Are You Experiencing Burnout? Causes, Signs and What You Can Do About It

"Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life" Often attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius, this famous quote has led many to believe that if you follow your passion, work will always seem a lot more like fun than labor.

But is the quote accurate? Is passion really the panacea? In some sense, yes, it is. Workers around the world are inspired by the image of successful persons who were/ are driven by love of their jobs. Examples include the late Bob Collymore, former Safaricom CEO of under whose leadership Safaricom grew almost exponentially; American filmmaker and creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, George Lucas; and Peter Drucker, the Austrian-born American management theorist.

While there may be some truth to the vocational stereotype of choosing a job you love and never having to work a day in your life, loving your work boundlessly may be a trap. Following your  passion can easily lead you to believe that because you love your job so much, then more and more—and still more!—of it will make you even happier. Ultimately, this becomes a case of passion degenerating to tedium and burnout. Thanks to exhaustion, we have witnessed anger and outbursts at the workplace, firings, resignations, lowered productivity, and psychosomatic illnesses that all serve to make burnout quite risky for both the employee and the employer.

But what is burnout? In its diagnostic manual, called the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), the World Health Organization refers to burnout as a "syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." The three symptoms included in the list are feelings of exhaustion or energy depletion, increased feelings of dislike for one's job or career, and lowered vocational productivity. In effect, burnout is a kind of depression or mood disorder emanating from overwork or job-related emotional overload.

What causes burnout?

Burnout may be caused by any number of factors that lead to feelings of loss of control. These include:

1. Overexertion

In many countries, the average working day lasts for eight hours, which translates to 40 hours per week. This routine goes on from Monday to Friday. In several cases, one finds that most people work well outside this schedule, sometimes from as early as 6.30 am, retiring for home well into the night—a routine that is repeated six (sometimes seven) days a week. For such a person, the need to alternate between work and other tasks that are necessary for personal balance can be overlooked. Such responsibilities include family, relationships or recreational pursuits.

2. Ambiguous job expectations

Some companies or individual line managers often present workers with job descriptions that make it challenging for workers to answer the question, "What exactly is expected of me?" Human beings develop ideas about job performance from a combination of both the task executed and the appraisal received. If the job description is unclear, the worker will have a hard time making sense of any related performance appraisal. What results is job dissatisfaction that over time can lead to a sense of emotional fatigue and burnout.

3. Toxic workplace culture

Certain corporate cultures are flat-out toxic to the psyche of workers. For instance, one encounters bosses who are unable to delegate and who frequently micro-manage. When a worker's immediate supervisor seeks to control every facet of the worker's assigned tasks, the employee can feel unneeded and helpless. Some other companies make the mistake of punishing every wrongdoing, which leaves workers with the nagging feeling that they are on enemy grounds. Toxic workplace dynamics can also include excessive politicking, prejudice against a minority group, sexual harassment, or favoritism.

4. Lack of support

Employees are human. And any human being can unexpectedly encounter a personal catastrophe of whatever kind (death in the family, sickness, foreclosure on mortgage, and divorce or another painful breakup). Every personal calamity takes its toll on the affected individual. Unless the employer has in place a system of supporting its staff during personal crises, the affected individuals can become overwhelmed and experience burnout. Modalities by which employers can help their workers include allowing them time off to recuperate or solve a pressing issue, offering cash advances, and making visits to bereaved workers.

How do you know you are suffering from burnout?

1. Emotional depletion

When burnout strikes, one of the first signs is feeling overwhelmed by everything around you,  lacking the energy to perform even the smallest of tasks. A person experiencing burnout practically drags himself from room to room or meeting to meeting and struggles through every event, often with one eye on the wall clock, counting every minute to 5pm.

2. Physical illness

Many times, burnout is accompanied by illnesses that include generalized body aches, headaches, and vague tensions and digestive problems. Medical practitioners explain that a good proportion of the patients in the casualty (ER) sections of hospitals are, in fact, victims of burnout. No wonder, many times, when these workers visit the lab to have tests for what they believed to be malaria or typhoid fever, the tests return negative. Many workers faced with these problematic results leave with the feeling that "something is wrong with their microscopes."

3. Feelings of alienation from work and colleagues

For the individual in the throes of extreme burnout, co-workers, relational dynamics at the place of work, and the whole corporate culture can seem like one alien den with nothing to offer to the individual. Every task, every encounter becomes a source of additional stress and frustration. Cynicism, often even complete defiance, may become new ways of coping. What happens is that, unless some intervention measure is instituted, the individual may find him or herself in trouble with the employer.

4. Under performance

The burned-out person is genuinely a troubled individual. Because the person is at least mildly delirious, with vague symptoms of confusion, inability to concentrate, disorientation, anxiety, and a less-than-ideal interpretation of events, marshaling the emotional strength to confront a work-related task with focus and zeal becomes impossible. Often, there is much-unfocused gazing on the computer screen. Tasks become forgotten. Critical aspects of assignments are overlooked, and jobs are haphazardly cobbled together. At the end of the typical workweek, little if anything has been accomplished.

What can you do when burnout strikes?

What starts out as a passion can drift to burnout. This is why it is critical to strike a balance between work and personal matters. Ultimately this is the best antidote to burnout. Of course, this is more easily said than done, especially considering that many jobs today demand overexertion if one is to remain in employment. A glaring example of this is Japan, where they have a phenomenon called Karoshi, which refers to sudden death from overwork or personal starvation often caused by heart attack or stroke.

Take a break- Whatever your workplace situation, remember that you owe it to yourself to do everything to relax and re-energize in readiness for the next workday. If you feel completely overwhelmed, take a break. Go somewhere you enjoy, read a book, meditate, bake, or do any other activity that relaxes you. Try switching off your phone, and your mind, to work and work related problems even if this is difficult for you.

Keep physically fit: Another way to keep burnout at bay is by keeping fit. Since burnout is the body's expression of reaching its limit, keeping fit increases the limits of our bodies. And you don't need to kill yourself trying to be the next Olympian! According to the World Health Organization, to keep fit, adults aged 18–64 should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical exercise throughout the week or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity. So that one-hour brisk walk three times a week, if that is the exercise you love, is enough to help you build your energies, especially when combined with a healthy diet and adequate sleep.

Ensure a clear job description: If your job description is vague and you find yourself drained by having to meet the stipulations of a job you do not quite understand, approach your supervisor, share your dilemma, and seek clarification. If you are faced with a difficult line manager and talking to them is impossible, you may try mediation—or you can play politics. One employee accomplished this by cautiously 'breaching protocol' and requesting audience with the departmental head. It worked!

Set boundaries: A common cause of burn-out is when you have to choose between work and fulfilling your obligations to those that you love, especially when they are depending on you. The next time that your boss walks into your office at 4.58pm with a request you help review and complete a shoddy report that just came in from another department, and at the same time your children is waiting for you to pick them from school, negotiate for flexibility! As one author wrote, you can say - "Excuse me, I have another commitment…can I edit the report tomorrow?"

Social support networks: Many times, you can triumph over burnout by merely availing yourself of the benefits of social support. Go out for coffee or drinks with friends and laugh out loud. Join a bible study group.Spend time with your parents or children, or join a local club. If you do not quite have a dependable forum upon which to turn every time, go out of your way, and fashion one. It may save your career, if not your life. If everything fails, seek professional help.

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