Career advice

Job burnout: causes and solutions

Burnout is a big problem in today's workforce. Workers are exhausted and stressed, not knowing where to turn or what to do about it. Is this you?

What is job burnout?

Burnout doesn't just mean feeling tired. It's more than that, and it can't be remedied with a good night's sleep.

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), "burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Burnout in the course of employment can make one feel emotionally drained and unable to function in the context of work and other aspects of life. Burnout can reduce productivity, lower motivation, and cause you to feel helpless, hopeless, and resentful." 

While it isn't a medical diagnosis, burnout can negatively impact your health.

One study revealed burnout to be a significant predictor of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hospitalization due to cardiovascular disorder, musculoskeletal pain, changes in pain experiences, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries, and mortality below the age of 45 years.

It's serious, and it's rampant.

A 2022 poll from Robert Half found that more than four in 10 professionals surveyed (43%) said they are more burned out on the job today compared to a year ago, up from 33% in a 2020 poll. Forty-two per cent of employees experiencing increased fatigue blamed it on a heavier workload. Another 2022 survey, commissioned by Workplace Strategies for Mental Health, found that 35% of respondents said they were burnt out.

Earlier, the American Psychological Association's 2021 Work and Well-being Survey uncovered that 79% of 1,501 North American workers surveyed had experienced work-related stress in the month before the survey. Nearly three in five reported negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26%). Thirty-six percent reported "cognitive weariness," 32% reported emotional exhaustion, and 44% reported physical fatigue, a 38% increase over 2019. 

Who is most likely to burn out?

Workers in some occupations are more susceptible to burnout than others. The study by Workplace Strategies for Mental Health found that there were five industries with burnout rates above the national average of 35%:

Health and patient care (53%)
Transportation (40%)
Finance, legal, and insurance (39%)
Education and childcare (38%)
First responders (36%)

It's not surprising, particularly at this point in history, that within the health and patient care industry, 66% of nurses reported burnout. They are followed by mental health professionals, at 61%. All other segments of the health and patient care industry were at above-average burnout levels.

The study also found that few Canadian employees feel they are receiving enough support from their employer, and only a third indicated that their company is working towards a low-stress environment.

How can you tell if you're suffering from burnout?

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of job burnout include:

  • Becoming cynical or critical at work.
  • Feeling unmotivated.
  • Feeling irritable or impatient with co-workers or customers.
  • Lacking energy.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Lacking a feeling of satisfaction from your achievements.
  • Feeling disillusioned about your job.
  • Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope.
  • Changing sleep habits.
  • Headaches, stomach or bowel problems, and other physical complaints.

These symptoms can also be related to health conditions, like depression, and you should consider talking to a medical/mental health professional.

Causes of job burnout

 The Mayo Clinic also lists the following possible contributing factors to job burnout.

  • Lack of control and an inability to influence factors affecting your job, like workload, schedule, and assignments.
  • Lack of resources to properly do your job.
  • Unclear job expectations from management.
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics. A toxic workplace, including a bad manager, can significantly contribute to stress.
  • Lack of social support.
  • Work-life imbalance.
  • Working in a helping profession in which others constantly rely on you.
  • Long hours and a heavy workload.

What to do if you're experiencing burnout

Burnout can be difficult to address, particularly if you're not in a position to take time off or step away. But there are some steps you can take to improve the situation.

Start by discussing your concerns with your supervisor or with HR. If they want to keep you around and are pleased with your contribution, they should be open to talking about how to make things better. When employees aren't able to give their all, the whole company suffers. Maybe you need more resources, training, or feedback. Perhaps you need to work less overtime, pick up less slack for your co-workers, or stop taking on additional projects. It's best if you can first figure out what you need and then bring it to a meeting, so they know exactly what can be done and you are all on the same page. You'll probably get further exploring this route rather than expecting them to come up with solutions for you.

Other ways to cope with burnout include finding support in your friends and family -- not everyone has someone to talk to but if you do, take advantage of that -- and speaking to a professional. A mental health professional can help provide clarity. Your company may offer an employee assistance program as well.

Taking time each day or a few times a week to do something relaxing and grounding like yoga or meditation may also make a difference, as will getting some exercise. Physical activity lowers stress levels, decreases stress hormones, and can improve sleep.

Finally, you might need to rethink your life and your priorities. In her 2012 book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware lists those five regrets, and number two is "I wish I hadn't worked so hard." This is such a common regret, she said, and it was expressed by every dying man she nursed (she was working with an older generation, and women of the cohort were more likely to have stayed home). Not everyone has the option to do a complete overhaul of their career or life, but if you are in a position to take full stock and make major changes, now might be the time to do that. This might mean asking for time off, taking a leave, looking for a new job, and/or quitting your current one. It might mean a career change.

Even if it means making tiny tweaks while maintaining the status quo, those tweaks can make a difference.

Don't ignore job burnout, and look after yourself.

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