Romance novel magnate Danielle Steel, author of 179 books and mother to nine kids, may have dubbed burnout a “millennial affliction.” But the perils of burning out at work are all too real and can, in fact, be felt by any age group, a viewpoint that recently received some high-profile endorsement.
This week, burnout officially gained recognition by the World Health Organization as a medically diagnosable condition extending beyond the reaches of traditional stress. The term now appears within the organization’s International Classification of Diseases handbook, in a section specific to conditions related to employment or unemployment. Receiving a diagnosis of burnout, the handbook states, depends on whether a patient exhibits the following symptoms:
Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
Increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
Reduced professional efficacy
We know that increasing numbers of workers are currently experiencing or feel susceptible to experiencing burnout, a fact the American Institute of Stress has been compiling data on for years. Not only are Americans today working harder and for longer hours on average than previous generations did, but research presented by the institute also shows that as many as 80% of workers feel stress on the job, with 40% of workers describing their jobs as “very or extremely” stressful. Furthermore, 26% of workers admit they are “often or very often burned out” by their workloads.
Worried you might be warding off a bout of burnout yourself? Here are five steps you need to take, stat.
1. Familiarize yourself with the stages of burnout.
While the version presented by the World Health Organization is specific to on-the-job symptoms, burnout often carries spillover effects into one’s personal life, too. To that end, psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North identified a 12-stage model of the most common layers of burnout symptoms that people encounter, as well as the order in which they’re typically experienced.
2. Identify the root cause of your symptoms.
Maybe the reason you’re feeling so severely drained by your job is that the career path you’ve been on has stopped bringing you joy. Maybe you still enjoy the work itself, but the work environment is hostile, toxic, and driving you to burn out. Perhaps the work culture is fine but you have a hard time setting boundaries, leading coworkers to walk all over you or management to overly depend on you.
Unlike illnesses like chronic fatigue and/or depression or anxiety disorders, burnout is ultimately a situational condition. Before you can rid yourself of this condition, it’s imperative to identify what specific situation is causing it — and to avoid similar situations in the future. The below resources may be a good starting point.
3. Use your PTO.
If you feel you may be on the verge of burnout, taking advantage of your company’s PTO policies to reset and reassess your priorities for a few days can be crucial. You may feel like this isn’t an option for you — if you take time off, the work will only pile up and cause you even more stress, or so the narrative commonly goes. But if you’re on the cusp of burnout, chances are your productivity and performance may (understandably) be hurting thanks to the cognitive effects of factors like stress and sleep deprivation.
In the end, taking a few days off to unplug could actually help you get more work done and restore some of your sense of well-being. And if, when you return from your mental health break, things don’t feel any more manageable — that could be a sign it’s time to make a career change.
4. Make time for small but regular acts of self care.
Although taking time away from work, even if it’s just a couple sick days, is worthwhile if at all possible, there are also small acts of mental health maintenance we should incorporate into our day-to-day lives that can help alleviate burnout symptoms. The pace of modern life is more frenetic than ever, and “busy” has, for many folks, been twisted into a badge of honor. In a culture like this, it’s no wonder that more of us are burning out. Even if all you feel you can spare toward self care on a given day is 30 minutes, use that time in the most restorative way possible to recalibrate some of your stress levels. (#ProTip: Therapy should absolutely be one of these acts!)
5. Talk to your boss, or maybe even HR.
If your job is putting you at risk of burning out, a decent boss should care to hear that information, and not just from a place of humanity (though you would hope that would be incentive enough). Turnover costs companies millions of dollars each year. To mitigate the risk of losing and having to replace talent, it is literally the job of your manager and the company’s HR personnel at large to ensure you do not burn out. If you have a decent relationship with your boss, tell them how you feel and be prepared to ask for what you need. If you have concerns over how your boss would take such information, set up a meeting with HR to confidentially address your concerns. You don’t have to suffer in silence.