Burnout is one of the latest buzzwords, a front-burner topic amongst HR professionals, and it has featured in several articles and conversations lately as the biggest threat to our wellbeing, productivity and engagement. Yet do we know what burnout really is and how to avoid it?

Ariana Huffington’s experience of burnout in 2007, whilst she was the CEO of The Huffington Post, is one of the most publicised. Her story speaks of collapsing from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, which resulted in her breaking her cheekbone and waking up in a pool of blood. Despite her awful experience, good things have followed for Huffington including two books and the launch of Thrive Global, which aims to educate others on the link between wellbeing and productivity. Burnout for Huffington was a catalyst to change the course of her life, and she uses her experience to encourage others, who are burnt-out or on the brink of it, to do the same.

Burnout was first recognised as a problem in New York City in 1974 by German-American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger. Although not classified as a medical condition by the World Health Organization (WHO), they do deem it an “occupational phenomenon” that results from chronic stress in the workplace.

Our shift to working from home over the past year has been a struggle for most. This newfound flexibility has not brought the work/life integration we thought it would, but rather some have found the boundaries between work and home have been blurred. As a result, people now feel obligated to work harder and longer than they did in the workplace (particularly when they have colleagues still in the office) and respond to after-hours emails as they should always ‘be on’. Many are suffering from video conference fatigue, are not leaving their homes during the day, are feeling lonely from a lack of face-to-face contact and don’t feel recognised for their contributions to their organisations… We don’t yet know what the long-term impact of this global health crisis will be. Yet today more people are exhibiting the early signs of burnout, and a further increase in this phenomenon is predicted in the future.

What does burnout look like?

The WHO suggests burnout is characterised by three elements:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. Increased mental distance from your job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to your job
  3. Reduced performance at work.

Although these symptoms may seem like other mood disorders, the difference is that these ‘burnout’ elements all relate to work.

Feeling stressed at work from time to time is normal, and some find stress can be used positively to help drive them to action. But when stress becomes all-consuming, it can lead to exhaustion, cynicism and hatred towards your job, which are all signs of burnout.

Burnout is what happens when you try to avoid being human for too long

Michael Gungor

Who is most at risk?

Unfortunately, no worker is immune from suffering from burnout. If you are pushed beyond your ability to cope over a lengthy period of time and are subjected to chronic stress then you’re likely to suffer.

Yet there have been suggestions that those who are in the service of others i.e., teachers, doctors, care-workers, retail staff, sales managers, are potentially more at risk. One survey has also outlined that lawyers are most vulnerable to burnout, with 73% of a 1000 person firm, expressing feelings of burnout, with 58% putting this down to a need for better work/life balance.

What to do if you’re at risk of burnout

Firstly, you need to recognise the signs of burnout in yourself. Preventing burnout is far easier than dealing with its consequences — and that requires active self-awareness.

Additionally, all of us need to ensure that we are getting enough sleep. For most people, this sits around the seven to eight-hour mark. If you’re getting enough sleep but still waking up tired, it’s a sign that you probably don’t need more sleep — you need more restoration and recovery breaks throughout the day.

Whilst working from home, it’s incredibly important to take regular pauses which can help restore and recharge us, and improve our productivity, focus and concentration according to studies. Practising mindfulness is another way that we can re-energise ourselves too.

What’s more, we need to set hard boundaries between our work and home life, and establish a routine that includes start and end times for your work, breaks, exercise, preparing meals and looking after your children etc.

You can also boost your resilience (by using your strengths, leveraging your relationships, learning how to be more optimistic, and changing your thought patterns as examples), which will enable you to respond better to stress, and bounce back and forward from any challenges you encounter. 

And finally, you should seek support when needed.

The current male-dominated model of success – which equates success with burnout, sleep deprivation, and driving yourself into the ground – isn’t working for women, and it’s not working for men, either

Ariana Huffington

What organisations can do to prevent burnout amongst their employees

Personal action is not enough to prevent burnout, organisations have an obligation to prioritise their worker’s wellbeing and ensure their staff are not overworked or over-stressed. This can be achieved by providing high levels of autonomy to workers, expressing gratitude for good work, setting clear and more realistic expectations so workloads are manageable, eliminating or delegating unchallenging tasks, simplifying or calming high pressure environments, encouraging vulnerability and seeking help when needed, communicating authentically, and regularly offering support.

Managers should also be setting the tone and leading by example by promoting recovery and rest to prevent themselves from burning out. Those that show their team members how they prioritise their own wellbeing will encourage them to do the same. Conversations around burnout also need to occur, so people can speak up about any struggles they may be having.

In order to stop a surge in burnout (and yet another negative outcome from this pandemic) in the future, we all need to be putting in place preventative measures now. And perhaps we should consider using this experience (not waiting for burnout) as the catalyst to drive positive changes in our own lives too.