Over the next few years, it’s estimated millions of people will work remotely. Understanding and recognising burnout symptoms is important for both individuals and companies. Burnout can creep up on people causing several debilitating symptoms if not prevented, recognised or treated. This is particularly relevant when people work on their own for long periods.
Burnout was first identified in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger in his book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. As it’s title suggests people who appear successful may actually be suffering from traits such as burnout, stress and exhaustion.
Burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis, so a Doctor can’t prescribe you anything for it. However, it’s become common enough in the workplace that since 2019 the World Health Organisation have listed it as an “occupational phenomenon”. Which is another way of saying, burnout is real and work related.
Burnout is increasing in the workplace. In 2020 Gallup released a report (UK), Employee Burnout: Causes and Cures. They conducted a survey of 7,500 full-time employees. 23% said they felt burned out more often than not. 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes.
Furthermore, the Gallup report highlights why companies need to recognise the symptoms and know how to avoid burnout. Employees experiencing burnout at work are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times more likely to be looking for another job!
What is burnout?
The World Health Organisation define burnout as a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
OK, so admittedly, even the definition is enough to induce stress in a lot of people.
In other words, while burnout can’t be diagnosed, psychologists, HR managers and remote workers recognise the causes and the symptoms.
What are the 5 stages of Burnout?
Firstly, let’s examine the 5 stages that lead to burnout symptoms. After all, no-one starts a job in a state of burnout and anxiety! The steps towards feeling burnout at work are gradual and cumulative. Most people can handle the occasional deadline or working late to get a project finished. The problems occur when this becomes the norm.
The Calmer Project identified these 5 stages:
The Honeymoon Phase
At the beginning of a new job or venture we’re likely to feel a buzz of excitement. This gives us high job satisfaction, energy, commitment and creativity. At this early stage we can put a good coping mechanism in place. Prioritising your mental health means you can continue in this phase indefinitely.
Introduction of stress
As we progress we may realise some days are more stressful than others. This can lead to your optimism waning, sudden doubts creeping in about the job and lack of sleep.
Occasional stress is fine. Frequent stress is not. This is a marked increase in stress levels. You may start to feel anger, increase coffee or alcohol consumption or become socially withdrawn.
Entering stage four is where burnout occurs. Physical and mental health is affected by the repeated stress. To continue in this condition is inadvisable and you likely need to change the circumstances or seek intervention.
If burnout continues then it may become such a regular part of your life you experience significant physical and emotional problems.
To reduce burnout symptoms in the workplace it is useful for leaders and workers to understand the causes of burnout, recognise the symptoms, know what managers can do to help their staff and be aware of the steps a company can take to prevent burnout.
What are the causes of burnout?
The way we work is changing. Where we work, how we work and who we work for are undergoing radical and permanent shifts. These transformations are caused by a number of factors; COVID, technology, society and lifestyles. Change can be a source of stress for many. For others, it may be a feeling of being ignored or the way a manager treats them.
These causes are heightened by the shirt to remote working. A lack of clear delineation between home and work life can lead to an poor work life balance.
However, it’s also worth highlighting one of the myths about burnout. Studies show burnout isn’t simply caused by longer hours. The old ‘solution’ of reducing hours, taking a holiday or having the day off is unlikely to be a treatment for burnout. Rather, burnout is caused by a mixture of hours, how a person is managed and their experiences during the hours worked.
The top 5 causes of burnout are:
- Unfair treatment at work
- Unmanageable workload
- Unclear communication from managers
- Lack of manager support
- Unreasonable time pressure
Unfair treatment at work
At first this sounds fairly trivial, almost child-like. However, according to Gallup, this can be the number one cause of stress and burnout. A feeling that co-workers are being treated differently, you’re being asked to do things they aren’t or a feeling they’re getting better rewards. All of them gnaw away at well-being and unless this feeling is tackled a worker is 2.3 times more likely to suffer from a symptom of burnout.
