Burnout: 'I overcame stress at work. Here's how you can too.'

We live in a driven and distracted world, and management is not recognizing the effect on workers
the whole human

‘I overcame burnout. Here’s how you can too.’

Have you ever felt overworked, stressed, or just plain burned out at work?

You’re not alone.

As productivity has risen and technology has expanded the workweek, wages have failed to catch up. More than half of U.S. workers left vacation time unused in 2015, and surveys have shown that about two-thirds of U.S. workers eat lunch at their desks.

If more employees burn out, it could pose problems for individuals and organizations. As Quartz reported, a recent study found that burnout is responsible for up to half of workplace attrition. Think about that: one of every two workers leaves his job because he just can’t take the stress any more.

Mark Gorkin, who coaches people on how to overcome stress and is the author of Preserving Human Touch in a High Tech World, spoke to Ladders about his own experience with burnout and his suggestions for how companies and employees can address it in the workplace.

Ladders: What is burnout?

Gorkin: Burnout is the gradual process by which a person detaches from work and other significant roles and relationships in response to excessive and prolonged stress and mental and physical strain. It results in low productivity, cynicism, confusion, and a feeling of being drained and having nothing more to give.

Have you ever experienced burnout?

My first real experience was as a doctoral student. I was trying to do something creative but off the academic wall. At that time in my life, I was immature, and I wasn’t going to let anyone stifle my creativity. But I was being unrealistic, and I eventually burned out.

What I learned is that there are different stages of burnout: physical and mental exhaustion, shame and doubt, cynicism and callousness, and finally failure, helplessness, and crisis.

I went through all of them, and I dropped out of the program.

Why is burnout a problem in the workplace?

Where do you spend most of your time? Most people spend more hours at work than anywhere else.

We live in a driven and distracted world, and management is not taking enough time to really recognize the impact.

One of the consequences is that people feel like they’re being used up. We’re constantly doing more with less.

There are also some people who feel like they’re doing the same thing over and over. They feel like they’re being underutilized and that their talents are not being given a chance.

Burnout can be just the tip of the iceberg. If it goes on, it can cause people to call in sick more, feel distressed, become more passive aggressive, or engage in workplace sabotage.

What can organizations do to prevent burnout?

Good organizations allow people to have a sense of authority, autonomy, and accountability.

The problem occurs when employees have a lot of accountability, but they feel that there isn’t much authority or autonomy. When people feel that they’re in control, there are more stress-resilient.

Organizations should encourage breaks and give their employees a chance to sit down and talk about burnout. They should ask: “Where are people feeling overloaded? How can we give you some support?”

The important thing is to address it not as an individual issue but as a structural issue.

What can individuals do to beat burnout?

Here are some steps I learned in my own personal recovery.

1. Exercise

When I started feeling better, I started an exercise regime. Not only is exercise good for you, but it also gives you a sense of accomplishment and control. When you’re feeling burned out, you need to create some rituals that give you a feeling of accomplishment and competence.

2. Laugh

When you’re experiencing burnout, after a while, your funny bone starts to atrophy. I read books, like The Catcher in the Rye, that made me laugh. Watch Friends. Watch Seinfeld. Do something that helps you see the absurdity of life. Laughing helps you feel that you’re not trapped in a black cloud.

3. Reflect

I took a personal retreat and took time to reflect on how I got myself in the burnout predicament. You might feel like you’re in a great position and can’t give it up, but rigid expectations are a formula for burnout.

4. Write

What was really helpful for me was that I started writing. Research shows that when you’re able to write things out, it can be stress-reducing.

5. Reach out

Find a stress buddy. It’s easy to get caught up in the whole process. Find someone at work who will give you honest feedback.

Once you’ve done these things, you’ll be ready to take more risks — whether that means speaking up in your workplace or saying that it’s time to move on.