Beyond Stressed: When Work Stress Becomes Job Burnout

Are you experiencing job burnout?

Most people experience stressful times at work at some point in their life. You might feel anxious about a big project or overwhelmed when taking on additional responsibilities.

For most people times of higher stress are eventually followed by times of lower stress. You complete a big project or delegate some tasks and your stress level goes down again.

When your work stress never seems to go down and the thought of going to work fills you with dread, you may be headed toward job burnout.

How do you know if your work stress has become job burnout?

Ask yourself these three questions:

1 Are you physically exhausted and emotionally depleted at the end of a workday?

2 Have you lost your compassion and empathy for other people, especially those you are helping or serving?

3 Do you feel unmotivated, incompetent, and a lack of confidence in your job?

If you answered “Yes” to all three questions, you may be experiencing job burnout.


Job burnout is a psychological syndrome that develops in response to experiencing chronic job stress (Maslach, 2017).

Burnout Process

The first step of burnout is Exhaustion. In this stage people feel overwhelmed by their work demands, they are tired and lack energy, and feel physically and emotionally depleted and drained.

This exhaustion can lead Cynicism, in which people distance themselves from others, dehumanize the people they mean to help, and lose their sense of compassion and empathy.

Finally, the third phase is when people experience feelings of Inefficacy. They may perform poorly at work, have low morale, feel unmotivated, have difficulty coping, lack confidence, and may question their choice of work.


More About Job Burnout

Burnout can affect anyone, but people working in human services and healthcare jobs (e.g., nurses, teachers, police officers, physicians, mental health providers, and those working in customer service) may be at a higher risk for experiencing burnout.

Burnout can lead to a number of costs for individuals and companies:

Workers can experience poor physical health, anxiety, depression, decreased job performance, low work morale, and may treat others with disrespect and incivility.

Companies may face difficulties defusing a toxic work environment, high rates of absenteeism, and watch talented employees leave to find other jobs.

Is Job Burnout a mental health problem?

No. Burnout is not a problem within a person but is a problem in the work environment. While burnout may increase the risk of experiencing anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns, burnout is a reaction to experiencing chronic stress in the workplace. Burnout results from the interaction between the person and the work environment.

Can job burnout be fixed by learning to relax and handle your stress better?

Yes and no. Strategies to manage your work stress more effectively can be helpful, but these strategies focus only on your behavior and do not change the work environment, which is the source of the stress. Although stress management strategies may be effective in the short term, burnout may continue if the work environment stays the same.


Sources of Job Burnout

While there are no quick fixes to reducing or eliminating job burnout, understanding where the burnout is coming from is the first step to finding solutions.

Identify the source of your burnout. Where is the mismatch between you and your job environment? Six common areas in which workers experience mismatches are in workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values (Maslach & Leiter, 2017):

  • Workload: Do you have too much work? Does the work never end?
  • Control: Do you lack control at work? Are the decisions made by other people?
  • Reward: Do you feel unappreciated and undervalued at work? Does no one seem to notice your contributions?
  • Community: Do you work with difficult people? Do they engage in difficult behaviors such as negativity, complaining, micromanaging, criticizing, or passive aggressive communication?
  • Fairness: Do you feel treated unfairly at work? Are other people treated unfairly?
  • Values: Do you have different values from your workplace? Is there a clash between what you value and what the organization values?

Burnout may come from one source or multiple sources. The specific areas of mismatch may be different for different people, even those working in the same work environment. If you feel overloaded at work and having a good balance between work and home is important to you, your workload may be the primary source of your burnout. Another person may also have a high workload but feels more stressed about the micromanaging behavior of a supervisor.

Once you have identified the sources of your job burnout, you can figure out which strategies for reducing burnout will be most helpful for you.


Strategies for Reducing Burnout

SELF CARE: While self-care activities do not directly change burnout at work, they can still help you feel less exhausted. Make sure you are getting enough rest, eating healthy foods, exercising, not overusing alcohol or other substances, and spending time with important people in your life.  

POSITIVE ATTITUDE: Cultivate a positive environment at work. Don’t join in the negative talk, complaining, or gossiping at work. Compliment your coworkers and let them know you appreciate them.

ASSESS YOUR VALUES: Take time to assess what is most important to you in life. Are you spending your time in ways that fit your values? Consider what changes you can make in your life to spend more time doing the things that make life worth living for you.

COPING WITH DIFFICULT COWORKERS: Working with difficult people everyday can be demoralizing. If possible, limit your interactions with negative people. Consider why the individual acts as they do. Do they feel undervalued at work? Are they overworked? Having empathy for them can help you feel less angry or annoyed.

CONSIDER A JOB CHANGE: When you have tried to make changes in the job but nothing has worked, it may be time to consider a job change. While networking or interviewing, identify organizations that may be a better match with you. Ask questions such as: Do employees feel overloaded? How does the company help employees manage their workload and stress? How are decisions made here? What are the values of the organization? How quickly does the organization respond to problems?

SEEK HELP: When job burnout leads to depression or anxiety, or when you notice that your work stress is affecting the important people in your life, it may be time to seek help. This help can involve working with a psychologist or therapist, seeking career counseling, spending time with supportive people, and finding online resources to manage stress.


Sources:

Maslach, C. (2017). Finding solutions to the problem of burnout. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 69(2) 143-152. doi: 10.1037/cpb0000090

Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2017). New insights about burnout and health care: Strategies for improving civility and alleviating burnout. Medical Teacher, 39(2), 160-163. doi: 10.1080/0142159X.2016.1248918

Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P., & Maslach, C. (2009). Burnout: 35 years of research and practice. Career Development International, 14(3), 204-220. doi: 10.1108/13620430910966406