Burning the candle at both ends

Everyone has days when, under the pressure of a tight deadline or big project, their nerves feel frayed. But when the feeling of being completely overwhelmed at work persists, it can spiral into burnout - a growing epidemic with serious consequences for your health and career.

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So serious in fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) has announced the next version of its handbook of diseases, the International Classification of Diseases, will recognise burnout as an official “occupational phenomenon” that could drive people to seek medical care.

"The average full-time employee works an hour more per day now than they did a decade ago.”

“The WHO message is a wake-up call,” says psychologist James Campbell Quick, a fellow of the American Psychological Association who has extensively studied the phenomenon. High levels of stress (which is essentially what burnout is), have been linked to heart disease, liver disease and “pretty much a greater risk of every chronic disease that you can have,” notes Siobhan Murray, author of The Burnout Solution.

Burnout symptoms

According to the Mayo Clinic, these symptoms suggest you may be more than stressed:

  • You’ve become cynical or critical at work
  • You drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started
  • You’re irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients
  • You lack the energy to be consistently productive
  • You find it hard to concentrate

Always on call

Burnout has always been around, Quick notes, but our fast-paced, digitally distracted lifestyles have amplified the problem.

“We’re bombarded by technology,” says Murray.

“It’s become the norm to think, ‘I have to be on call whenever I’m not sleeping’,” agrees Quick.

That may explain why the average full-time employee works an hour more per day now than a decade ago and a new study shows you don’t even need to be working in your off-hours to feel strained. The mere expectation of being available can cause anxiety.

While burnout can happen in any field - and indeed, it isn’t limited to work (new mums and caregivers are at high risk for burnout, even if they’re not employed) - tech industry workers are especially at risk.

Blind, a social network for the workplace, recently surveyed thousands of employees from tech companies including Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon. It found over half of respondents reported they were currently suffering job burnout.

But when burnout hits, you can’t just leave it at the office - people who feel burned out at work find their home life is more likely to suffer too. This may be because when jobs get more demanding, people put more time and resources into them, often at the expense of their private lives.

Doubling down on work might sound like it benefits employers but eventually the bubble bursts. Eastern Kentucky University data shows companies spend about $US300 billion annually for health care and missed work days as a result of workplace stress.

This is why it’s crucial to take these steps to prevent - or counter - burnout:

How to prevent burnout

The silver lining behind all this talk of burnout is there is a way through it. Employees don’t have to constantly feel overwhelmed and unmotivated at work. Checking for these signs will help prevent burnout before it starts - or work to fix it if you need a way out.

1. Have you taken on too much?

The first step is to understand the factors that could be contributing to burnout. Take stock of your job responsibilities to spot areas that overwhelm. Then, try to clear out the clutter, says Murray. Have you signed up for a project or committee you can let go of? Taking something off your plate will probably improve your performance. Burned out employees are more likely to make mistakes, put less effort into their job and perform badly as a result, according to research in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

2. Identify what gives you energy, and what drains it

Some people or things drain our energy, while others fill us up, explains Quick. Look at your calendar and grade everything you’re scheduled to do as either a D (drain) or an F (fill), you can then limit your exposure to Ds. But what if your colleagues - or worse, your boss - are a drain and you’re forced to spend time with them? “Make sure there’s a fill on your calendar somewhere else that day,” says Quick.

3. Manage your digital distractions

Apple CEO Tim Cook recently told CBS he had dialled back on screen time by limiting the number of notifications he receives on his iPhone. “My simple rule is if I’m looking at the device more than I’m looking into someone’s eyes, I’m doing the wrong thing.” It’s the type of move experts cheer, since spending quality time with family and friends can help undo the strain of burnout.

4. Don’t give all of your energy to work

Quick, who is also a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, tells his students he’s always available - except between 10pm and 6am. It’s important to put limits on when you’re reachable, he says. And during that downtime, don’t just veg in front of Netflix. Engaging in activities that bring you joy - whether that’s taking up a hobby, spending time with friends, or traveling - can counter the negative effects of burnout.

5. Just say “no” to too many projects

Not taking on every task offered your way can be hard but saying no - without feeling guilty about it - protects against burnout. How do you refuse a project without looking like a slacker? Say “I don’t” instead of “I can’t” when you’re asked to do something. For example: “I don’t have the bandwidth to take on an extra client right now.”

According to a 2012 study in the Journal of Consumer Research, this strategy is powerful because “I don’t” establishes a firm rule about your availability and willingness to do something. “I can’t” on the other hand, leaves room for the asker to suggest scenarios under which you could be able take on the task.

6. Make self-care a priority

We’re not talking about booking a massage (though if that fits in your schedule and budget, by all means go for it). Just make sure you’re getting enough sleep and eating well, something burned out people struggle to do, according to Murray. It makes sense: when you’re exhausted, you don’t have the energy to socialise, cook healthy meals, exercise, make enough time for sleep.

But one review found that when burned out employees don’t recover from work, they may suffer more from the daily burnout toll as a result. One way to recharge: stay active. A 2017 study revealed that exercise might be able to prevent or reverse work-related burnout. Even a 15-minute walk can help, says Murray.

7. Lean on your support network

Research suggests job-related stress may hit people harder if they’re not getting support at home or from their social network and if they’re not taking breaks (even short ones) throughout the day. You don’t have to throw a dinner party, says Murray. Just make an effort to chat with your neighbour or meet a friend for coffee.

8. Manage well

One of the biggest takeaways from the WHO’s classification is the organisation says it’s planning to develop evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace for companies to use. That’s important because while individuals can take steps to limit it, companies ultimately need to shift their values to combat widespread burnout.

In another study by Blind, nearly 10,000 tech workers said the main factor leading to burnout in their organisation wasn’t overwork (though that was number 2 on the list): it was poor leadership and unclear direction. So if you’re a manager, monitor your employees and lighten the load when you see them becoming overwhelmed, rather than always pushing the pedal to the metal, says Quick.

Tracy Middleton is a contributing writer for Work Life.

This article was originally published on Atlassian’s Work Life blog.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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