point that he realized he had de-prioritized other critical aspects of his life — his friendships, romantic relationships, hobbies — even his exercise routine.

Sean was showing all the signs of burnout.

Understanding Burnout

Many of us have heard the term “burnout,” but our understanding of it may be vague. Historically, burnout hasn’t been considered a clinical diagnosis, although the World Health Organization this week formally recognized it as a medical condition affecting one’s functioning in an occupational context. Burnout is a psychological phenomenon comprised of three defining characteristics: exhaustion, depersonalization, and a feeling of ineffectiveness.

Exhaustion refers to a sense of feeling emotionally and cognitively drained by the demands of a job that overwhelms us. In this state, it’s a slog to maintain enough motivation and attentional capacity just to get through the workday. Exhaustion was the sign of burnout that Sean most readily identified with because he felt that it now defined his everyday experience.

Depersonalization, also known as cynicism, occurs when we simply begin to check out at work. Sean would describe this as his “I’m done!” moments. When we feel like our best efforts at work are futile, usually due to factors outside of our control, we begin to distance ourselves from the job, take less pride in our work, and care less about the consequences.

Feelings of ineffectiveness arise when we feel that we can’t make the impact we want. Even if the challenges we’re facing are due to organizational problems, we sometimes personalize the reasons for struggling and chalk it up to our own lack of ability. This can lead to the kind of undermined confidence Sean experienced, which led him to question whether he was even in the right profession. Lack of acknowledgement or appreciation from superiors can exacerbate these feelings.

Sean is far from alone in his experience of burnout. Prevalence estimates can vary by profession and geography, but a recent Gallup poll found that 23 percent of employees surveyed felt burned out at work “very often or always” and 44 percent said they sometimes felt burned out. Studies suggest that rates of burnout are on the rise across many professions. While individual factors such as one’s age and social support can increase risk of burnout, many risk factors are associated with organizational culture, occupational demands, and workplace policies. For example, role ambiguity, like what Sean was experiencing, has been associated with greater likelihood of burnout symptoms.

You may be thinking, “These are all factors outside of my direct control,” and while that’s somewhat true, I have some good news. There’s a lot you can do to help prevent burnout, or lessen it if it’s already affecting you.

Personal Strategies to Address Burnout

Your first step in battling burnout: prioritize self-care. We know that certain things are universally beneficial for stress reduction — getting enough sleep, nurturing our relationships, and staying physically active. But oftentimes, these self-care fundamentals are the first to go when work stress strikes, even though that’s exactly when we need self-care the most. Instead of obsessing over choosing the best possible self-care strategy, try focusing first on what’s getting in the way of self-care. Usually it involves losing sight of our other values outside of work.

If this is the case for you, it’s helpful to pause, particularly during stressful moments, and redirect your attention to the big picture. What really matters to you in life? What gives your life a sense of purpose and fulfillment? Social justice? Spirituality? Friendship? When you look back on your life 20 years from now, what do you want to say you built your life around?

Once you have a sense of what you truly value, you can work backwards and begin re-aligning your priorities, and your self-care activities, accordingly. When we invest in our relationships, our self-care, and our connection to chosen communities, we’re more well-rounded, more fulfilled, and better equipped to handle life’s stressors.

When I worked with Sean, he identified his family relationships as a key value that he lost sight of when he was investing heavily in work. Once he identified that value, he began to build out a plan for how he could spend his time nurturing those relationships — even if it meant being away from his computer and smartphone.

One of the most common concerns I hear from clients is that they feel compelled to be “always on” in their jobs. That means being available and vigilant outside of work hours on all channels — email, instant messenger, even text message. But when we’re hyper-responsive, we’re often positively reinforced to continue operating at that level of responsiveness, which can create unsustainable expectations. It’s essential to set boundaries so that when we’re engaged in life outside of work, we are present and attuned to the people and activities in that moment. That means putting the work-related computer and smartphone tasks aside, just like Sean did, unless it’s absolutely critical that you be on call.

Workplace Strategies to Address Burnout

Paradoxically, taking regular breaks while on the job is one of the most important things you can do to enhance your productivity. But it’s not enough to just stop working for a little while, you need to deliberately and proactively shift your attention away from work during that break via a process called psychological detachment. By focusing on the present moment, rather than the failures of yesterday or worries about tomorrow, we can experience the true benefits of a break. That can be as simple as directing your full attention to your breathing, or to the person with whom you’re engaged in conversation.

Think about how you communicate your needs at work. There will always be deadlines that require us to buckle down and focus on the job. But if you find that work leaves you feeling chronically overextended and under-appreciated, it’s important to speak up about it as an unsustainable situation. Think about what solutions might lead to a win-win situation for you and your team. For example, is it possible to delegate some tasks on your to-do list to people who are better able to handle them, either because of their expertise or time availability?

Try to determine whether the problem is the volume of work or the content of the work. Some people experience burnout because they’re not challenged by their job or feel that their skills and talents are misaligned with their role. How could you suggest a shift in your responsibilities so that you’re making meaningful contributions that advance your employer’s mission but also harness your professional strengths?

Role ambiguity can be an especially burdensome stressor. Few things cause more anxiety than a clear lack of direction or purpose. Consider checking in regularly with your manager on the top priorities for your job and the corresponding expectations to help prevent you from filling in the blanks with assumptions and guesses. Sean, talking with his boss about how the changing expectations of his role felt mismatched with his qualifications led to a productive discussion about redesigning Sean’s performance metrics.

When to Seek Support

Lastly, keep in mind that sometimes we need a little help, and that’s OK. If your coping techniques and self-care strategies aren’t enough, or if you’re simply having trouble implementing these strategies, consider talking with a stress management coach or a licensed therapist. These professionals are trained to help you identify causes of stress and guide you through the use of evidence-based strategies to promote resilience.

Through individual therapy, Sean learned to redistribute more of his time and attention toward valued activities outside of work, such as spending uninterrupted one-on-one time with family members. He also developed communication tools that helped him successfully negotiate more role clarity from his manager and more ability to delegate non-essential tasks. What had been a period of professional crisis transitioned into a time of professional and personal growth. Sean found that he was able to care about work again– but this time, to a healthier degree. He was far from “done” after all.

CONTACT US

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joe Grasso, PhD is the Manager for Clinical Quality at Lyra Health and a licensed clinical psychologist. He specializes in mixed-methods research and evaluation, health care quality improvement and implementation science, and program development. Dr. Grasso also provides evidence-based psychotherapy for adults in San Francisco.