In remote working this feeling can be heightened when people can’t compare their situation with others. They may feel projects are being unfairly assigned. Or a colleague is receiving favourable treatment. Since they lack the visual and social cues required to make an accurate assessment the feeling grows.
Even the most outgoing and optimistic personality can feel dragged down if the workload feels never-ending. Many people feel satisfaction and pride when they complete a job. If this feeling is constantly dampened by the immediate start of the next job then it becomes wearing.
When working remotely this can maifest itself in a seemingly never-ending succession of emails, a long ToDo list that doesn’t seem to get any shorter, notifications interrupting your focus and projects that rarely get moved to ‘Completed’.
Unclear communication from managers
This is one of the biggest challenges when remote working. In an office if an instruction is unclear many people will simply ask, ‘Can you run that by me again?’. When working remote this is made more difficult since people may be reluctant to interpret someone else. . Or, you may find a Zoom call is difficult to explain a concept without the use of a whiteboard. Ideas that can be explained in detail with visual aids or a presentation can be a challenge when trying to explain it in an email or project management software.
You may find a solution in a product such as Loom.
Lack of manager support
Remote working involves being able to operate in long periods on your own. As a manager I recall staff walking into my office to ask a question, seek clarification or get approval for something they were doing. Managers give support to workers by being approachable, engaging with people, motivating them and showing leadership. These same traits are still required in remote working. If a worker doesn’t hear from their boss then the feelings of isolation can increase leading to stress.
Unreasonable time pressure
Do you recognise this cliche when being a new task is being assinged?
Worker: “When do you need it by?”
Other answers include, “Soon as”, “When can you do it by” or “What else have you got on?”.
If this happens occasionally then most people accept it as part of the job. But if every project is ‘urgent’ or has an unreasonable deadline then this will cause fatigue followed by stress.
Be aware some time constraints are self-imposed. If a person is a perfectionist then it may be they take longer to do the job than is necessary. However, most unreasonable deadlines are caused by inefficiencies, disorganisation or people not knowing how long something takes to do, for instance, great customer service or delivering quality work.
On Slack I’ve seen a variation of this happen when a manager asks a question. People immediately drop everything to get an answer, thinking it’s urgent. Then find out it was simply a question that could have been answered when the more pressing work was finished.
Working in an office can induce stress in ways most people will recognise. Remote working can result in similar results but can manifest itself in different ways.
For company leaders it’s worth understanding the causes of burnout because of this one truth – the vast amount of stress is caused by managers!
What are the symptoms of burnout?
Burnout symptoms at work can manifest themselves as both emotional and physical. If you or a colleague show signs of these traits then don’t panic! Burnout is reversible. However, you should probably begin to dig a little deeper into how you feel and the causes.
There is a test you can do called the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) test. This asks a series of questions to rate your feelings and attitudes towards work. My own score was 30, meaning “Little sign of burnout here, unless some factors are particularly severe.”
There are currently 130 known signs of burnout. These include:
- Notice changes in your behaviour
- Start neglecting your personal needs
- Increasingly engage in escapist activities, such as porn or fantasising
- Want to “drop out” of society
- Get a desire to move away from work or friends/family
- Develop an escapist mentality
- Have a pessimistic outlook on work and life
- More often than not feel self-doubt
- Feel sad about social isolation
- Constantly tired
- No longer enjoy things
- Job performance suffers
- Physical health suffers (headaches, irregular breathing patterns)
- Relationships are strained
- Feel socially zapped
- Disable video for team calls to prevent others from seeing your pain
- Perpetually concerned with whether you are doing enough
- Worry that your contributions are too few or too insignificant
- Feel unable to choose family first
Treatment for burnout
Despite “Burnout” sounding permanent it is reversible and with good coping strategies can be prevented althogeher. If you feel you’re suffering burnout then the solution is to change your environment. I know that’s easier said than done. These are the tips to help you:
Tip 1: Open up to others
This is often the first thing psychologists and doctors advise but personally speaking, I think it’s most difficult. Maybe you feel opening up feels like your complaining or is a sign of weakness. However, the person you speak to doesn’t have to be your boss or even be able to fix your problem. Often, simply by talking about it and articulating your feelings can help. Try talking to people close to you, friends, community groups or a co-worker. And it can help if you avoid talking to negative people too.
