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Recognising and combating burnout at work

Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

Well, we can’t all be Nutella taste-testers for a living, but it’s still important to enjoy what you do and feel a sense of worth within a role, especially in highly demanding or skilled work.

When this doesn’t happen, you can risk becoming disengaged from your work and general life, says Professor Michael Leiter, from the School of Psychology at Deakin.

‘It’s a crisis when work no longer feels fulfilling,’ Prof. Leiter says.

We’ve all been guilty of complaining to friends and family about work, but what happens when this cynicism becomes increasingly vitriolic and self-deprecating? That’s when you might be experiencing burnout, a very real condition now recognised by the World Health Organization as an official medical diagnosis.

Are you on the verge of burnout at work?

It’s normal to feel stressed or tired at times, but when it becomes an unrelenting pattern, a mental and physical toll can start to take place.

While often self-diagnosed as the same thing, an individual suffering burnout at work will see related, but different symptoms to general stress.

‘Burnout is a distinct syndrome of exhaustion, depersonalisation and discouragement with a low sense of accomplishment or effectiveness,’ explains Prof. Leiter.

‘Whereas, general stress has a quality of tension leading to exhaustion.’

With the two conditions rearing their heads in similar ways, it can be difficult to spot the distinct signs of burnout. But, there are a few clear signals that can help you take the first steps in helping yourself and others.

‘Feeling tired nearly every day as you start your work is one,’ says Prof. Leiter.

‘Being grumpy and complaining all the time to anyone who will listen about your job is also a sign.’

As Prof. Leiter has witnessed, if you lose a sense that you’re doing important work, especially when it’s something you’re good at, it can become frustrating and progress into burnout.

'Burnout is a distinct syndrome of exhaustion, depersonalisation and discouragement with a low sense of accomplishment or effectiveness.'

Prof. Michael Leiter,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Job satisfaction and structure… or lack of

This begs the question, what if you genuinely aren’t excited about your job and can’t find motivation to work?

Is it a matter of finding new challenges at work or just starting fresh?

‘One solution is to move on to other positions with different challenges,’ says Prof. Leiter.

‘No job will last forever. But, sometimes the problem is a poor design of work and the workplace, calling for some better design.’

While there’s no blanket solution, workplaces can implement structured ways to ensure all employees feel valued – which in turn helps productivity and engagement.

‘One of the main ideas is to have greater flexibility in work design so that people can find a good fit between their working styles or aspirations with their work situation,’ says Prof. Leiter.

‘Some people thrive on intensity; others want a more even pace of work.’

Finding your recovery method

While stress has been a factor since cavemen were chased by snow leopards, psychologists can now zero in on burnout and its specific symptoms.

This in turn means they can help more people, which may be necessary given the rate of change in how and when we work in modern society.

‘The evidence is not complete, but my surveys have been showing more negative scores as work becomes more intense and competitive,’ says Prof. Leiter.

Given we spend a large portion of our lives at work, suffering from burnout can really take a toll.

Just like any other medical condition, if it’s detected early, there’s more chance strategies can be put in place to rectify the issue before it spirals out of control.

‘Someone experiencing burnout will be challenged to take on more demands,’ says Prof. Leiter.

‘The main thing is to help the person set up better recovery strategies at home – that could be better sleep, exercise, or fun times with friends and family.’

This doesn’t necessarily mean that knocking off at 3pm each day will solve your problem – many people feel just as much reward and relaxation from a hard day’s work, followed by participating in high-intensity sport.

‘Getting tired after a big day at work is not a problem, as long as you know how to recover your energy through rest and personal activities.’

Are you interested in making a difference to the lives of those struggling with mental health issues? Find out what a career in psychology involves.

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Professor Michael Leiter
Professor Michael Leiter

Professor of Industrial Organisational Psychology, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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