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Keeping Burnout at Bay

The World Health Organization recognized burnout as a workplace syndrome in 2019, and since the COVID-19 pandemic began, employers have directed more resources to mitigating the stresses and pressures that contribute to it. Many workplaces are developing mental health services and other benefits to stave off burnout, but in the meantime, it also makes sense to learn about its effects with a view toward preventing them.

What is workplace burnout?
Burnout usually produces signs that employers and coworkers can watch for, according to Brianna Massie, LCSW, CFTP, associate director of counseling for Provident Behavioral Health. They include feelings of exhaustion or energy depletion, negativity, cynicism, distancing from one’s work and reduced workplace effectiveness. “You might notice that a coworker dreads or delays coming into work, complains frequently about the job or shows a lack of interest in doing well,” Massie says. “There might be a major decline in performance, a loss of meaning or purpose and a lack of motivation. Basically, the person feels no connection to the bigger picture of his or her job. When these signs are noted, burnout is likely behind them.”

Unhealthy behaviors at home may be noted as well. The person may be staying up very late, experiencing disrupted sleep, using alcohol or drugs or not eating a nutritious diet, Massie says. Behaviors like constantly scrolling through social media and binging on endless amounts of television also can signal trouble.

“When someone is struggling, it’s important to look for behavior that is different from the norm,” Massie explains. “We are all unique and have our own sets of trouble signs, but a sudden or significant change in how someone acts should be a red flag. You might notice that a normally social and outgoing coworker becomes quiet and withdrawn, or the person who usually pitches in to help others is not doing that.”

Burnout also occurs when activities people normally enjoy become draining and impede their satisfaction and well-being, according to Massie. “A continuing education class or volunteer commitment that sounded great at the beginning now loses its attraction and becomes stressful and overwhelming,” she says. “This doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes it’s so gradual, the person may not even be aware of it until the situation becomes so negative and difficult that it escalates into a crisis.”

Massie adds that burnout is particularly common in young adults who join an organization eager to advance, sacrifice their own needs to impress others and then end up burning out at an early stage.

How can it be prevented?
So what can be done to keep burnout from becoming a problem? Massie says the first step is to stay true to your normal work-life boundaries. “For example, if one of your personal rules is to not answer emails late at night, stick to that,” she says. “As soon as you compromise your normal limits, you may start down a slippery slope that leads to burnout.”

Next, she advises setting achievable goals to lend purpose and meaning to the work day. “It’s a lot like the old saying about starting each day right simply by making your bed,” Massie says. “List small goals at work that you can check off and feel good about. Have things to look forward to as well, whether it’s a small reward like your favorite coffee drink or a larger one like a vacation. Keep a variety of positive activities on your schedule that can give you a boost.”

It’s also important to analyze whether your current position aligns with your priorities. “Know what makes you happy in your work life,” Massie advises. “People often accept a job out of necessity, not because it’s the type of work that will bring them fulfillment. Know what you enjoy doing, and give yourself the right to seek that out. Understand your ‘why’ when you come to work each day, whether it’s simply providing for your family or a deeper drive to positively impact the lives of others. That can be protective against stress and burnout.”

Then, take a close look at your colleagues and environment, and determine how they fit into your work experience. “No workplace is perfect,” Massie says. “Decide what you are willing to deal with and what would prompt you to seek another job. You might love the work you are doing, or the pay might be great, but the leadership or culture is affecting you negatively, so it may be time to look for a more supportive environment. Your paycheck is not worth the price of your mental health.”

Remember that you don’t have to go it alone—mental health professionals are available to help address stress and burnout. “The time to ask for assistance is as soon as you notice your work life interfering with your happiness,” Massie says. “You can always reach out to friends or family, but getting professional help can give you a more objective viewpoint. So many people wait until a moment of crisis when they feel completely defeated and discouraged, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Therapists want to help people avoid reaching that stage.”

If your workplace offers an employee assistance program, or EAP, that’s a good place to start. “An EAP can provide short-term therapy at no cost, and longer-term assistance can be accessed once the services available through the EAP have been exhausted,” Massie says. “Employees shouldn’t worry about privacy in using these programs. The workplace provides access to the resources, but they are entirely confidential.”

Finally, don’t forget to be attentive to others who may be struggling with burnout, Massie says. “Connection at work is so important,” she says. “Check in with coworkers and ask how they are really doing. Give them a chance to communicate, and show them that someone cares. It can be a very healing experience.”

Potential signs of workplace burnout


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