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This is what you should do if you’re experiencing burnout

The world is more connected now than ever before. We’re more contactable than any time in history. Smart phones, smart watches, laptops, tablets, Wi-Fi, 4G and 5G are all designed to keep us ‘plugged in’ and available at a moment’s notice. This hyper-connectivity is a double-edged sword that has both positive and negative consequences.

A work-heavy environment has the potential to affect your mental well-being and can lead to burnout. Taking care of your mental health is just as important as looking after your physical health and combating burnout is vital to enjoy a long career.

A major twist in the current job climate has been the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the tidal wave of people working from home for the very first time. This change has exacerbated a number of problems.

The home that was once seen as a relative escape from work has now become an all-in-one building where the lines between work-time and home-time have blurred even further.

Vicki Kavadas, organisational psychologist and lecturer in the School of Psychology at Deakin University, suggests that although some workers have felt the COVID change more than others (such as frontline workers), the toll it has taken on the average office worker is concerning.

‘Frontline workers come to mind immediately since they have been faced with an overload of workplace stressors during the pandemic. Nevertheless, all workers have faced an increase in work stressors that have increased the risk of burnout,’ she says.

‘Facing a reduced sense of community and a blurred boundary between work and home, it makes sense that workplace stress and burnout during the pandemic has increased.’

What is burnout?

Although the term burnout tends to get thrown around without much thought, there is a real medical definition behind the word. According to Dr Michael Leiter, from Deakin University’s School of Psychology, burnout is a negative work-related mental state. which impacts the overall health of an employee.

‘Burnout, according to the World Health Organisation, is presented in three parts,’ says Dr Leiter.

‘First is a sort of chronic exhaustion, particularly being exhausted before your day even begins. Being exhausted at the end of the day is normal but being exhausted before your day even begins means you’ve potentially got a problem. The second component is cynicism and withdrawing your energy from your tasks. And then the third part is being discouraged particularly about your efficacy, your potential for impact.’

Although some people assume that burnout and depression are the same, there is a distinct difference between the two. There are some similarities to other mental health conditions such as depression, however burnout is more specifically tied to your job and workplace.

‘Depression can obviously be the result of a number of different things,’ says Vicki Kavadas.

‘You could be facing prolonged personal difficulties or experience a series of events in your life that result in the onset of depression. But burnout is specifically related to workplace characteristics and things to do with your job. In the end, that is the big difference.’

'Facing a reduced sense of community and a blurred boundary between work and home, it makes sense that workplace stress and burnout during the pandemic has increased.'

Vicki Kavadas,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

What should you be aware of?

To understand burnout and how it can affect a person’s life, you need to be aware of the signs and symptoms. Dr Leiter says that it’s important to track your feelings and mood if you think you may be suffering from burnout to see if it is possibly a one-off or the sign of a larger issue.

‘You should ask yourself, how often do you start your day at your job feeling really tired? Are you really tired before you even start?’ says Dr Leiter.

‘How often does that happen? If that happens once in a great while, that’s just regular life. There will always be ups and downs. However, if it happens regularly, like a few times a week, that’s getting at the problem area.’

What steps can we take to avoid or overcome burnout?

Burnout is impacting people all over the globe and most major organizations recognise it as an issue that needs to be dealt with. As the saying goes, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ and this is especially true when thinking about burnout.

Ms Kavadas says there are steps an individual can take to try and prevent burning out in their place of work. However, finding the right solution revolves around the specific issues you find are causing the greatest mental harm.

‘Solutions stem from the specific problems you are having. If you are feeling a lack of control, your first step should be speaking to your manager or your employer and clarifying whether you can have a bit more control or responsibility in your work,’ she says.

‘Another major cause of burnout is insufficient reward. Although that can relate to money and benefits, it is usually more about social reward and recognition from peers and managers. Part of the solution might be to ask directly for more feedback. You can’t always sit back and expect it to come to you, so taking charge of your feedback is a great way to increase that level of reward that you get from your job.’

If you feel as though you are suffering from burnout, Dr Leiter recommends you take a break and begin to reassess your work, your downtime, and your personal growth.

‘Do your values align with your work? How much of your time are you spending, doing things you believe in that you think are worthwhile and are making you smarter?’  he says.

‘No matter how healthy you’re feeding yourself or how much meditation you do, if you feel like your work is damaging you, you don’t want to be wasting your time like that.’

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Dr Michael Leiter
Dr Michael Leiter

School of Psychology, Deakin University

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Vicki Kavadas
Vicki Kavadas

School of Psychology, Deakin University

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