Feeling burned out at work? You’re not alone

The World Health Organization now classifies workplace burnout as an occupational phenomenon, and research shows more than half of workers are suffering from the condition. What can you do about it?

At the end of May, the World Health Organization (WHO) made headlines when, for the first time, it classified worker burnout as an occupational phenomenon.

The update to WHO’s definition of burnout comes as the group works on its new version of its handbook of diseases, the International Classification of Diseases — ICD-11 — which will go into effect in January 2022. Previously, WHO defined burnout as a “state of vital exhaustion,” but the new definition calls burnout a “syndrome,” and links the condition to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

According to WHO, burnout is characterized by “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.” As part of its new definition, WHO notes that in order to diagnose true burnout, mental health professionals first need to rule out anxiety, mood disorders, and other stress-related disorders.

The Mayo Clinic notes that “burnout” isn’t a medical diagnosis. Still, “some experts think that other conditions, such as depression, are behind burnout,” notes a Mayo article. “Some research suggests that many people who experience symptoms of job burnout don’t believe their jobs are the main cause. Whatever the cause, job burnout can affect your physical and mental health.”

Everyone might feel burned out at work at one time or another, but for some the feelings are more pronounced. According to a survey conducted in April by staffing firm Robert Half:

  • U.S. workers reported their level of burnout to be 5.6 on a scale of 1–10 (1 being not at all burned out and 10 being completely burned out);
  • Younger workers feel most burnt out, at 6.2 on a scale of 1–10; and
  • Some cities reported much higher burnout levels. Leading the way were Los Angeles, Detroit, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Denver.

Workers were also asked about the top causes of their burnout. Their replies:

  • Constant interruptions/fires to put out — 20 percent;
  • Career stagnation/no room for growth — 20 percent;
  • Unmanageable workload/long hours — 17 percent;
  • Toxic culture — 12 percent;
  • Old/out-of-date technology — 8 percent;
  • Other — 6 percent; and
  • I don’t feel burnout — 18 percent.

*Responses total 101 percent due to rounding.

How do you know if you’re experiencing workplace burnout? Ask yourself:

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers, or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you find it hard to concentrate?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Are you using food, drugs, or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
  • Have your sleep habits changed?
  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be experiencing job burnout, according to the Mayo Clinic.

With the pace of business moving faster than ever, many employees are feeling the strain of pressing deadlines and heavy workloads, notes Sasha Truckenbrod, branch manager of Robert Half in Madison.

“Technology, in particular, has been keeping workers increasingly accessible, which often leads to answering emails after hours,” says Truckenbrod. Another recent survey conducted by Robert Half Technology found that, if “right to disconnect” legislation is passed in the U.S., 66 percent of technology leaders say they could adhere to an email ban, but 41 percent of workers don’t think their current manager would stick to it.

Other reasons for rising levels of burnout include rising manager expectations, conflict between colleagues, and lack of resources from understaffing, the burden of which falls on existing staff.

At 2.8 percent, Wisconsin’s low unemployment rate continues to challenge employers who are looking to attract and retain skilled workers, and with burnout impacting local teams more and more, there’s good reason for Madison companies to step up their retention efforts, says Truckenbrod.

Truckenbrod notes there are a few things workers can do to alleviate burnout:

  • Protect your time. Staying organized is critical to finishing tasks. Rather than trying to juggle two tasks at once, schedule periods throughout the day to focus on key assignments. Use your calendar to block out time for getting projects done.
  • Speak up. If your to-do list is never-ending, it’s possible you have too much on your plate. Talk to your manager about your workload and ask for help reprioritizing tasks. You may even want to inquire about some work-life balance options (i.e., telecommuting or flexible scheduling).
  • Take a break. Step away from your desk, go for a walk, or grab a snack. If you can’t get outside, look away from the computer and focus on a non-work-related activity for a few minutes.
  • Maximize your off hours. Enjoy more time with friends, engage in a hobby that will help clear your mind, take vacation time to recharge, go for a walk, and get some exercise. It may sound cliché but boosting your endorphins can help improve your mood.

When employees are experiencing burnout, it can lead to lack of focus, procrastination, tiredness, mistakes, and bad attitudes that can have a negative impact on their performance and contribute to a toxic work environment, explains Truckenbrod. Professionals who are burnt out may find themselves searching for new career opportunities to escape and achieve better work-life balance.

Mangers looking to help their employees avoid burnout should consider these tips:

  • Stay connected. Meet regularly with team members on an individual basis to get a sense of their workload and help them prioritize.
  • Promote health. Encourage staff to participate in wellness offerings at your company. Participate yourself, too, and even consider organizing team stress-relief activities.
  • Have a sense of humor. Keep the mood light around the office. Laughter builds camaraderie and can improve employee satisfaction.
  • Encourage time off. Employees who take their vacation time are happier and more productive. Set an example and take time away to create a workplace culture of healthy work-life balance.
  • Provide options. More and more companies in Madison are offering perks and benefits such as telecommuting, flexible schedules, and additional vacation days.

“While there is such a thing as having a healthy level of stress, burnout is as bad for businesses as it is for workers,” says Truckenbrod. “Employers who aren’t addressing staff burnout run the risk of losing their top performers to competitors with a better corporate culture. By taking an interest in the well-being of team members, managers can reap the rewards of a more satisfied workforce.”

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