Burnout: What Is It and How Do You Cope?

Burnout: What Is It and How Do You Cope?

In May, we observe Mental Health Awareness Month in order to bring awareness to pressing mental health matters and to eliminate stigma in discussing mental health. When it comes to mental health, burnout is the topic that’s on everyone’s mind! Exacerbated by the pandemic, this phenomenon is impacting a massive number of Americans and that number is on the rise. What is burnout? Where does it come from? How can individuals cope?

We’re diving into all of that and more!

What is burnout?

Burnout comes with physical and emotional manifestations of exhaustion, fatigue, and inability to focus. Like many mental health matters, burnout can be hard to define and as of yet is not officially recognized as a medical condition. The American Psychological Association’s (APA) Dictionary of Psychology defines burnout as, “physical, emotional or mental exhaustion, accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance and negative attitudes towards oneself and others.” Remarkably, the phenomenon has come to be almost exclusively associated with the workplace. The types of stress that contribute most to burnout are overwhelmingly connected to workplace stress factors and lack of work-life balance.

As mentioned previously, the most common symptoms of burnout can appear both physically and emotionally. Physical symptoms of the condition include fatigue, tension headaches, and disruptions to dietary and sleep patterns, resulting in stomachaches and intestinal issues. The emotional symptoms are easily recognizable and have a lot in common with depression. Burnout causes people to feel drained, hopeless and unproductive. This overall feeling of exhaustion and negativity has a direct impact on job performance, workplace engagement, and in the social life of the impacted individual.

Burnout and depression have several symptoms in common, but there are some key differences. Depression is a diagnosable medical condition, whereas burnout is not. Further, burnout is most typically a response to a specific environment or situation prolonged over an unsustainable period. Depression, on the other hand, does not have one specific trigger and symptoms tend to be more general and encompass all areas of a person’s life.

The pressures that the COVID-19 pandemic have placed on workers has swelled cases of burnout to an all-time high. According to a 2018 Gallup report, the five main causes of burnout include intense time pressure and deadlines associated with their work, lack of communication and support between an employee and their manager, increasing or unmanageable workloads, and a lack of good work-life balance.

How is the American workplace being affected?

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) categorized burnout as a syndrome resulting from workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. WHO identified multiple dimensions of burnout that led to reduced professional efficacy and growing mental distance, cynicism, and negativity towards one’s job. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, burnout rates skyrocketed throughout 2020 and soared to unprecedented heights in 2021.

In the 2021 Work and Well-being Survey conducted by the APA, studies of 1,501 adult workers showed that nearly 3 in 5 employees were experiences negative impacts of work-related stress. This included 26 percent of employees reporting a lack of motivation and energy, 36 percent reporting cognitive weariness, 32 percent reporting emotional exhaustion, and 44 percent reporting feeling physical fatigue.

Burnout has been closely linked to the Great Resignation, an ongoing economic trend in which employees have voluntarily resigned from their jobs en masse. The Great Resignation has coincided with the larger external stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic and burnout has shown up again and again as a root cause. The stress of the current moment has reflected in many American workplaces and burnout is at an all-time high. Companies that are not prepared to manage employee mental health matters will find themselves fighting an uphill battle, when it comes to retaining talent.

What are some ways of coping with burnout?

For those that are suffering from burnout, it is important to pause and pinpoint the source of the stress. As mentioned previously, most cases of burnout originate from a single specific circumstance. Coping with this condition is comprised of equal parts safeguarding personal wellness and carefully evaluating professional stressors.

Within the workplace, individuals suffering from burnout would do well to evaluate their options. Creating a clear line of communication with their supervisor and seeking support can help a burned-out employee to reconnect with their workplace. Through personal awareness and employer support, a burned-out employee has a better chance of discovering the source of their burnout and responding. Burnout should be a top concern for employers, as it is a phenomenon that often manifests in top workers and highly productive individuals.

On the personal front, individuals may confront burnout by gently addressing the foundation of their health. Experts recommend that people suffering from burnout engage in relaxing activities like yoga or meditation, and practice good sleep hygiene and get regular exercise. A healthy body translates into a healthy mind and can be step in the right direction, when coping with burnout. Take some time off from work, if possible, to prioritize self-care and to recharge.

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