You worked hard to get a degree and be qualified for a particular job that you are fortunate enough to be working in currently. So, why are you feeling lethargic or like something is not quite right? It could be due to “occupational burnout.”
What is it?
In order to understand occupational burnout, we must first understand the body’s natural stress response. This is often referred to as General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), and it occurs in three stages.
The first stage is the “alarm reaction”, the point at which your body senses what it determines to be a threat, and the body reacts accordingly. This reaction is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response because we are biologically driven to either avoid the stressor or to resist it head-on.
If, after this measure is taken, the stress continues, you move to the stage of resistance. During this second stage, the body attempts to adapt in order to better cope with the stressor. For example, in response to a physical stressor such as starvation, the body might decrease the desire for physical activity in order to conserve energy and focus its resources on efficient absorption of the nutrients it still has access to.
If the stress continues at similar levels despite these measures, the stage of exhaustion is entered. This third and final stage wears away at the body’s resistance to stress until vital biological defenses, such as the immune system, start to break down. This can leave an individual especially vulnerable to diseases and other health problems.
“Burnout”, the state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, is a combination of the second and third stage of GAS.
Many of the symptoms of occupational burnout are very similar to that of clinical depression: fatigue, irritability, detachment, trouble sleeping, lack of appetite, drug use, or even physical aches and pains. The only difference is that in occupational burnout, most (if not all) the symptoms can be tied directly to the stress experienced from one’s job.
How to Deal With It
The Mayo Clinic lists the most common causal factors for job burnout as lack of control, unclear job expectations, dysfunctional workplace dynamics, extremes in activity, lack of social support, poor job fit, and work-life imbalance. Even something as simple as a mismatch between the values held by the company and the personal values of the employee can cause a surprising amount of stress. With all these factors in mind, here are three key guidelines to follow for protection from occupational burnout.
Make sure the job is a good fit before you accept it. This might seem intuitive, but when looking for a new position, many people focus only on how qualified they will be for the tasks performed since that is the focus of nearly every application and interview. While it is important to consider how well-suited for a job you might be, it’s equally important to evaluate how well-suited a job is for you. Is the work environment one that you feel decently comfortable in? Are the hours something you think you can handle for an extended period of time? Are the tasks that you will be performing something you are morally comfortable with? And, perhaps most importantly, is your supervisor someone you can communicate openly with about any problems that might arise? All of these are key factors to consider and gather information about during an interview with your potential new employer.
Figure out your place in the bigger picture and stick to it. When you start working in a field you feel passionate about, it’s only natural to want to do as much as possible to contribute. Although the desire to do everything can come from a good place, the reality is that you only have so much time and energy to spend as an individual. It’s far more efficient to put that time and energy into accomplishing a few tasks very well than it is to accomplish many tasks at a mediocre level. Having a clear outline of what your duties are can also give you room to exert more control over things like your schedule and pacing, so that you don’t overwhelm yourself. If you are unsure about what tasks are or are not appropriate for you to undertake, talk with your supervisor. Alternatively, if you think you have been given too many tasks to give each one your utmost, speak with them about potentially adjusting your workload. Ensuring that you are happy and healthy is not just in your best interest either – it will also make you a more productive and useful member of the team.
Make sure to practice self-care. This can be especially important in a job where you are caring for someone else, because it’s very easy to spend all of your time and energy trying to solve someone else’s problem and leave nothing left for yourself. If you happen to have a job where this is an unavoidable risk to some degree, make sure you have a social support network in place. It helps to have some family and friends to talk to when things get to be just a little too much, and setting aside time to spend with these people can also help you balance your work and home life more equally.
Supervisors can also reach out to their employees to try and ensure that all measures are being taken to create an optimal work environment for everyone. This can come in the form of periodic staff meetings or screening measures. The Copenhagen Burnout Inventory (CBI), for example, can help an organization identify employees that might be at risk for (or already experiencing) occupational burnout. Once identified, the organization can reach out to these individuals and suggest adjustments or coping strategies that will help them optimize their work output.
The key for all to remember is that a healthy employee is a productive employee.