Last December, I was a classic burnout case. The closer I came to the year-end holidays, the harder it became to muster the enthusiasm and satisfaction I usually find in my day job. Physically exhausted and emotionally flattened, I sputtered and skidded across the finish line, posted my out-of-office auto-reply and logged off for an extended holiday break.
Sound familiar? If you’ve ever gone through a period at your job when you’ve felt fried, drained, paralyzed, purposeless or just plain “over it,” then you’ve probably experienced burnout.
The World Health Organization last year included burnout in its international classification of diseases as a widespread “occupational phenomenon” characterized by depletion or exhaustion, negative feelings or cynicism about one’s job, and reduced effectiveness at work. According to Gary Beckstrand, vice president of the O.C. Tanner Institute, most workers experience some degree of burnout at any given time — but when burnout reaches moderate-to-severe levels, “that’s when it affects production, attitudes, work output and retention.”
Burnout takes many forms. Maybe you robotically force yourself through the motions, hunkering down and dodging human interaction to minimize distractions and conserve energy. Maybe you cry in private, or snap and snarl, or demolish your professional facade with profane outbursts. You feel no urgency about even crucial projects; you see no end-game. And when you do complete a project, there’s no sense of accomplishment or relief — just another pile of work to climb on top of.
Burnout isn’t necessarily due to a heavy workload or long hours; hard workers can be happy workers in the right conditions. And occasional short-term burnout is normal, a sign we need a break. But in the case of chronic, pervasive burnout, Beckstrand says, the primary cause is usually a “negative workplace culture” with deficiencies in six areas: purpose, opportunity, success, appreciation, well-being and connection. To combat employee burnout, says Beckstrand, employers should make a regular practice of acknowledging workers for their unique contributions as individuals, and helping them feel connected to a larger purpose.
But it’s not all on management to prevent burnout. Beckstrand recommends that workers take burnout as a sign to seek meaningful contact from supervisors and peers — not just to complain or vent, but to admit when they’re stuck, ask for input and seek a broader perspective on how their work supports the overall mission.
Recognizing personal burnout may be tricky in a perpetually high-stress job; if you’re constantly putting out fires, you might not notice when your sleeves are getting singed. But if you, or those around you, are seeing symptoms described above — especially if it’s out of character for you — take heed.
Assess the scope of damage: Is your burnout temporary, or a longer-term state-of-being causing cumulative harm? Is it cyclical and predictable, or has it been triggered by an organizational shake-up that has left you scrambling to do more with less? Have you just looked up and realized you’ve been traveling the same worn oval track with no destination or even milestones?
In my case, I recovered from burnout by baking, gift-giving and tackling other homey holiday projects with my favorite little teammates. I also traveled to my hometown to connect with old friends from decades past. And in the first week post-holidays, my office kicked things off with an all-hands Q&A with executive leadership to discuss the outlook for the coming year, which helped remind me that my daily toil is part of something bigger.
Of course, I had the advantage of knowing my burnout was seasonal and short-term. I also enjoy access to resources such as paid time-off, mental and physical health care, loving family and friends, and a workplace that makes healthy culture a priority. For too many burned-out workers, such resources are luxuries, and the challenges are more than a few dozen ginger snaps and pecan tarts can alleviate.