How to handle workplace burnout when it strikes

Burnout. You may have heard of the term during your lunch break near the coffee maker or in passing on the elevator, but it’s a real thing. Many people don’t realize they’re experiencing burnout until they feel as if they’re having a heart attack (which is an anxiety attack), or they’re unable to focus correctly. Burnout isn’t a real disorder, but millions of working-class Americans suffer from this phenomenon every day. 

The term burnout comes from Herbert Freudenberger, a German American psychologist who experienced stress himself while running a productive psychology practice in New York. As a survivor of the Holocaust, he was determined to make a new life for himself in America. He wrote a book called “Burnout: The High Cost Of High Achievement” in 1980. “Burnout is a response to stress,” Freudenberger told All Things Considered in 1981. “It’s a response to frustration. It’s a response to a demand that an individual may make upon themselves in terms of a requirement for perfectionism or drive.” 

In 2018, Harvard Business Review reported that 1 in 5 employees are at risk of burnout, named the “engaged-exhausted group.” “These engaged-exhausted workers were passionate about their work, but also had intensely mixed feelings about it — reporting high levels of interest, stress, and frustration. While they showed desirable behaviors such as high skill acquisition, these apparent model employees also reported the highest turnover intentions in our sample — even higher than the unengaged group.” Burnout symptoms include alienation from work-related activities, physical symptoms, emotional exhaustion, and reduced performance. A 2018 study by Gallup revealed five leading causes of work burnout. These consist of unreasonable time pressure, lack of communication, and support from a manager, lack of role clarity, unmanageable workload, and unfair treatment.

Workplace burnout is no fun. With society moving faster than ever, we need to find ways to alleviate work stress and complete exhaustion. Toriana Williams is an Application Support Engineer at Google. With a high-demand job comes the pressure of potential burnout, something that Williams manages through time management. “I used to experience burnout years ago, but I received advice from a former colleague that changed my perspective,” Williams said, “I focus on one task for 25 minutes, then another task at the same time. Doing this allows me to give my mind a break and let my creativity flow freely.” 

Burnout doesn’t have to win in the workplace. Here are some tips from business publication Inc magazine about overcoming workplace burnout:

  • Become more selfish
  • Establish new workplace relationships
  • Meditate
  • Do something meaningful and interesting
  • Keep your to-do-lists minimal

Don’t let workplace burnout break you. Find ways to approach your workday while still maintaining your sanity. Put some things off until tomorrow, when you’re fresh and ready to tackle new challenges. Your mental health is your real wealth. 


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