Job Burnout: What it is and How to Prevent it

This is an article authored by Heather Ikin, Organisational Psychologist, Principal and Founder of WorkLife Psychology, a Career Money Life Community member.

Job burnout has become a hot topic for individuals and organisations – it probably seems like everyone is talking about it right now. Job burnout is being increasingly recognised as a mental health risk, but it’s also sometimes a misunderstood concept.

So, what is job burnout?

Sometimes people use the term to describe the prolonged exhaustion they feel as a result of overworking or excessive job demands, and this is certainly one core element. But job burnout is a little more complex than this. In addition to having a dimension of overwhelming exhaustion, burnout is also characterised by feelings of cynicism about one’s job and experiences of ineffectiveness and lack of achievement.

Are you (or someone you know) exhibiting signs of burnout? It could be the case if you have:

  • Become a bit jaded by your work, and tend to be quite critical of it
  • Wake up in the morning feeling that you have to drag yourself to the office
  • Lacked motivation and don’t feel like putting in the effort
  • Been finding it hard to concentrate and focus on what you are doing
  • Felt like it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you don’t seem to get results
  • Worried that your efforts aren’t valued because no one provides feedback or recognition
  • Trouble sleeping well or your sleeping habits have changed
  • Been feeling unhappy and used unhealthy vices to help cope, like drinking, eating bad foods or using drugs

What are the consequences of being burnt out?

Most obviously, it’s not good for personal wellbeing and mental health outcomes. Job burnout also negatively impacts engagement, morale, job performance, productivity, work satisfaction, organisational commitment, and interpersonal relationships. Employees experiencing job burnout are likely to take more time off work and to leave their job. Further, the negative emotions that come along with burnout will impact on behaviour, communication, and collaboration, resulting in higher levels of conflict and aggression in work teams.

Issues that contribute to job burnout

One of the challenges with working out how to deal with job burnout is that many people and organisations recommend individual strategies to cope with burnout and manage stress. Self-care is certainly important. However, to truly address job burnout and prevent negative mental health experiences from continuing, we need to explore the work conditions that underly burnout and either eliminate these factors or work out how to reduce or control them. I really like the work that has been done by world-renowned job burnout experts Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter to explain the aspects of work life that increase the risk of burnout:

  1. Work overload – working excessively hard or experiencing expectations or requirements of the job that exceed our ability to cope and perform. Overworking results in less rest and recovery time during the work day and throughout the work week, contributing to exhaustion.
  2. Control and autonomy – experiencing a lack of control over the direction of our work and inability to influence outcomes or access the resources we need to get things done. Sometimes has us feeling micro-managed or that we cannot be trusted.
  3. Recognition and feedback – rarely receiving positive reinforcement for our work, acknowledgement of our achievements, and gratitude for our contributions. Can leave us questioning ourselves and wondering if we are doing a good job.
  4. Workplace relationships – the absence of sufficient support from those we work with, feeling as though we don’t belong. Poor working relationships may result in low levels of psychological safety and increased instances of conflict.
  5. Organisational justice – experiences of being treated inequitably and feeling that decisions are not made fairly. Can be influenced by poor decision-making processes and unequal distribution of resources and access to opportunities.
  6. Culture and values – poor congruence between role objectives and expectations, lack of meaningful work, and misalignment between personal and organisational values. Often decreases our enjoyment of work.

These six factors are a great place to start. In my experience, there are other factors that might also contribute to burnout that may not nicely fit into one of these categories. It’s important to think about different aspects of work that might lead to exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. For example, lack of adequate training, too many changes being implemented simultaneously, and a lack of strategy and direction from senior leaders.

What can we do to help prevent burnout?

There are lots of things we can focus on – and both individuals and organisations can help to reduce the likelihood of burnout. Here are a few things to consider:

WorkLife’s top 3 tips for employees

  1. Manage your workload – sometimes we can be our own worst enemies where overload is concerned. Sure – sometimes we don’t have much say over the work we are allocated. But often through our own work ethic, we can struggle to manage work boundaries – if there is a task that can be done today, why put it off until tomorrow? If this sounds like you, consider what healthy strategies you can put in place to end your work day and switch off.
  2. Watch out for those feelings of cynicism – if you notice yourself starting to become a bit negative and resentful of your work situation, consider what’s driving this. Talk to someone in your workplace that can help work through these issues. Failing to address these feelings and speak up about concerns could see these negative feelings snowball, resulting in worse outcomes for your mental health and job performance.
  3. Ask for feedback – if you aren’t sure how you are going, seek feedback out from those around you. It’s hard when we feel like we are working hard and not seeing the fruits of our labour. But have you considered whether you are being too self-critical or unrealistic about what you can achieve as well? Be sure to get some good quality feedback, measure and monitor your own work through positive goals, and stop to celebrate your own achievements, no matter how small they are.

WorkLife’s top 3 tips for organisations

  1. Ensure employees are not being overloaded with work – monitor workloads and ensure work is reasonable and achievable. Support employees with the information, tools, and resources they need to work productively. Ensure your organisation has good workforce planning practices in place to forecast resourcing needs and ensure you have the right people, in the right roles, at the right times in order to get the work done.
  2. Assess your workplace climate – get feedback from employees to find out what their pain points are, the things they least enjoy about working in your organisation. Put strategies in place to foster a positive working environment, like developing effective teams and enabling positive and supportive working relationships.
  3. Recognise employee efforts – recognition does not need to be a costly exercise for your organisation. Focus on day-to-day appreciation, reminding people to say thanks, and give each other constructive feedback and positive acknowledgement. Give leaders tips and reminders on how to build a culture of recognition within their teams.

Reach out for help. If you need someone to talk to or someone to listen to, we are here for you. Our trusted community of Psychologists and Counsellors are here to support you.

Career Money Life’s EAP services include a variety of support options. All of our programs are completely customisable to cater for you and your team’s individual needs. Visit our website to learn more.

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