Burnout bites. Here’s how to fight back

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Have you ever felt so physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted that performing at your job seems like an insurmountable task? Do you wake up feeling cynical and unmotivated? Do you feel increasingly overworked, and like you’re not getting adequate support? You could be suffering from burnout – and you’re definitely not alone.

We often think of burnout as an individual problem: it can be solved, some argue, with quick-fix techniques like learning to say no, more yoga, better breathing, and practicing resilience. Yet, evidence is mounting that personal short-term solutions are simply not enough to combat an epic and rapidly evolving workplace phenomenon. In fact, they might be harming, not helping. The ICD-11 (that’s the International Classification of Diseases, now into its 11th edition) refers to burnout as a syndrome specifically within the work context, brought on by chronic work-related stress. It often occurs where employer expectations and employee workload exceed the individual’s capacity and ability to cope. 

Burnout is strongly influenced by how employees are managed. Oxford University research highlighted that South African workers have some of the longest working hours in the world. Working such long hours over a prolonged period of time, without adequate rest, increases the chance of experiencing burnout and accompanying negative impact on performance.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) showed in a survey that more than 40% of all work-related illness in the country results from stress, major depression, burnout and anxiety disorders.

And of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse. It has seriously strained international healthcare systems; burnout threatens employees, especially doctors and nurses on the frontlines. Global leaders across a variety of industries have to take a step back and re-evaluate how to allocate time and energy in a more sustainable way.

What causes workplace burnout?

  1. Unfair treatment at work: this can include everything from bias, favouritism and mistreatment by a co-worker to unfair compensation or corporate policies. When employees do not trust their manager, team members or executive leadership, it breaks the psychological bond that makes work meaningful.
  1. Excessive workload: high-performing employees can quickly shift from optimistic to hopeless as they drown in an unmanageable workload.
  1. Lack of role clarity: when accountability and expectations are moving targets, employees can become exhausted just trying to figure out what people want from them. Leaders need to discuss responsibilities and performance goals with their employees and collaborate with them to ensure that expectations are clear and aligned with those goals.
  1. Lack of communication and support from managers: unsupportive teams and managers can leave employees feeling like they’ve been dropped in the deep end. It can be overwhelming and isolating. Support and frequent communication provide a psychological buffer, so employees know that even if something goes wrong, their manager has their back. In contrast, a negligent or confrontational manager leaves employees feeling uninformed, alone and defensive.
  1. Unrealistic expectations and pressures: these often come in the form of tight deadlines and copious workload, hours or responsibilities. These tend to be driven by an employer’s expectations, or sometimes by an employee’s own expectations for themselves.
  1. Lack of autonomy: some supervision is necessary, but no one likes being micromanaged. It breeds a lack of trust, and can leave employees feeling incompetent or dissatisfied.
  1. Lack of opportunities: when employees are denied development, promotional or professional opportunities, it can feel like they’ve hit a dead end.
  1. Lack of appreciation: a “thank you” or a show of appreciation for hard work can go a long way. When efforts go unnoticed, employees can start to lose motivation, wondering why they even bother if nobody notices their efforts. 
  1. Feeling of incompetence: inadequate training, insufficient skills or resources can leave individuals feeling incompetent and overwhelmed. 
  1. Threats to job security: potential redundancy causes financial uncertainty and instability

This list was compiled with information from Gallup and Secure Data Management.

Allowing employee burnout is not just bad management: it’s poor economics. It leads to poor employee engagement and productivity, poor quality of work, increased frustration and shortness of temper that can adversely affect workplace relationships. More importantly, it takes a huge toll on the employee’s health. 

What are the signs and symptoms of burnout?

It’s normal to feel stressed sometimes. We all have days when our careers make us feel overwhelmed, unappreciated or cynical – but how do you know if you’re experiencing a normal level of workplace anxiety, or suffering from full-on burnout? Managing burnout starts with knowing the signs and symptoms. 

Read more: The harmful rise and grind of hustle culture 

These signs and symptoms can trigger changes in your behaviour. People suffering from burnout tend to withdraw from their responsibilities and procrastinate on work-related tasks. Your personal life can also be affected. Extreme stress often results in severe irritability, social isolation and unhealthy coping mechanisms.

How can you prevent burnout?

The saying “prevention is better than cure” is particularly true in the case of burnout. Bring balance back into your life.

Do you have control over your work schedule, projects or the amount of work that you manage at a given time? If the answer is no, chances are that you’re in an environment that doesn’t allow freedom at work, or you’re taking on more than you can handle to prove your productivity skills. Having little control over your workload hinders your ability to manage work-related stress. 

Focus on the things you can control. This starts with evaluating all the things you feel are out of your control (working hours, break times, projects) and then focusing on the things you can control. Ask yourself: “Do I have the capacity to do this task?” If your team leader hands you a new project, you have the right to ask them to help you prioritise your workload. Setting realistic expectations and encouraging flexibility is really helpful.

Tackle the most important task of the day first: it doesn’t matter whether that’s a workplace presentation or setting up a doctor’s appointment. Establish little goals and rewards. 

Keep a gratitude list. At the end of each workday write down what went well (wins), what went wrong (problems), and proposed solutions.

Take up a creative task or a hobby and attend regular professional training.

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