How to deal with burnout at work

Discover how to identify, cope with, and avoid work burnout, to boost both the productivity of your team and the well-being of your coworkers.

What is burnout?

Work’s not as fulfilling as it used to be? Are you not getting much done, and even when you do, you find that you can’t perform to the best of your abilities? Are you sleepy—constantly—and feeling a bit isolated? If yes, chances are high you’re experiencing work burnout.

Understanding what burnout is, how to identify it, and how to alleviate it is crucial for any workplace, and of course it’s crucial for your own mental health, too. Burnout may not be an official DSM-5 psychiatric diagnosis (yet), but it’s not just a buzzword either: burnout is a real thing. Anyone who’s experienced it can tell you it’s a genuine condition with distinct causes and effects, and it’s something that can happen to anyone.

Burnout isn’t just some trendy way of saying "exhausted" or "stressed"—there’s a whole lot more to it. The word itself is a pretty good description actually because when someone experiences burnout, they’re a lot like a candle that’s lost its flame.

Burnout describes a complete loss of motivation and drive, a rise in cynicism, and a fall in self-esteem. It affects both physical health and mental well-being and can negatively impact both your personal and professional life, as everyday tasks become arduous and discouraging.

The term was first coined in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who defined burnout as a “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one's professional life.” The World Health Organization summarize burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” and the esteemed Mayo Clinic describes burnout as “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

It can be hard to separate burnout from sensations like chronic stress and emotional exhaustion because each can contribute to the other, and many of the symptoms of burnout shadow those of mental illnesses, particularly depression.

One thing that sets burnout apart is that, for the most part, burnout specifically pertains to, or is caused by, work-related issues. Of course, burnout will impact your home life, but it’s your work life where it typically develops.

The good news? Burnout is not necessarily chronic and can be quickly treated and prevented. To start, you have to understand what causes it.

What causes work burnout?

Work burnout is the product of stress, exhaustion, and dissatisfaction at work.

Unlike stress, burnout has the power to creep up on you. You may not know it’s coming until it’s already hit. General frustration at work can lead to exhaustion, or vice versa, but when paired with chronic workplace stress, burnout can result.

In terms of what kind of workplace stress can prompt it, there are a number of possible causes. It might be that you feel you don’t have control over your job or workload. Or you might feel like you’re being micromanaged and don’t have the power to manage your own day-to-day. This can lead to feelings of helplessness. This can also happen if you feel unsure of what’s expected from you from your boss or supervisor. When you’re not completely clear about your responsibilities or feel like you can’t contribute to or control your work life, you might experience burnout.

Burnout may also be the nature of the work itself. Some people prefer a good deal of consistency in their work, while others aim for variety. If you find your job isn’t meeting the expectations you expect or desire, your satisfaction could drop rapidly. It could be that you find your work to be dull, monotonous, or unfulfilling, or, on the other hand, it might be too disorderly or chaotic.

Non-stop notifications may be breaking your focus as new requests seem to fly in from every angle. You might have to dedicate so much time to general admin that it distracts from your actual job role. Many find themselves spending so much time on menial tasks at work that it becomes difficult to get the important things done without staying late. Working too hard, for too many hours can quickly take its toll.

Even if you do usually enjoy your work, if your work-life balance is uneven, you’re far more likely to lose energy for your work. It’s always important to take time for your loved ones and yourself, and not allow yourself to be overwhelmed by your job.

Another possible cause for job burnout is if you find that your work is simply too easy or rote. If you don’t feel challenged at work, you’ll find yourself getting bored or restless—and boredom itself can indeed be exhausting.

The risk of burnout can occur much more easily if you already deal with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. It will heighten negative feelings you’re already experiencing, both at work and at home.

Without proper care, burnout can certainly lead to broader mental health issues, so it’s very important to take action immediately if you think that you or somebody you know is experiencing this problem.

How do I know if I’m burned out?

If you’re feeling unusually drained and your mood has deteriorated, this may be due to burnout. In terms of physical symptoms, you may feel lethargic and weak, like you completely lack the energy to get anything done. Your immunity can worsen too, so if you’re finding you’re getting sick more frequently—you very well may be burned out. You may also notice a change in appetite or sleep patterns, and headaches and general muscle pain can also be burnout symptoms.

Mentally, you may find yourself overwhelmed by pessimistic thoughts. You could feel helpless and hopeless, and may experience a feeling of detachment from the world around you. Losing motivation is a prominent symptom of burnout.

You’ll notice a shift in behavior too, such as avoiding taking on more strenuous tasks, steering clear of socializing, or finding yourself in a pattern of procrastination. You may also find that burnout brings forth not only sadness or despair, but also anger and frustration, and you might find yourself directing this frustration in negative ways. Or, it might be that you feel completely stripped of any emotion—numb and apathetic towards both your professional and social life.

These are all serious symptoms that can have a huge impact on your productivity and overall well-being. It’s not great for your team, and certainly not great for you, but there’s hope: burnout can definitely be avoided.

