Burnout is a growing problem in modern workplaces. Here’s what you need to know about the condition.

We hear a lot about burnout in today’s busy workplaces, but just what does it mean to be burnt out?

Stress gets a bad rap, but in some circumstances, it can be a positive force. Studies have shown it can drive performance and improve memory and learning. But chronic stress can lead to a debilitating condition known as burnout. “In simple terms, it’s where pressure exceeds your ability to cope,” explains Janet Hopkins, general manager at Mindful Employer.

There are three broad symptoms of burnout: mental or physical exhaustion (or both), cynicism, where you feel detached from work, and inefficacy, where a crisis of confidence leads to a fall in productivity. Signs of burnout may include fatigue, troubled sleep, shortness of temper or the inability to focus. “I explain it as a lack of bandwidth mentally – you forget things, you’re full,” says Hopkins.

Burnout is an increasing problem in our always-on work culture. There is a long list of possible causes of stress in modern workplaces: everything from long hours and heavy workloads to harassment and discrimination. In a world of round-the-clock access to work emails, it can be impossible to switch off. A recent survey in the US found that nearly one in four workers reported frequently feeling burnout at work. 

You can love your job and still suffer from burnout. In fact, it’s often high achievers who are most at risk: a five-year study released in 2017 found that one in five top performing leaders of UK businesses were affected by corporate burnout. Another study in the US found that one in five highly engaged workers reported high levels of burnout. They were “passionate about their work” but were frustrated and stressed and contributed to a high rate of employee turnover.  

Burnout has serious consequences for employees and their employers. According to a study by the Macquarie University, burnout can contribute to increased physical illness, mental illness such as depression and anxiety, increased drug and alcohol use and ongoing career issues among individuals. “For the organisation, workplace burnout can result in increased staff dissatisfaction, unexpected leave, absenteeism, high staff turnover rates and ultimately higher training and employment costs,” states the study.

What can you do to prevent burnout?

The first step in preventing and managing burnout is awareness. We need to tune into our stress levels, says Hopkins. It’s important to “be conscious of signs of stress in your body, some of them you’re not always aware of. Is it headaches, is it tightness in the shoulders, is it a lack of energy, is it waking up in the middle of the night?”

If you know the signs that you are under strain, you can take steps to address the causes of stress in your life – wherever they occur.

Self-care is paramount to reduce stress. It’s important to allow yourself to take breaks and unwind from work. One of the most widely recommended relaxation techniques is meditation; however, Hopkins says many people tell her they struggle with the practice. But don’t be discouraged – any activity that takes you to your “Zen place” can help you to de-stress.

“It could be taking the dog for a walk, going down to the coffee shop and reading the newspaper by yourself, having a bath, going to the football. Whatever it is for you that takes you to the Zen place and makes you feel more energised, that’s what you need to do more of when you’re starting to get burnt out,” says Hopkins. “It’s making sure you build those things into your day.”

Exercise has been shown to play a crucial role in coping with stress. “Try to do 30 minutes of exercise three times a week,” says Hopkins.

Sleep is equally important. “Make sure you get to bed at a reasonable time. Ideally, seven to eight hours sleep is what we need. The average in Australia is significantly less than that – a lot of us are walking around sleep deprived.”

If you are suffering from a mental illness or you would like more information about mental health, visit the beyondblue website or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Main image: Photo by Hutomo Abrianto on Unsplash