Burnout: what it is and how to deal with it

Most of us have said “I feel so burned out” at one time or another, but likely what we meant was “I feel so stressed”.

Stress is about having too many pressures and demands but people under stress recognize that if the situation changes, they will feel better. Although burnout can be the result of long-term untreated work stress, it isn’t the same as having too much stress. Burnout is deeper. Burnout will make you feel empty and disengaged with little to no motivation. Burnout sneaks up on people and can leave a sense of hopelessness.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic work stress that has not been successfully managed. Burnout reduces productivity and saps energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful.

Although burnout is a work phenomenon the negative effects of burnout will creep into all areas of life including your home and social life. Business owners, who hold the weight of their business on their shoulders, can be especially susceptible to burnout if stress is not kept in check.

What are some of the symptoms of burnout?

Burnout has physical, emotional, and behavioural signs you can look for.

Physically, burnout can:

  • Leave you feeling tired and drained
  • Cause headaches and muscle pain
  • Affect sleep and appetite
  • Lower immunity to illnesses like colds and flu

Emotionally, burnout can:

  • Demotivate and cause a sense of self-doubt
  • Leave you feeling detached and alone in the world
  • Make you feel more cynical and negative
  • Leave you feeling helpless and defeated

During burnout someone may also:

  • Use food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
  • Take frustrations out on others
  • Isolate themselves
  • Withdraw from responsibilities – including skipping work

What causes burnout?

Job burnout can happen for a variety of reasons:

  • Having a lack of control. Inability to influence decisions that affect your job such as your schedule, assignments, or workload or if you have a lack of proper resources to do your work.
  • Unclear job expectations. Not knowing what others expect from you or understanding your level of authority.
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics. Being micromanaged by your boss, working with toxic people, or in an environment where there is bullying and harassment.
  • Extremes of activity. Whether the job is monotonous or chaotic, the level of energy required to maintain that level of focus can lead to burnout.
  • Lack of social support. Feeling isolated, either at work or in your personal life, may lead to more long-term chronic stress.
  • Work-life imbalance. Not allowing for a healthy balance to spend time with your family and friends can lead you to burning out quickly.

How to handle workplace burnout?

Burnout is harder to come out of because it often requires larger changes. That is why it is vital to curb burnout before it gets too deep. One of the first steps is to acknowledge what you are experiencing and understand it is not a sign of weakness or failure. Often working through burnout requires the support of a professional. Burnout causes you to become disengaged and detached and it may require a significant reset to heal.

Here are some considerations to help burnout:

  • Seek support. Professional support is a great option, but if that is not available to you consider reaching out to co-workers, friends or loved ones. Support is essential in helping you cope.
  • Evaluate your options. Can you change your work environment or tasks? Is there a way to better define expectations or make compromises? If you are a business owner, you are often responsible for everything – can you delegate tasks? If you are an employee, have a truthful discussion with your supervisor. The goal is to evaluate what must get done and what can wait.
  • Do something that relaxes you: Explore programs or activities that can help with stress such as yoga, meditation, art, journaling, or even music therapy.
  • Explore movement: Moving your body can help you to better deal with stress. It can also take your mind off work. It doesn’t have to be strenuous or lengthy. Choose an activity that you truly enjoy. It could be walking, swimming, dancing, lifting weights, hiking – the options are endless.
  • Try to get more rest: Sleep restores well-being and helps protect your health.
  • Be mindful: Mindfulness is the act of focusing on your breath flow and being intensely aware of what you're sensing and feeling at every moment, without interpretation or judgment. In a job setting, this practice involves facing situations with openness and patience, and without judgment. We recommend our complimentary posters on releasing tension and taking a moment to post at your workplace as gentle reminders to be more mindful.

Sometimes the only solution to ending a burnout cycle is to take an extended break from the situation that is causing it.

As an employer or manager, there are things you can do to promote a healthier work environment:

  • Ensure workers have reasonable autonomy: Allow employees to make some decisions about their work. If possible, consider alternate scheduling or redistributing workloads when possible. Ensure you and your employees have the resources and equipment needed to complete tasks. Empower workers by asking for their input and ideas.
  • Set healthy work expectations: Do your employees know what is expected of them? We recommend providing a detailed job description or developing a workplan that clearly outlines responsibilities and the order of priorities.
  • Ensure your workplace is a safe place: Implement a Respectful Workplace Statement along with your anti-violence, anti-bullying, and anti-harassment policies. Ensure that people are kind and helpful towards each other.
  • Change things up: Is there variety in the work in either tasks or intensity? People need variety to keep their focus and the brain engaged. If someone has a repetitive task, make sure there is a break that allows the individual to do something different at times during the day. If someone has a labour-intensive task, ensure they also have something productive that is less strenuous on their body.
  • Encourage camaraderie: Build your team by encouraging communication, shared experiences and occasional fun activities. People that feel a strong sense of teamwork feel more engaged and productive at work.
  • Allow everyone to have down time: Don’t place expectations of work on your employees when they are away from work. Give everyone ample time to disconnect so they can have a healthier work life balance. Consider implementing a Disconnecting from Work Policy.

Brought to you by CFIB's Wellness Hub - a wealth of help, information, and resources