A recognised medical diagnosis in several countries, burnout became a real concern for workers in the 1970s. A product of the increasing size of the services sector in the US and UK, professionals began to lose their energy and sense of value at work.
But “burnout” is a broad term, and the reasons for it are various. Researchers at the University of Zaragoza in Spain discovered three different types of burnout and the strategies typically used to cope with them. Which one could threaten your performance at work, and are you doing enough to protect yourself?
According to the University of Zaragoza’s researchers, “overload” burnout is experienced by those who work until exhaustion, and who cope by venting about the limits imposed upon them by their organisation. Psychological detachment from work – being able to switch off when not in the workplace – may be a useful bulwark.
The advent of the work-related smartphone has undoubtedly increased the pressure on workers to be contactable at any point of the day, and it may not be realistic to simply switch it off when you get home. However, according to a paper in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, a few emails left until the morning may be a sacrifice you shouldn’t avoid.
“The increased productivity associated with staying connected to work in the evening hours is often achieved at the cost of mental health, yielding higher stress levels which may lead to poor recovery, impaired performance, fatigue, and sleep complaints,” said the authors. Set boundaries by telling colleagues that you aren’t contactable after a reasonable hour.
The second cause of burnout is brought on by a lack of personal development, and sufferers tend to avoid work as a coping strategy. Limited use of this strategy may have its benefits: having lunch away from your desk and taking breaks during the day may stop you from feeling overwhelmed in the short term.
Ron Friedman, founder of consultancy Ignite80 told the Harvard Business Review that those who feel close to burnout should focus on “approach goals” – doing something they enjoy, like cooking or socialising after work – rather than “avoidance goals”, such as not answering emails.
But a deeper change may be required. “Do the arithmetic. You get one hour’s reward for every 20 hours of drudgery,” Dr Steve Berglas told the Inc. “Can that be psychologically gratifying?” If your work does not provide you with opportunities to develop new skills, he suggests, taking the initiative yourself is vital.
This may involve extra effort in the short term, but will pay off if you avoid a more damaging long-term psychological impact.
The last type of burnout is stress-related. Sufferers place unrealistic demands upon themselves and give up despite their desire to achieve their goal. Taking on too many tasks leads to exhaustion and poor quality work.
“Assertiveness and negotiation skills are often needed to protect ourselves from overcommitment,” Dr Chris Johnstone told the BMJ. Those who hold themselves to very high personal standards may be the most vulnerable to this type of burnout, he argues.
A degree of pragmatism should be exercised when taking on new tasks, and your calendar should be reviewed regularly to prevent overload. “For each of the demands listed, ask yourself what the consequences would be if you didn’t meet them.
Who would notice, who would lose out, and who would benefit? By doing this, you can prioritise those areas that matter most to you,” says Johnstone.