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Preventing Burnout in the Workplace

6 months ago by Andrea Amato

Looking toward a brighter career without the added chronic stress.​

Our daily jobs can be one of our greatest sources of stress, at times to an unhealthy degree, leaving us unable to cope with everyday tasks that spill onto our personal lives. Burnout, originally coined by German psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, defined the mental state as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.” Today, burnout is a seriously considered mental state that bounces off this early definition and is a leading concern for workplaces generally.

Identifying burnout

Although heavily related to stress, burnout reaches a unique point of exhaustion that hinders progress in everyday life. Where stress can mean an acute response to a certain situation, such as sudden increase in workload, burnout is a chronic reaction to stress and appears in three main ways: exhaustion, cynicism (detachment from a job), and feelings of lesser professional capabilities. In other words, if your in-office or remote job makes you feel debilitated, withdrawn, and unable to cope, you could be experiencing burnout.

Additionally, burnout can be detrimental to your mental and physical health. Although it is not considered a mental health condition and cannot be medically diagnosed, there is research to suggest other pathologies such as depression contribute to levels of burnout in employees. Other personal life factors including personality traits and familial experiences contribute to who experiences burnout. Burnout is important to understand and acknowledge because it not only impacts your job, but your overall wellbeing as well.

Common symptoms to help identify burnout includes:

  • Detachment from your job: individuals experiencing burnout feel detached from their remote or in-office jobs. They are more withdrawn from workplace tasks or colleagues and view their role as increasingly stressful and infuriating.

  • Changes in physical health: chronic stress presents itself as physical symptoms like headaches and stomach issues.

  • Exhaustion: burnout makes you feel tired and unable to cope with everyday work tasks. It is often difficult to complete goals related to your job.

  • Poor performance: in line with feeling exhausted, burnout typically leads to reduced performance at work, making concentration generally difficult. It can also affect your home life, especially for those individuals who maintain a lot of responsibilities both in their job and when they work from home.

To summarise, if your stress is attributed to a specific goal or is short-lived, it is not likely to cause any harm. However, if the stress is long-lasting and leads into a state of helplessness, it is likely that you are experiencing burnout. Any job can cause burnout, though special attention is given to jobs in Malta or beyond that require high day-to-day demand and responsibility. These include lawyer jobs, doctors, and so forth.

How organisations can avoid risk factors for burnout

Albeit all jobs can contribute to burnout, not every individual experiences it and it can be monitored beforehand. Managers and leaders alike should be wary of the main causes of burnout, coupled with certain personality traits exhibited by employees. Further, they are also responsible for ensuring employee’s workloads are manageable to complete within a certain timeframe. Whilst it is true certain jobs are riskier for burnout than others, in a report conducted by Gallup (2018) five main causes of burnout is applicable to all industries:

  • Living up to time pressures: employees who feel under pressure constantly in their jobs do not have time to dedicate to other important tasks. Contrarily, employees who feel that their tasks are manageable and realistic are far less likely to experience burnout.

  • Poor workplace communication and support: effective communication is invaluable in the workplace, and managers are key influencers in determining whether an employee feels supported at their job. Supportive managers allow room for employees to voice their concerns and have these addressed in a timely manner, preventing burnout from occurring.

  • Unclear role expectations: many employees enter a job thinking they’ve one set of responsibilities to adhere to, when in time become bombarded with tasks they’re unfamiliar with. Lack of role clarity caters to feelings of exhaustion, as employees spend a lot of time figuring out what is expected of them and what their role means in the grand scheme of things.

  • Overwhelming workload: some employees are tasked with unrealistic workloads that are impossible to achieve within a certain timeframe. As employees grow more overwhelmed, their optimism for their in-office or remote job quickly grows sour, and they become exhausted. Managers should set working goals that are manageable, specific, and realistic depending on possible outcomes.

  • Unfair or discriminatory treatment: employees are often quick to notice when they are receiving unfair treatment that differs from other employees. Unfair treatment leads to higher chances of burnout and can be due to poor management, unfair compensation, and/or workplace bullying.

The above presents common examples to workplace burnout, but it is worth noting that other factors can contribute to the mental state as well. For example, poor work-life wellness and lack of control can also be indicative of burnout. Employees who are genuinely concerned of their own experiences should consult with a mental health professional for further assistance, and managers should use the above to understand and address employee needs.

Preventing and reversing burnout

Burnout doesn’t need to be a chronic state and can be reversible as someone currently experiences it. Individuals feeling burned out should consider making adjustments at work to better accommodate their needs. It is worth approaching your line manager or supervisor and begin a conversation to detail what it is you’re currently going through and strategise effective means to change it. Organisations with a positive workplace culture will be invested to support employee wellbeing.

Establishing boundaries at work

There are instances when you’re given several tasks to complete as quickly as possible, piling up into an unimaginable workload that cannot be achieved. Although it can be challenging to reject certain tasks, knowing your limits, and saying “no” when receiving more tasks than you can handle is important to establish clear boundaries in your job in Malta or elsewhere. Organise your day efficiently so that tasks are complete during different times, and manage these whilst scheduling regular breaks in between.

Addressing and improving work-life wellness

In line with organising workplace boundaries, set these to establish between your work and home life as well. Work your job during working hours, but be sure to shut off and enjoy some downtime at the end of day. Avoid looking and responding to your emails, and leave the workplace thoughts for the office (or your home station). With remote and work from home jobs these days, commute time is reduced or eliminated altogether, and whilst this is beneficial in terms of time, ensure that you keep to your established boundaries wherever you are.

Practice healthy habits, and know when it might be time to quit your job

There are self-care strategies that can be implemented to reduce and prevent burnout from occurring. Aside from ensuring you cover the essentials, including a healthy diet and exercise routine, you can explore other helpful options. These include yoga and meditation, and so forth.

If you are experiencing chronic stress and are often feeling burned out at your job, it might be worthwhile in considering leaving your job. Before doing so, consult with your manager or HR department to determine what can be adjusted to suit your needs. This may be less risky and more effective than quitting your job altogether. The above illustrates potential options that can help mitigate stressful situations and support a restored sense of self.