How can I spot the signs of burnout at work?

You may not be able to immediately recognize some of the internal symptoms of burnout in co-workers, but if you’ve noticed a shift in behavior, work burnout may be the cause. And if it’s a member of your team you’re concerned about, you may notice that they’re slacking at work, arriving late, or even skipping work altogether.

A drop in quality or performance from a colleague could mean they’re burned out. If a member of your team has become irritable and distant, and seems to have lost their drive, it very well could be burnout. If there’s a chance they could be overwhelmed by their workload and you’ve also noticed a recent shift in attitude, burnout may certainly be the case.

How can I treat job burnout?

Because the symptoms of burnout closely align with the symptoms of depression, it’s important to have a solid idea of what exactly you’re experiencing, and to discuss it with a doctor. Self-diagnosis is often the first port-of-call for many, but it should never be the last.

Despite the similarities, the methods for treating burnout and treating depression, for example, vary greatly, so if you fear that you’re suffering from either, the best thing you can do is consult a mental health professional who can use assessments like the Maslach Burnout Inventory to help identify specifically what you’re going through and how best to overcome it.

Being open about your feelings with your supervisor is hugely important. The only way to get the support you need from those around you is if they know you need it. Never be afraid to reach out and voice your struggles because, at the end of the day, doing so is not just what’s best for you, but also what’s best for your team and the company.

If burnout is impacting the quality of your work, then it’s in your company’s best interests to help you overcome it, so telling your supervisor that you’re burnt out should never be seen as an admission of defeat or a sign of weakness. It is simply an issue that needs to be addressed to ensure both your well-being and the goals of your company are accounted for.

Whether it’s being overworked, underworked, or just general dissatisfaction with your work-life, burnout can only be resolved if you bring it up with your manager or supervisor. It may seem embarrassing or daunting to do so, but a high quality boss and a solid company will be open and willing and able to help you through these issues.

Your workplace should be somewhere you can feel comfortable, supported, and valued—if you don’t feel like that rings true for your office—you should take action and voice your concerns.

Above all, you need to manage your energy and time, and that means making sure you’re eating well, drinking enough water, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. Adjusting your habits to make sure you’re ticking all of these boxes can be all you need to get back on track.

If you believe a member of your team is suffering from burnout, don’t be afraid to reach out to them. Talk with them about what they’re going through, why they think they’re going through it, and what they think they need to do to be able to resolve it. In many cases, just a bit of time off to rest and recuperate could be all it takes, while in other cases you will need to work to ensure that your team member is comfortable and satisfied in their position. If you’re not open to making positive changes to keep your team happy, it’s only going to lead to bigger problems down the line.

How to avoid burnout

If the idea of getting to work brings you great anxiety and discomfort, it may be because you’re dealing with work burnout.

A very common cause of burnout is that work becomes too chaotic and disorganized, or the dynamic in the workplace makes it hard to concentrate. One of the simplest ways to prevent burnout is by making sure all of the systems and infrastructure you have in place help create the most efficient, organized work environment possible for you and your team.

Disorganization within a team or company can lead to things becoming muddled and hard to control in your mind. There are a lot of moving parts in any company, and it’s important to ensure everything flows seamlessly. A logical, organized workspace both online and off can help create a more efficient, manageable work environment. Limiting the noise of your digital space can be vital in ensuring you have the energy you need to focus on the important tasks.

Using Dropbox is an all-in-one way for you to keep everything under control—reducing potential work-related stress and disorder through organizational tools, intuitive file synchronization systems and practical cloud storage solutions. With a smart workspace that lets you find your apps, platforms, and content in one place, keeping on top of your work becomes much easier.

As a manager, you should make sure that the members of your team feel confident and comfortable expressing any concerns they may have about their role and the team in general. Many will allow themselves to get burnt out because it seems easier to ignore an issue than to confront it. Managers should always aim to foster an environment where employees can be open and honest without feeling intimidated or threatened. Opening up this discourse between you and your team will, in turn, lead to heightened productivity, and a happier team who feel their voices are heard and their personal objectives are recognized.

Preventing burnout for yourself means managing your time wisely—which entails some of the most basic, yet most powerful things for health, like making sure you’re always getting enough sleep and living a healthy lifestyle—and always being open and honest about any concerns that may arise at work. Always keep in mind that self-care is fundamental to your and your team’s success.

If you can sense that things are starting to head downhill, shift gears, but don’t immediately hit the brakes. If you allow yourself to slow down too much it could only make things worse. So if you sense burnout coming, take action and be careful, but don’t instantly break the momentum you have. Taking time off could be a great solution, but it’s not always feasible, and you should always talk to your manager or supervisor about the issue first and see if immediate adjustments can be made to improve your work environment and mental health.

You may be a candle that has temporarily lost its flame, but if you’re aware of your problem and are willing to voice and then work to fix it, you’ll be lighting up the room again in no time.