Our society has begun to treat career burnout as a normal, even expected, event. We make jokes about it on TV programs, we roll our eyes at co-workers who are clearly wishing they were anywhere else, we recognise it as part of our modern culture. What we don’t do is tell people what causes workplace burnout, or more importantly, how to fix burnout. This is a huge issue, as workplace burnout can lead to depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, or physical issues – as I know personally. But what is career burnout, how can we recognise it, and – more importantly – how can we fix it?
What is Career Burnout?
“Officer H_____, please report to the sergeant’s office.”
I snarled inwardly as I heard my least-favourite sentence. It usually meant I was going to be told off, once again. I tried to figure out who I had managed to offend as I walked to my supervisor’s office and heard my other least-liked phrase – “Shut the door.”
Is your career filled with longevity – either you really love it and you do it until you retire, or you hit a burnout point, as I had, generally within a few years. Most people hit the burnout point. I had been one of the most senior workers on my shift within three years.
Burnout had transformed me. When I started, I had been a pleasant person who enjoyed working with others and helping people. I had gone into my new career ready to make a change in the world. Five years in, having been passed up for promotion and training, forced to work the same shifts over and over again, often going without breaks, I was done. I had transformed from someone who laughed and joked to someone who snarled. I needed anti-depressants just to cope with my job. I barely recognised myself.
Career burnout can happen in any field. In this article from Psychology Today, Paula Davis-Laack defines burnout as “the chronic state of being out of sync with one or more aspects of your life.” A 2019 Gallup study of 7,500 people showed that 23% of people reported being burned out at work “very often or always.” An additional 44% reported being burned out sometimes. This means roughly two-thirds of people are feeling burned out – and you can probably identify who they are in your workplace.
This can have a huge effect on workplace performance and morale – burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day, and 2.6 times more likely to be seeking a different job. More significantly, burned-out employees are 23% more likely to need a visit to their local hospital’s emergency department.
Signs and Symptoms of Career Burnout
How do you know if you’re feeling workplace burnout?
You find yourself being more cynical or critical of others at your workplace.
You have to force yourself to go to work.
You find it hard to concentrate on your job.
You lack satisfaction in your job.
You find yourself being irritable with others.
You’re using food, drugs, or alcohol to help you cope with life.
Your sleep habits have changed.
You’re dealing with sudden physical symptoms – headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints.
What Causes Career Burnout?
Some of the contributing factors to career burnout can include:
Lack of control – you have no control over what you’re assigned to do, what your schedule looks like, or any other aspect of your work life.
Insufficient recognition/reward – your work is not appreciated. You aren’t receiving feedback on your job performance. You could give 110% effort, but what’s the point when giving 50% effort gets the same result?
Overload – whether due to staffing issues or seasonal rhythms, you’re getting too much work. You don’t have time to complete it, what you can complete is at a lower level of quality, or you’re stuck working longer days attempting to catch up.
Lack of community – there is no camaraderie between your colleagues and yourself. It’s “every man for himself.” You can’t adequately resolve conflicts with your co-workers, and you don’t feel you can address the issue with your manager.
Unfairness – there is a culture of favouritism. You know who will receive the promotion as soon as it’s announced. You know who will receive the more difficult jobs. Cheating is rewarded.
Monotony/chaos – work tends to be either monotonous, comprising of the same tasks every day, or it tends to be chaotic, with too much input coming in constantly. Either situation forces you to expend a lot of effort to maintain your concentration.
Insufficient work/life balance – work consumes your life and leaves you with little time to spend doing non-work activities or being around people you don’t work with.
How to Treat Career Burnout
Most of the time, when people think about treating workplace burnout, the default response is “take a vacation” (or “go on holiday” as Holly might say!). While it can be effective occasionally, you’re likely treating a symptom, not the cause. Without addressing the underlying cause, taking a break from work is going to work in the short term, but you’re going to run right back into the same issues within a few days after you return to your workplace. How do you treat workplace burnout?
Collaborate with other co-workers – it’s usually easy to find who is experiencing workplace burnout (they’ll be the ones scowling all the time). Find out what’s causing their issues. Is there a solution? Does your employer need to take on more employees, allocate more resources, deal with a particular manager?
Talk to your supervisor – if you feel like you can approach your supervisor, let him or her know what you’re dealing with and that you would like help tackling this issue. You may be able to work out some of the problems you’re having.
Find meaning in your work – is there one particular bright spot in your day? Do you enjoy working on a particular task? See if it’s possible to fit more of that particular thing into your day. Can job duties be reallocated from other people to you, and vice versa?
Take a break – while companies love the people who are just so “driven” they never take breaks, that’s a shortcut to being burned out. Let your brain have a chance to mull over something that isn’t work-related. Spend a few minutes breathing fresh air. Play a game on your phone or check social media. Don’t force yourself to be productive for every single moment.
Take regular holidays – I know, I just said that wasn’t the solution. Except – occasionally, it can be. Knowing you have a certain amount of time off coming up can be very motivating. I found that my attitude greatly improved if I took off a couple of weeks in the beginning of the year and another couple of weeks towards the end of the year.
Care for yourself better – are you eating well? Exercising? Drinking enough water? Practicing mindfulness or meditation? Sleeping enough? Sometimes, ignoring our physical problems can create or enhance mental distress.
Change organisations or career paths – sometimes, it’s just not going to work if you stay where you’re at – and that’s all right! Recognise that the issue might not be you, it might be your environment – and sometimes, you just need to remove yourself from your toxic environment.
In my case, I wound up having to quit my job entirely. I had a lot of factors causing my career burnout – lack of breaks, supervisors who didn’t care about my well-being, a gruelling schedule, and a lack of recognition.
Quitting my job was the best thing that happened to me. It took some time but I was able to get off the anti-depressants, come back around to being the happy person I had been and eventually pursue the things I really loved in life. It’s entirely possible to recover from career burnout and have a happy, productive life doing the things you enjoy!
While career burnout can have a huge negative impact on your quality of life, it doesn’t have to. Identify the causes of your burnout and you can likely find a solution, ranging from rearranging your duties to finding a new career. You don’t have to be stuck in a job you hate!