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How to Recognise and Manage Occupational Burnout

How to Recognise and Manage Occupational Burnout

Most of us will recognise the feelings of extreme stress at work. You feel exhausted, disengaged and unable to cope. But did you know that since May 2019, burnout has been redefined and is now included in the World Health Organisation's International Classification of Diseases diagnostic manual? Recognised as a ‘syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’, burnout is the end of the line for workplace stress. Once you have reached the level of burnout it is challenging to find your way back without help. This change of definition is useful as it validates people's symptoms and suffering and should encourage people to take workplace stress more seriously and seek help.

What are the main symptoms of burnout?

The symptoms are far-reaching and can vary from person to person but include:

  • Fatigue
  • Lack of productivity
  • Reduced creativity
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent illnesses
  • Muscle pain
  • Decreased appetite
  • Increased irritability
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Feelings of isolation, negativity, detachment
  • Substance abuse
  • Poor performance at work

Is there a burnout personality?

Not every stressful job will result in burnout but it is especially prevalent in people who have an obsessive relationship with work such as high achievers, workaholics and perfectionists. According to a study by Emolument, the professionals most likely to suffer burnout are junior professionals and people who work in sectors entailing long working hours. Alice Leguay, Co-Founder & COO at Emolument, says ‘Alpha jobs such as consulting or banking are unlikely to provide adequate structures for professionals to recover from burnout. Moreover, the stigma attached to burnouts is likely to deal such a blow to a top-performing professional's career that they are unlikely to thrive should they recover and return to their teams’. For high achievers, burnouts are still taboo, often perceived as a lack of discipline and willpower and rarely acknowledged as a valid condition. Hopefully, the WHO redefinition will help more people in alpha jobs seek help, but if we can't change the day-to-day pressures of an alpha job, how can we effectively eliminate associated burnout?

Elaine Cheung, PhD, a burnout researcher and assistant professor of social sciences at Northwestern University, says ‘burnout is a condition that is caused by an individual's work, and their relationship to their work may lead to this condition’. This statement makes it clear that the most effective burnout interventions should focus on improving the relationship between a person and their work.

Burnout interventions

As employees, what can we do to ensure we have a healthy relationship with our job? The first step is to take an honest look at our work routine and make adjustments, such as:

  • Improving our work/life balance
  • Setting realistic work targets and goals
  • Taking regular rest and holiday breaks
  • Switching off our phone and laptop during breaks
  • Making time for daily self-care practices
  • Talking to colleagues and sharing experiences
  • Delegating and asking for help if needed

Self-care for mental health

How can we support our mental health outside of work? Incorporating self-care practices into our daily routine helps to support our nervous system and builds our resilience to stress. Effective practices include:

  • Journalling for 10 minutes as soon as you wake to clear your mind
  • A relaxing breathing practice like this one-minute deep breathing exercise by Headspace
  • Regular meditation. Check out YouTube and meditation apps like Insight Timer and Calm
  • A daily cold shower has proven to support your nervous system

Duty of care to employees

As employers, you can help provide a healthy work environment for employees by:

  • Matching work to people with the relevant knowledge, skills and abilities
  • Setting manageable workloads, targets and timescales
  • Providing employees with clear instructions about roles and what is expected
  • Ensuring adequate management support and open communication channels

Take the test - are you burnt out?

Here is a short, informal test by Mindtools and another 15-minute test by Psychology Today to check if you may already be suffering from burnout. These are just quick tests to give you some tips about managing burnout. Please always seek medical advice if you are concerned about your mental health.

If you would like to take rigorously tested and scientifically validated burnout tests, take a look at the Maslach Burnout Inventory.  This is ideal for employers wishing to safeguard their staff, especially during the current unprecedented Covid-19 crisis.

Taking responsibility

We cannot live in a completely stress-free bubble, but we can take action to manage our relationship with our jobs. The first step is to take responsibility and perhaps embrace a new way of working. And if it's not working for you, maybe it's time for a change. 

Author: Contributor

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