Burnout 101: What Ignites Burnout and How to Protect Yourself From Getting Scorched

by Emily Winer and Julia Keim
Sep 7, 2018 8:50 AM ET
Blog

Whether you are a young professional or a seasoned career veteran, you know how important it is to be focused and sharp in order to be effective at work. Burnout, a rising issue in the workplace, can have a major impact not only on your ability to be productive, but on your overall mental and physical health. While the exact prevalence of burnout is not known, the ever increasing numbers of days taken off due to mental health concerns shed light on the magnitude of this problem.1  Given that we spend much of our adult years in the workforce, preventing burnout must be seen as a priority for both individual and organizational health.

What exactly is burnout?

Burnout describes the experience of physical, mental and/or emotional exhaustion caused by an individual undergoing severe, prolonged stress, typically in a workplace setting. Researchers describe it as a complex and multi-dimensional concept, and the way in which burnout is expressed can look slightly different depending on the individual.2,3  Typically, however, burnout elicits feelings of exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy and some may experience certain feelings more than others.2,3  For many individuals exhaustion may feel like a complete depletion of energy; cynicism as irritability toward or a feeling of alienation from work; and inefficacy as a lowered sense of capability and morale.2,4

What puts somebody at risk?

Burnout does not occur overnight. Rather, it is a progressive and gradual process that can develop slowly and then remain for long periods of time, especially if left unaddressed.5  Burnout can result from seemingly innocuous, and even rewarded, workplace behaviors such as putting in long hours, committing to extra projects or sacrificing your personal time to be at the office. Overtime, these typically rewarded behaviors have the potential for deeply counterproductive impacts on an employee’s health and well-being, as well as an organization’s overall productivity and culture.

Employees in work environments that foster burnout may experience a lack of control at work, work-related stress and high job demands with low job resources (the physical, psychological, social and organizational aspects of a job that support achievement).3,6  Burnout can occur in employees across all position types and career fields, as well as in students before even entering the professional world, highlighting the many populations at risk.7

What are the effects of burnout?

Burnout can lead to numerous threats to physical and mental health, such as sedentary behavior and weight gain, increased alcohol consumption and greater risk for anxiety, depression, sleep issues and problems with memory.4,6,8  Because physical and mental health are inextricably linked, when one suffers, the other is impacted as well. For example, poor quality sleep, both a symptom of and a contributor to mental health concerns, puts a person at a higher risk for physical health issues like weight gain.9  Collectively, the health risks of burnout lead to greater susceptibility for type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and infections.4,6

Employees experiencing burnout may exhibit a variety of withdrawal behaviors, including increased absenteeism and presenteeism (when an individual is physically accounted for at work, but no longer performing in an effective manner).6  Burnout among employees is also associated with increased rates of turnover.6  Unfortunately, burnout’s impact can have a ripple effect across an organization: in response to a burned out individual’s lowered productivity, colleagues may have to contribute added time and effort to make up the lost work, which in turn, places additional strain on them and the organization at large.6

Is there anything an organization can do to prevent burnout?

When it comes to burnout, focusing on prevention is key. Not only does it demonstrate an organization’s commitment to employee health and well-being, but it also helps buffer the potential economic losses caused by burnout’s impact.3

While the workplace is often the source of burnout, it also serves as a good setting for prevention efforts, as these environments have resources that, when used productively, can promote health and well-being.10  There are a number of research-based programs organizations can choose from that tackle burnout using different approaches. For example, one program, which is focused on promoting resiliency, seeks to equip employees with the tools they need to cope with the demands of work and life.10  This skills-based approach to preventing burnout has demonstrated to have a positive impact on employee levels of exhaustion, coping self-efficacy, optimism and energy at work.10  Another similar program, which focuses on supporting the personal growth of employees, was found to contribute to greater professional efficacy, happiness and sense of purpose − all key aspects of combating burnout.11  Programs like these are key in helping employers retain happy, healthy and productive employees.12

What about prevention strategies for individuals?

Sometimes individuals may not be able to change the factors of their workplace that contribute to burnout. Despite this challenge, there are a variety of simple strategies individuals can use to prevent burnout, such as:

  1. Develop a self-care ritual: carve out time to consistently do things – whether it is going for a mid-day walk, grabbing lunch away from your desk or engaging in a mindfulness practice – that support your mental and physical recharge.13,14

  2. Seek support: whether from colleagues, friends or family, engaging in social connection and support can be incredibly helpful.14

  3. Give yourself a real break: it may seem impossible, but truly signing off work to recharge your body and mind will help you maintain your productivity, energy and overall engagement at work.15

While committing to these methods may take a little practice, they have the potential to have a true long-term, positive impact that will help you to thrive both in and outside of the workplace.

Explore the Mind Concept in WELL v2 to learn more about interventions in buildings and communities that can support better stress management or the WELL AP program to discover how you can get involved in the movement to create healthier spaces for people everywhere.