What is burnout? How to recognise the signs and recover from work-related stress

Westend61/Getty ImagesWhen you’re overly stressed and exhausted because of work, it might be burnout.

  • Burnout is a type of work-related stress that can negatively affect your mental health.
  • Burnout symptoms include frustration, sadness, lack of hope, and fatigue – and it is often associated with both anxiety and depression.
  • While you may not always be able to prevent the causes of burnout at work, there are many ways to recover from it – here’s how.
  • This article was medically reviewed by David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Brain Health Centre at Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Centre.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

If you’re feeling stressed out at work, you’re not alone:83% of US workers are suffering from some kind of work-related stress, which causes one million people to miss work every day.

As more and more people work from home during the coronavirus pandemic, work-related stress may increase as the boundaries between work and home life become blurred. If this stress becomes overwhelming, it can cause burnout.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a type of work-related stress. The World Health Organisation (WHO) lists burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon‘ in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Though it is not considered a medical condition, WHO notes that it can influence your health, and cause you to reach out to health services.

“Burnout describes the thoughts and feelings associated with feeling overwhelmed and fatigued by life circumstances,” says Rachel O’Neill, PhD, a practicing therapist and Director of Clinical Effectiveness for Talkspace.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is a survey designed by Christina Maslach, a psychology professor from the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1980s. The MBI is still used today by health professionals as the main way to assess burnout, and it is the basis for WHO’s definition of the condition.

Burnout symptoms

While burnout includes many of the same symptoms as stress, there are three specific feelings that differentiate burnout:

  • Feeling tired or exhausted
  • A lack of enthusiasm and increased negativity towards your job
  • Decreased ability to perform your job

Often, burnout results in depressive symptoms, such as sadness or a lack of hope, O’Neill says. But it can also contribute to a wide range of negative emotions and even physical symptoms, such as:

  • Frustration or anger
  • Irritability or annoyance
  • Anxiety, agitation, or restlessness
  • Physical feelings of stress, such as headaches, stomach issues, body pains, or fatigue

Causes of work burnout

A 2018 study of 7,500 workers in the USA showed that employees suffering from burnout are 63% more likely to take sick days, show less confidence in their work performance, and are more than twice as likely to leave their job.

The study found the top reasons for burnout included:

  • Unfair treatment at work
  • Unmanageable workload
  • Lack of clarity in role
  • Not enough communication or support from manager
  • Unrealistic time pressure

Moreover, a selection of studies from the American Institute of Stress found that the biggest sources of stress at work were: ineffective communication (80%); too much workload (39%); demands from their manager or supervisor (35%); and unclear expectations (31%).

As more people work from home during the coronavirus pandemic, O’Neill says many of these problems -poor communication, isolation and lack of support, difficulty meeting deadlines, and environmental distractions – could all worsen feelings of burnout and be difficult on your mental health.

“This chronic sense of feeling overwhelmed and overextended can lead to a number of physical and mental health-related issues,” O’Neill says. “Burnout can also exacerbate pre-existing mental and physical health concerns.”

For example, a 2016 review discussed multiple trials that found an association between depression and burnout, and one study found that 90% of patients with severe burnout also experienced a physical or mental disease – muscle pain and depression were the most common problems.

How to recover from burnout

Like stress, burnout can be managed by dealing with the stressor. Identifying which areas of your job are causing stress is key to overcoming it.

Of course, preventing burnout in the first place is the ideal scenario, and employers can make proven organizational changes to reduce stress and improve performance:

  • Give employees more control over performance expectations
  • Reduce interruptions and noise in the workplace
  • Give employees more autonomy and flexibility in their work
  • Improve light in the work environment, with an emphasis on natural light
  • Create a work environment that encourages collaboration

However, not all burnout can be prevented. If you are experiencing the symptoms of burnout, O’Neill recommends speaking to a medical provider or mental health professional.

“To the extent possible, try to make time in your day for self-care, especially self-care that focuses on present-focused awareness: things like mindfulness and meditation can be especially helpful here,” says O’Neill.

To deal with burnout, the following options can help to reduce and manage your stress.

  • Talk to your boss. If this is possible, explain how you feel and work together towards a more manageable workload. In a 2006 case study, Maslach identified communication between the employer and employee as a key area: whether it’s unrealistic time constraints, a poor working environment, or a lack of clarity in your role, discussing the root of the problem and finding a solution with your supervisor is the quickest way to reduce work stress.
  • Prioritise sleep. Sleep is vital for good physical and mental health, and the National Sleep Foundation found that a lack of sleep was one of the biggest predictors of burnout. Here’s some of the best strategies for getting better sleep while under stress.
  • Get regular exercise. A 2015 study of nurses doing one-hour yoga classes twice per week resulted in lower work-related stress and improved sleep quality after six months, when compared to the control group who did not exercise.
  • Meditation and mindfulness. A 2011 study found that meditation significantly reduced stress and depression in full-time workers, and a 2019 study on mindfulness meditation apps found that those using it two to three times per week successfully lowered their work-related stress and blood pressure. “One of the biggest guards against burnout is focusing your awareness on what you’re feeling in a moment; the simple act of noticing and bringing awareness to a particular thought or feeling can serve as a powerful guard against the cumulative effect of burnout,” says O’Neill.
  • Ask for social support.A 2018 workplace survey found that having friends at work lowered stress in employees, along with a host of other benefits: fewer safety incidents, higher company profits, and a more positive day-to-day work experience. Interestingly, a 2013 study of team sports found that perceived support can be more important than actual support in reducing stress and improving self-motivation – so venting to family or friends may be just as effective, even if they can’t fix the problem.

O’Neill says that the coronavirus pandemic has presented many forms of disruption and stress, and it will be imperative to recognise and address feelings of burnout.

“For many of us, most of our daily routine, our forms of self-care, and our general sense of safety and stability have been impacted,” O’Neill says. “Present-focused awareness, maintaining emotional connections, having clear work-life boundaries, and increasing self-care strategies are key to moving forward without burning out.”

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