We all love feeling productive and making our mark in the world. Yet, in recent years, more and more of us have experienced a feeling of exhaustion that doesn’t go away. Job burnout, mental exhaustion and job fatigue are so common they almost feel like part of the job package.
Burnout isn’t classified as a medical condition; only a few countries like the Netherlands and Sweden see it as an illness. In 2019, it was classified by the WHO as an occupational syndrome. That means it is caused either directly or indirectly by your work environment. Burnout is a very real condition that can cause immense damage to the body and mind.
What is the best definition of burnout?
The term “burnout” was used in the 1940s and described the point at which a jet or rocket stopped functioning. In 1974, Sigmund Ginsburg and Herbert Freudenberger both used the term in psychological terms.
Freudenberger described burnout as “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources”. He had seen this condition in his colleagues and experienced it himself too. According to Freudenberger, physical symptoms of burnout are:
- Frequent headaches
- Gastrointestinal disorders
- Shortness of breath
With burnout, behaviour changes as well. Typical signs include:
- A suspicious attitude
- A feeling of omnipotence or overconfidence
- Excessive use of tranquillisers and barbiturates
- Signs of depression.
Dr Christina Maslach popularised the term when studying caregivers such as nurses and doctors. According to her, these three signs mark burnout:
Profound emotional exhaustion
Generalised negativity (cynicism)
Feelings of professional inadequacy
She developed a questionnaire for measuring burnout, the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), which is still used today (you can find it here).
The stages of burnout
When you get stressed, your amygdala gets activated. The amygdala is a walnut-sized area in the centre of your brain. It’s considered the “fear and anxiety”- centre and goes off when we need to fight, flee or deal with the stress. Typically, we panic and then calm down once the danger has passed. Stress comes in short and complete cycles. But in today’s environment, that often doesn’t happen. Instead, we build up more and more stress.
Think of a typical workday: You arrive at the office and find an important email in your box. You don’t have time to deal with it as you have a meeting with your team. There, you get assigned to a new, urgent project. But you can’t get to that either as you have another meeting straight after that…little by little, you accumulate these uncompleted stress cycles. Employee burnout is like death by a thousand papercuts.
Here’s how that looks in stages:
- The honeymoon stage – You experience high job satisfaction and are committed to your job. When stressed, the endorphins produced by your body make you feel good, so you might even enjoy a high-pressure environment at this stage.
- The balancing act – By now, you are aware that some days are harder than others. You feel your optimism waning, and the high level of cortisol in your body can result in disturbed sleep patterns. You become inefficient and often feel tired. Many people start eating more or zone out in front of the TV at this stage. The less you move, the higher your cortisol level and the more stressed you feel- a catch 22.
- Chronic stress – By now, you experience more physical symptoms of stress. You’re often annoyed with the people around you thanks to raised cortisol levels, and you’re always exhausted.
- Crisis – Pessimism and self-doubt dominate your thinking. Your physical symptoms become steadily worse. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to cope.
- Habitual burnout – By now, the symptoms are so enmeshed in your life that you have significant physical or mental problems. Often, you can’t make the connection between them and your burnout.
How long does burnout last?
Burnout isn’t something you can shake off with a weekend in bed. Depending on what stage of burnout you are in, it can take weeks or months to get better. According to Dr Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist at Berkeley, the average time to heal from burnout symptoms is 6 to 8 months.
Should you quit your job if you are burnt out?
It depends on the work environment. Do you like your job but feel you have too many responsibilities? Then the solution might be to talk with your boss or team leader about how you can change that. Give them concrete suggestions so they can help you. Mental exhaustion is widespread after the pandemic. A good manager will often be familiar with burnout symptoms and mental fatigue. They might have picked it up long before you that you need a break.
If it’s the role itself that causes your job fatigue, consider if you can find a different position in the company. Maybe there is one area that you always regarded as dull, but that might be just what you need right now. Burnout forces us to look at our life and reconsider our choices. It might be that your first job choice wasn’t the right one for you, and that’s ok.
If you feel you get only superficial support from your company, have a problematic relationship with your colleagues or don’t feel heard, write down what bothers you. Remember, when you experience burnout, you often feel angry and cynical, which might cloud your judgement. Writing it all down will help you see if it’s the job or the work environment that causes your burnout symptoms,
How to prevent (another) burnout
Job burnout is expensive: Job-related stress, anxiety and depression account for 50% of missed workdays in the U.K. The Centre for Mental Health estimates the cost of mental health problems is now £1,300 for every employee. But there is a way to prevent job burnout.
(H3) The 3 M framework
This method involves actively taking three different kinds of breaks:
A Macro break is a half to a full day off every month. Take a day trip, visit a friend or enjoy a day out in nature.
Micro breaks or resting for a few minutes several times every day. That means no scrolling on your phone or reading emails. Give yourself a head massage, focus on your breathing, take a long shower or a walk.
For a Meso break, spend 1-2 hours each week practising a hobby and break out from your routine to refresh and recharge. Do something that suits your personality; needlepoint if you want to calm down, climbing if you need to be active to switch off.
Dr Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist, explains that you must psychologically detach from your work during this time for these breaks to be effective. If you’re reviewing an upcoming work meeting under the shower, that doesn’t count as a break. To avoid burnout, make sure no one can reach you when you do these breaks.
Set daily “Most Important Tasks” (MIT) in your team
Adam Kerin, head of product marketing at Stripe, describes what that looks like: “Every day we go through this ritual to stay focused on what matters most and feel like we can actually turn off at the end of the day.” That way, you set yourself and your team up for success, but more importantly, you’re creating a sense of control that helps combat job fatigue and burnout.
Too often, we think we’re only valuable when we work, so rest can make us feel uncomfortable. But disconnecting from the world for a while makes you a better employee and boss. It can even make us more productive. After you’ve experienced stress, you need to send a message to your brain that everything is fine. Remember that this is a lifestyle change, not a quick fix. If you struggle to incorporate these breaks into your life, it might be helpful to get 1:1 coaching. A more personalised approach can help you see what’s stopping you from taking care of yourself.
(H2) How do I find a job after burnout?
A coach can help you to set the right expectations before going job-hunting. What is important to you?
Do you want to earn as much as possible to build up an egg-nest and feel secure?
Do you need flexible working hours for better family life?
What compromises are you willing to make?
Don’t expect the employer to give you what you need; you have to be in charge of your health. Clear boundaries and expectations on both sides from the beginning will make it much easier to avoid another burnout and job fatigue.
We know from research that stress is more toxic when you feel you don’t have control over the situation. The same work project can have little toxic effect if you feel in charge or can completely overwhelm you if you have no say in the process. So it pays to look for a job where you can make decisions and have a high sense of independence.
What if I work from home?
In that case, create “cognitive associations”: set up a dedicated workspace in an area of your home, so your mind learns to switch off once you leave that place.
If you don’t have that much space, use a physical or sensory trigger to signal your brain when the day is done. That can be a candle, changing the table cloth, putting on more comfortable clothes, a specific beverage or music. You can even create your own wind-down playlist that you put on once you finish work.
Burnout is widespread, but it’s by no means unavoidable. Preventing it requires that you believe you have something to give to the world worth protecting- your creativity, talent, and strength. If you’re currently struggling with this belief, 1:1 coaching can help you strengthen it. We can discuss your options in a free Coaching Discovery call you can book right here.