Everyone enjoys a good vacation, but chances are, you’re not sitting on a beach in Hawaii right now drinking a Mai Tai. Most of us are sitting at our desk looking at a growing workload that never seems to end, wondering, “Why didn’t I quit my job during COVID and travel the world in a van?” While van life seems fun, it may not be the right fit for everyone. So here we are, chipping away at that colossal, endless workload. If you are feeling this way, you may be experiencing workplace burnout.
Burnout is a phenomenon that occurs when an individual experiences physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion due to long-term involvement in demanding work. It is a serious condition that can lead to decreased job satisfaction, productivity, and overall well-being. In this article, we will discuss the various signs and symptoms of burnout and the steps that employees can take to prevent it.
Every employee is different, and signs of burnout can look very different depending on several factors. Some of the common signs are:
- Chronic fatigue. Employees who experience burnout often feel exhausted even after a good night’s sleep. They may feel lethargic, unmotivated, and have difficulty concentrating on tasks. This generally makes it harder to get any work done in a timely manner and can have a compounding effect when employees don’t feel productive and fall behind in their work.
- Physical reaction. We all know what it’s like to feel sick, whether it is the flu, cold, COVID, or a result of overindulging the night before at a local bar. Burnout can have similar symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and muscle pain. These symptoms can easily be confused for a viral/bacterial illness, but no amount of medication will cure these when continually experiencing burnout in the workplace.
- Lack of motivation. Ever sit and think back to a time when you loved your job and wonder how you can get back there? If you’ve experienced this, you may be experiencing burnout. Another sign of burnout is a lack of motivation and enthusiasm for work. Burnout can make employees feel indifferent toward their job, leading to decreased productivity and job satisfaction. Employees may also become more irritable and prone to mood swings, causing conflicts with coworkers and decreased overall workplace morale.
- Absenteeism. Another sign of burnout is increased absenteeism. Commonly referred to amongst today’s workforce as “mental health days” which can have a great benefit. Employees may feel overwhelmed and stressed, leading them to take time off work more frequently. This can lead to increased workload for coworkers, further exacerbating workplace stress.
- Prioritize self-care. This includes taking regular breaks, getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and engaging in physical activity. While some of these things may take away time normally dedicated to your enormous workload, they can also make you more productive and efficient with your remaining work hours. There are several articles and books about the importance of taking breaks and the benefits of self-care, so there is no need to justify them here.
- Work on work-life balance. For me, focusing on work-life is particularly difficult when my spouse works at the same company and our dog comes to work every day (which also has great benefits). Employees should take time outside of work to engage in hobbies, spend time with friends and family, and disconnect. This can help them feel refreshed and better able to handle workplace stress. Your employer gives you vacation time for a reason. Use it.
- Use the right tools for the job. Some people may be experiencing burnout because they simply are going about their job in the wrong way resulting in a loss of efficiency. If I were a carpenter and my job was to use screws to assemble tables and chairs, it would be far more efficient to use a power drill than a screwdriver. Some employees may need to prioritize professional development opportunities to have the right “tools” for their job, such as training and continuing education. This can help employees feel more engaged and motivated in their work, leading to increased job satisfaction and a decreased likelihood of burnout. The more you know about your job, the better you will be at it and hopefully more efficient.
- Don’t be afraid to say “no.” One of the most important tools to avoid burnout can be accomplished with just one simple word: “No.” Companies and managers need to foster a culture that encourages employees to manage their own workload and say “no” to new tasks if they do not have the capacity to take them on. It might be nerve-racking for an employee to say “no” to their boss, and I do recommend sugar coating the delivery a bit, but it is important when trying to avoid burnout. Your boss will be much happier with you if you say “I’m sorry, I have too much on my plate right now and I won’t be able to get to that task” than if you accept the task and take three times as long to complete it. Often your supervisor can find someone else to complete the task who isn't overloaded. Keep communication open with your supervisor regarding workload and don’t be afraid to say “no.” It will benefit everyone involved.
What do you do if you’re already experiencing burnout? This situation can be scary because you are likely too overloaded to take time off and you’re in too deep to offload anything. If you’re feeling this way, you might think to yourself, “I should have booked that two-week trip to Hawaii six months ago before I was too busy.” While the best way to deal with burnout is to prevent it, there are some steps you can take to deal with it when it is too late to take a long vacation. Taking a few minutes to talk about your situation with friends and colleagues can be a great way to find support. You are not alone and often the people around you have been through burnout as well, so they may be able to offer you some advice. Keeping communication open with your manager or supervisor is also important. They may have the power to bring in additional resources to assist your workload or take more on themselves. Lastly, if you are feeling so overwhelmed that nothing seems to help, you may consider speaking with a mental health professional. Society as a whole has made mental health a priority and you should too.
Burnout in the workplace is a serious condition that can lead to decreased job satisfaction, productivity, and overall well-being. However, there are steps that employees can take to prevent burnout, including prioritizing self-care, setting boundaries by saying “no” to additional tasks, and seeking support when needed. Organizations can also prioritize a workplace culture that promotes work-life balance and mental health support. By recognizing the signs of burnout and taking action, employees can prevent burnout and promote their overall well-being in the workplace. Most importantly, you are not alone. Many people experience workplace burnout at some point. Taking necessary steps to combat burnout should be celebrated by your employer. We all spend too much time at work for those hours to be unhappy – so take that vacation, go for a walk during your lunch hour, say “no” to your boss, and talk to the people around you.
Adam Bugielski, P.E. is a senior project manager at MKN. Connect with him on LinkedIn.