We all know the common phrase that goes something like this: “Find a job you love and never work a day in your life.”  Sounds simple, right? If only it was that easy.  The reality is that many individuals are not currently working a job that they feel passionate about.  For most people, going to work is something that they have to do in order to support themselves and their families.  Not everyone has the luxury of exploring their true interests and working a dream job that makes them feel fulfilled every single day. Despite this, that should be okay.  Your job shouldn’t have to be the only thing that defines you or sources your life’s purpose.  However, more and more U.S. adults are finding themselves consumed with work than ever before.  About 3 in 5 employees in the U.S. are experiencing symptoms of burnout in the workplace, and it isn’t just those who are working a job they don’t love.  Whether it is someone who is working a job that they have dreamt about since being 5 years old or someone who is working a job just because they need to pay the bills, burnout in the workplace is real and it is affecting Americans’ mental health everywhere.


Is Burnout a Mental Health Condition?

Burnout was first described by U.S. psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger in 1975, and originally referred to the experience that many healthcare workers with heavy caseloads were going through.   These employees were described as feeling ‘burnt out’ from excessive job demands that pushed them to the point of feeling completely defeated. According to the APA, burnout is described as the physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion that one feels as a result of extreme or excessive stress or exertion.  Burnout makes individuals feel very hopeless, drained, and unable to complete a seemingly insurmountable list of tasks or demands.  They may also lack sufficient support systems or resources to help them cope with stressors.Those who experience burnout feel so overworked and spread so thin to the point of feeling like they have nothing left to give.  They may begin to notice decreased motivation, low energy, poorer performance, and exhibit negative feelings about themselves and those around them.  

Apart from being influenced by work-related stressors, burnout can also result more easily in some people due to their individual risk factors.  Research shows that certain personality traits, like high introversion, low conscientiousness, and low agreeableness, are associated with higher rates of burnout.  In addition, other social factors like personal and family life can influence who may experience burnout more than others.  

At its root, burnout was coined to describe the occupational difficulties that people in the workplace face.  For example, an employee might decide to take on a lot of responsibilities at work because they enjoyed the idea of being challenged in a meaningful way.  Over time, however, the volume of work may become too much to bear that the individual feels unfulfilled and every responsibility becomes unmanageable and unsustainable.  While this can lead to many mental health struggles, however, burnout is not considered to be a diagnosable mental illness.  Most people still categorize this feeling as a work-related phenomenon, since it can be hard to differentiate and categorize work-related stressors from other things like personal-life stressors.  Even though burnout is not in the DSM, it can very negatively impact someone’s physical and mental health.


Is it burnout or is it stress?

Researchers have stated that the US has been going through an economic period coined “The Great Resignation” since early 2021 as a result of COVID-19.  In this time period, many citizens across the U.S. have been quitting their jobs in record-number fashion.  In 2021, 47.8 million individuals quit their jobs (almost 4 million people per month!), and since then the numbers have still persisted.  Unsurprisingly, burnout is one of the leading causes that people have been quitting their jobs.  About 3 in 5 employees stated that work-related stress had negative impacts on their lives in that year alone.  36% of employees stated that they were suffering from cognitive weariness and 44% of employees reported physical fatigue.  These numbers go to show the extent of how impactful burnout can be on a person.  Additionally, research done by Deloitte showed that out of 1,000 US professionals, 77% of respondents reported feeling burnout at their job at some point.  91% of those individuals felt that the never-ending stress and frustration of a difficult workload impacts the quality of their work; and  83% of respondents stated that feeling burnout from work has impacted their personal lives outside of the office.  It’s safe to say that feeling burnt out is becoming a common experience shared by many Americans, but how do you know when you’re burnt out or if you’re stressed?

A key thing to understand about burnout is that it does not happen overnight, or even over the course of a week.  Burnout occurs when workplace stress becomes chronic stress and then it becomes burnout.  Stress can happen at any moment during your day, and it usually makes individuals feel overwhelmed or incapable of handling so many things at once.  With burnout, the feeling is a bit different.  Instead of feeling like there is too much going on, you feel like there is nothing left that you could possibly give to your job or situation.  It is more of a hollowing feeling than it is an overflowing one.  With stress, an employee’s worries may motivate them to continue working because they want to accomplish their goals.  On the other hand,  someone who is burnt out does not even care about their goals anymore and may just feel ‘done’.  Additionally, stress is something that a person can typically recognize is happening within themselves.  Burnout is more hard to detect because a person’s emotions may be dulled by the time it gets to that point.


Causes and consequences

Even though burnout was originally termed to describe work-related issues, burnout can be felt by anyone in any circumstance.  Here are a few of the most common causes of burnout:

  • Poor management:  Many people have to deal with uncomfortability at work.  Sometimes, this feeling occurs because employers do not communicate to their employees exactly what their job expectations are or how much authority their employees hold in their positions.  Or, sometimes expectations are actually explained but not upheld by supervisors and managers.  Bosses may say one thing to their employees but actually mean another, and this poor communication can lead to burnout in employees.
  • Lack of support:  Individuals who work remotely or do not have friendly relationships with those at work may feel isolated and alone with their workloads.  These individuals may feel like they are the only ones who understand what it is like to be in their position, and this isolation can lead to hopelessness and detachment from their work.
  • No sense of work-life balance: A lot of people go into their line of work with a lot of passion and determination.  While this can be a great thing, it can also lead to individuals biting off more than they can chew because they want to be the best.  Employees may agree to heavy workloads and long hours in order to prove themselves to their supervisors.  Or, healthcare workers may have long 12-hour shifts where they spend all their time pouring care into other people.  When work takes up so much of a person’s time, they may not not have the energy or ability to do anything else.  This type of lifestyle can cause people to be at a higher risk for experiencing burnout.  


Tips on how to deal with burnout

Some tips to combat burnout symptoms include:

  • Being honest with yourself about what you can handle. Sometimes it can be hard to admit to yourself that you cannot continue working in conditions that make you feel depleted and unmotivated.  Noticing that you are burnt out may be difficult to realize, but when you can recognize that your work or obligations make you feel emotionally drained or as though life is not worth living, you can step back and re-evaluate your situation.
  • Re-prioritize and re-delegate.  When you recognize that your level of workload is unsustainable, you can take a look at everything on your plate and really think about what needs to be done and what you can let go of.  A lot of us put pressure on ourselves to get every task done ourselves, and sometimes that’s just not possible.  No one has to be doing 500 different things to be productive.  If you need to have a talk with your boss about what you can handle, do that. If there is a project that you wanted to do, but can give to a coworker, do that.  Think of compromises and solutions that will serve you best.
  • Be intentional with time spent away from work.  Though many people work crazy hours during the week, there must be days or times when you can focus on other things and other people.  It is important to let work be work, and leave it out of your head when you are off the clock.  We can become cynical and let ourselves be totally consumed by our jobs, but find a way to let it go when it is appropriate.  If that means going to a cycle class where you can forget all your responsibilities for 45 minutes or going out for drinks with your friends, be intentional about doing things for yourself.
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