Tip 2: Get a fresh perspective
If you have a boring or repetitive job then burnout is a common cause of depression and anxiety. Although I’ve recommended you must change your environment, it’s not easy if you have a family with bills and a mortgage to pay. In this case you can try looking at your work differently.
Find value in your work. Think how it helps others or focus on aspects you enjoy.
Work on your work life balance. Find meaning outside work so you have something to look forward to, for instance, a hobby, voluntary work or more time with friends.
Be open to making friends at work. Increasing your social ties or ‘banter’ can alleviate stress.
Tip 3: Define what’s important to you
Burnout is often a sign that your work life balance is out of whack. Perhaps you need to re-evaluate your priorities to focus less on things causing stress and more on those aspects that bring joy.
Set boundaries: Learn how to say ‘No’. Define your start and end time. Take breaks. Use an app such as Be Focused.
Turn off technology: Most smartphones have an app enabling you to turn the phone to silent during defined periods. For instance, I’ve set mine to Silent between 11pm and 7:30am. Another tip is turn off notifications. You can see your messages when you decide to logon.
Be creative: This can be anything that gets your mind off work. A new hobby or a project. Mine is learning to play the guitar.
Relaxation time: Don’t feel guilty about building it into your routine. It doesn’t have to be meditation or deep breathing. Simply 10 minutes of doing something apart from work.
Sleep! : I can’t stress enough (no pun intended) how important sleep is, not only to reduce burnout but actually to maintain your overall health.
Tip 4: Exercise
One of the problems with burnout is it demotivates you. You feel tired and lack energy. Therefore, the last thing you probably feel like doing is a Body Pump class.
However, pretty much every psychologist agrees that exercise is vital, not only to stay healthy but also retain focus and energy. 15 minutes a day should be your minimum. Walking, running, weight training, Tai Chi or dancing! I do 20 press-ups every time I make a cup of tea, which let me tell you, is a lot of press ups!
Tip 5 – Diet
Similar to exercise, this last tip won’t surprise anyone. Everyone knows “You are what you eat” but this doesn’t prevent people from poor eating habits. A chocolate bar might feel like a ‘pick me up’ but it has very little benefit after the initial hit.
- Minimise sugar and carbs
- Reduce caffeine, not drink more coffee
- Avoid nicotine. Despite most people thinking it calms them, nicotine is a stimulant so does the opposite.
- Drink alcohol in moderation – although the cleiche is red wine fixes everything it can cause anxiety as the feeling wears off. Alcohol is also a well-known depressant that makes it more difficult to think clearly, be motivated and be in touch with your emotions..
How to prevent burnout?
Here is a harsh truth for any managers: Managers are the biggest cause of burnout!
Yes, the number one cause of stress leading to burnout is poorly trained management. If you manage a team, and in particular a remote team, then here are tips to help.
How to avoid burnout: For Managers
- If someone has a work-related problem, listen!
- Encourage and reward teamwork
- Ensure everyone can voice their opinion
- Ensure everyone’s work has purpose
- Support feedback and development, particularly on strengths.
If the majority of burnout is caused by poor or badly trained management, then what policies can a company put in place to reduce the chances of this happening?
How to avoid burnout: For Companys
- Make sure staff have a say over their targets.
- Keep noise and interruptions to a minimum
- Give employees the freedom to decide the best way to do their jobs
- Make sure the environment is right
- Provide attractive & open meeting spaces
Burnout is increasing due to the fast-paced nature of modern workplaces. Furthermore, the challenge of managing and implementing remote working can cause stress and anxiety. Both individuals and leaders should learn what causes burnout and to recognise the symptoms. Steps can then be taken toprovide treatment for burnot or preferably, prevent burnout altogether.