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Recognizing and conquering professional burnout

Professional burnout is an increasingly burning issue - so much so, its updated definition has been added to the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases diagnostic manual. Unfortunately, its early symptoms are quite inconspicuous and can be easily mistaken for a temporary drop in form or mild stress. This is why work-life balance, mindfulness, and, most importantly, awareness of its symptoms are crucial in detecting burnout and quickly fighting back.

Why do we burn out?

Familiarizing yourself with the underlying causes of professional burnout is a crucial step in trying to prevent it. Most of these factors directly relate to our jobs: excessive workloads which lead to exhaustion, lack of satisfaction, poor remuneration, limited career growth opportunities, an atmosphere of toxic positivity, or unhealthy competitiveness.

There are also some contributing psychological and emotional factors, such as low self-esteem, inability to name and control our emotions, lack of faith in our own abilities, loss of confidence, chronic stress, mental exhaustion, and a constant need to prove our worth. In other words, those most likely to suffer from burnout work too much and too hard, live under constant stress and time pressure, while simultaneously undervaluing their efforts and failing to reward their achievements.

 tired man in the city

Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash

Symptoms of professional burnout

According to the WHO, professional burnout manifests itself in 4 fundamental ways:

  1. Feeling drained of energy, exhausted;
  2. Mentally distancing ourselves from our job;
  3. Having a negative and cynical approach to our job;
  4. Underperforming.

Professor Cary Cherniss, psychologist and researcher of the phenomenon, has compiled a more comprehensive list of symptoms. He quotes signs such as anger, guilt, isolation, indifference, negative outlook, disappointment, feeling exhausted after each workday (often objectively disproportionate to the severity of our duties), growing resentment towards customers and clients, cynicism, and aversion to change as important to recognize and pay attention to early on.

Professional burnout can also physically affect our bodies. A few symptoms to look out for are muscle pain, headache, back pain, an increase or decrease in appetite, rapid and unintentional weight change, nausea, weakness, insomnia, lowered immunity (resulting in frequent colds or infections), and muscle cramps around the neck and shoulders.

Remember that the early stages of professional burnout may not look like burnout at all - on the contrary, an employee can exhibit an increase in their commitment but do so out of their growing perceived need of proving their worth to others. The problem can escalate causing them to neglect their duties, work less productively and effectively, become distant, suffer from low mood, irritability, even depression, panic disorders, and psychosomatic conditions.

Prevention is better than cure

The most effective way of preventing professional burnout is with sustained effort from both the employee and the employer. Introducing wellbeing strategies, revising the scope of workers' duties to ensure they are not exhausted, paying fair wages, and cultivating a cordial atmosphere across all teams - these elements significantly contribute to counteracting burnout. Remember that caring for the work-life balance and wellbeing of employees is in the employer’s best interest, as it creates engaged, loyal teams with high levels of healthy productivity and work quality.

What can you do to lower the risk of burning out as an employee? Appropriate work planning is key here - try to avoid situations when all urgent tasks and deadlines accumulate and fall on the same day or week, leaving you not knowing where to start. If you can, delegate some tasks and forgo time consuming and ultimately frustrating extreme perfectionism. Good time management can allow you to not only finish your assignments on time but also have time for regular breaks and thorough rest.

If you wish to prevent professional burnout, familiarize yourself with the company’s values and compare them with your own - opposing beliefs dangerously increase your risk of burnout. In such a case, search for a company whose morals align with yours.

 reading with a cat

Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash

Healing from burnout

It happens to the best of us - perhaps especially to the best of us; employees of the year and faithful servants whose lives revolve around work. Don’t blame yourself if some of the aforementioned symptoms apply to you but rather seek professional help. Remember that if your symptoms negatively affect, or prevent you from doing your job altogether, a psychiatrist can prescribe you sick leave due to professional burnout. If you feel up for it, starting therapy could also be beneficial.

Besides seeking professional support, you can also help yourself get back into form by implementing some self-care practices. Here are some of the simple things you can do for yourself:

  • Take plenty of rest physically and mentally disconnect from your work: try to find activities unrelated to your career or indulge in the sweetness of doing nothing, at least for a few moments. At first it might require some some effort but the results will exceed your expectations;
  • Meditate this will help you relax, clear your mind, and replenish your energy reserves;
  • Take micro-breaks  create a habit of taking short but regular breaks throughout your workday - 5-10 minutes will give you a chance to step away from your desk, take a brisk walk, stretch, breathe deeply, and even make some small talk with your coworkers (good workplace relationships have a positive impact in burnout prevention!);
  • Set boundaries  make a clear distinction of where your private life stops and your work life begins. Stick to it;
  • Get an appropriate amount of sleep according to the research conducted by Swedish scientists, good sleep quality and hygiene facilitate the process of healing burnout;
  • Evaluate your beliefs and goals professional burnout might be a sign that some fundamental career changes are in order. It is certainly a good opportunity to reassess your values and ambitions - think about what matters most to you, what you want to work towards, how you can achieve it, and what opportunities are there to help you.

Remember that professional burnout is not the end of the world or the end of your career. If you react quickly and take good care of your mental health, this hurdle can become a stepping stone on your road to success.