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Workplace burnout is officially a thing. Here’s what to do when work affects your health. 

Did you drag yourself to work after the Christmas holidays and feel just as exhausted as before the break? Have you become especially cynical or critical at work? Feel you can’t do your job well anymore?

If you answered yes to all of the above, you might be experiencing burnout, a special type of work-related stress that can have a serious impact on your physical and mental health.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a lot more than an off-the-cuff remark about how stressed or tired you’re feeling. Last year, the World Health Organization classified burnout as an official syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. There are three main symptoms: exhaustion, negative or cynical feelings about your job, and reduced professional efficacy. 

“These are all things most people experience, but when you’re experiencing burnout, they happen every day and it becomes a chronic part of life rather than a one-off occurrence,” says Dr Michael Leiter, a professor of organisational psychology at Deakin University. “If you feel tired in the morning before you start work a couple of times a year, that’s not a big deal, but if it’s a couple of times a week, it’s a big problem.”

Burnout is on the rise due to workplace stressors like unclear expectations, a lack of control over decisions that influence your job, dysfunctional workplace dynamics, extremely monotonous or chaotic roles, feeling isolated at work and poor work-life balance.

Dr Leiter says a work culture that encourages – and potentially demands – us to be plugged in and maintain a high level of output almost all the time is another significant factor. “Burnout is becoming more prevalent as time goes on, and part of that is the intensity of life because people need to be performing at such a high level in order to succeed,” he says. 

“Combine that with the 24/7 framework of global economies and technologies – the boundaries are so fuzzy, and people find it hard to disconnect. They get overextended, discouraged and overwhelmed.”

Have you heard of mindfulness? Read the 9 benefits of mindfulness here.

How to tell if you’re close to burnout

Ask yourself these questions, developed by the NHS Practitioner Health Programme in the UK:

  • Has anyone close to you asked you to cut down your work?
  • In recent months, have you become angry or resentful about your work?
  • Do you feel guilty that you’re not spending enough time with friends, family or even on yourself?
  • Do you find yourself becoming increasingly emotional for no reason?

Health impacts

If left untreated, burnout can affect your short- and long-term health. Physical symptoms can include shortness of breath, dizziness and headaches, while in the longer term, the syndrome is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. There’s also evidence that people experiencing burnout may be more vulnerable to emotional or uncontrolled eating and an increased risk of obesity.

Burnout also makes it difficult to cope with everyday ailments, says clinical psychologist Dr Jo Mitchell from The Mind Room. “When you’re exhausted and run down, you’re more susceptible to coughs and colds, and it’s harder to recover from physical illness.”

Unsurprisingly, burnout has a big overlap with mental health problems. “You’re more vulnerable to anxiety disorders and depression, and if there’s some other mental health history in your family, it might make you a little more vulnerable to that, too,” says Dr Mitchell.

What you can do

If you’re worried you’re close to burnout, Dr Mitchell says it’s crucial to replace the cause of your symptoms – work – with some downtime. “We all need downtime, mental breaks, and that includes getting good sleep, but also having a rest from work,” she explains.

“It can help to turn your phone off or on airplane mode, or just make it known at work that you don’t answer calls after or before a certain time. Setting boundaries is really important and it’s going to look different for each person.”

Dr Mitchell also recommends talking to your workplace employee assistance program (EAP), GP or, if you feel comfortable, your employer. “It can be worthwhile having a conversation about why you might be feeling the way you are and the job factors that may be contributing,” she says.

Indeed, Dr Leiter says burnout is a “relationship problem” between the employee and the workplace, and like any conflict, both parties need to work to find a solution.

“There’s often an assumption that workplaces are entirely reasonable and if you’re having trouble managing your work, there must be something wrong with you,” he says. “Both the workplace and the individual need to be thinking about how to work towards a better balance that works for everyone.”  

Find more wellbeing content, along with recipes and workout advice, right here.

If you, or someone you know, needs crisis support, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14. For urgent medical attention, phone 000 immediately.

This information is of a general nature. It does not take into consideration your personal or health conditions. Always consult your GP, medical specialist, or mental health specialist, for health-related advice.

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