Identifying and Managing Burn Out

by Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Are you feeling cynical at work?
Do you lack energy to be productive?
Do you feel short-tempered or irritated with co-workers?
Do you experience low satisfaction from your accomplishments?
Do you dread work and/or have trouble initiating tasks?
Do you experience unexplained headaches, stomach issues, or other physical concerns?

You might be experiencing burnout.

What is burnout?
Burnout is exhaustion that occurs due to excessive and prolonged stress. Burnout is usually related to one’s job, but could potentially occur whenever one is chronically overwhelmed by life’s demands. The above questions describe symptoms of burnout – their root cause is a perpetual sense that our efforts in life are not matching the outcomes that we envision.

What causes burnout?
In work settings, burnout strikes when one consistently does not have adequate physical, mental, monetary, or other resources to meet the needs of their job. Note that job demands tend to increase substantially when we feel out of control, when the tasks in front of us are ambiguous and unclear, when our contributions are devalued, or when interpersonal tensions exist.

What are the signs of burnout?
Burnout has both physical and mental consequences. This is because, when it comes to stress, the body keeps the score. Stress manifests in our bodies directly through pain, such as headaches and stomachaches. But, burnout also has psychological effects. These include feeling cynical about one’s job, feeling ineffective and resentful about one’s work, and losing one’s temper with co-workers. Most people with burnout will develop pessimistic attitudes towards their institution/employer, co-workers, and the final products they yield from working.

Tips to cope with burnout
Most people cope with burnout by dissociating – simply showing up to work, drudging through the workday, and trying to forget about the challenges as much as possible This is rarely (if ever!) a good strategy, and usually increases feelings of depletion and exhaustion over time. Instead, here are five evidence-based approaches to dealing with burnout:

  1. Seek support. Open up to your friends, family, and co-workers about what you’re feeling. Co-workers are a particularly important resource to understand and learn how to manage on-the-job stress; plus they can validate your experience.
  2. Make exercise a priority. Routine physical activity is essential in order to manage stress and reduce adrenaline and cortisol. This is crucial in order to gain a more positive and optimistic perspective about work concerns.
  3. Make time to relax. Make your own relaxation a priority by engaging in activities that calm stress like yoga, meditation, watching a movie, or reading. Similar to exercise, such activities – even once or twice a week – can help reduce stress and gain perspective.
  4. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment on purpose in a non-judgmental way. The goal is to have more awareness of what you’re sensing and feeling in the present moment. Mindfulness can be beneficial when practiced for just a few minutes each day (e.g., while at work).
  5. Take action. Once the above four strategies have taken a bit of the edge off, try to identify specific factors contributing to your burnout that are modifiable and within your control, and discuss these concerns with your supervisor. Try to work collaboratively to make adjustments, and keep in mind that you have mutually shared interests since everyone loses when staff are burned out.

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