How to manage burnout at work

How to manage burnout at work

A stressed man with his head buried in his desk and his laptop covering the back of his head

Been feeling like the stress is never-ending at work? If you’re finding yourself constantly thinking about the next task, straining with multiple projects and working way over the normal hours, you could be on an express path to developing burnout. You’re not alone in this though, far from it in fact. Ever since the pandemic, many have been feeling the pinch after such a long period of not being able to travel and only working from home, when being able to get away from the office was such a key factor in being able to reset our minds and recover.

It may also be a case of you’ve heard so much about burnout, but don’t know the exact emotional and physical symptoms to look out for to avoid it. Find out how burnout from work develops, and what you can do to proactively prevent it.

What is considered burnout?

So, what is burnout? Let’s consult the World Health Organization (WHO) for a strict definition of the term. They define burnout as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and is characterised by: 

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

What’s interesting is that while we mostly associate burnout with work, the WHO actually explicitly link it to the workplace. It results from stress at work that occurs over a long period of time and becomes all-consuming.

Why is work burnout so prevalent today?

Burnout is impacting more people today due to a combination of the stress of years of multiple lockdowns, as well as an inability to travel overseas or even at times interstate.

Working from home may also have a role to play in this. Once upon a time you used to be able to leave the office and with that, leave your work behind. Now with our work computers in the same room as us at all times, and our phones connected to Teams and other software, it can be difficult to truly draw the line between your work and personal life.

The excessive workloads and high expectations that many professionals find themselves facing at work are another factor. Being overworked and regularly pushed to perform at a level past your ability to cope leads to burnout.

Our latest Hays Salary Guide found that 38 per cent of employees struggle to switch off outside of work, especially when working from home. This means that workplaces should be prioritising the mental health of their employees and provide support where they can, something that 43 per cent of employees would improve their mental wellbeing.

How to recognise burnout

Given all these possible factors, it’s no wonder so many of us find ourselves hurtling towards burnout.

One of the most common burnout symptoms is feeling angry or resentful about your job, workplace, colleagues or customers. We’re sure you’ve experienced at some point or another just wanting to shut your computer off because you’re sick of notifications constantly popping up. This is an example of emotional exhaustion and is usually the first sign that you may be heading towards burnout.

Another is feeling less committed or indifferent to your job. For example, lacking a sense of achievement or accomplishment when you reach certain milestones or successes at work. We are seeing indifference to work gain momentum in this climate, with quiet quitting becoming a trending topic across media.

There are also physical symptoms like exhaustion, sickness and more that will prevent you from going out. For example, perhaps a family member or friend has commented that they haven’t seen much of you recently, or you’ve stopped going to the gym or attending a regular gathering. If work exhaustion is starting to affect your personal life, it may be time to take a look at how to fix this.

What to do if you're experiencing burnout

If you think you are experiencing burnout, it is essential that you find time to focus on your health and wellbeing. Don’t say you don’t have the time; if you’re headed towards burnout – or already there – you need to prioritise yourself now.

There are several steps you can take to help prevent burnout. We’ve grouped them into three equally important components:

1. Daytime adjustments

One change you can make immediately is to add short breaks to your working day where you totally shut off any notifications. You can scale up the length of these breaks over time, but what’s important is to stick to your break times so that you disrupt your old habits and form a new routine of stepping out for short respites throughout your working day.

A simple, but underrated change you can make is to step away from your workspace to eat your lunch. It sounds like a pretty minimal change, but this short break can improve your mental wellbeing, energy and focus, while helping to minimise the mid-afternoon slump caused by being at your workspace all day.

Exercise has also been shown to help relieve stress, keep you grounded and improve your mental health. So too have other stress management techniques like mindfulness, mediation, yoga and other relaxation strategies, which can help calm your nerves, minimise stress and regulate your emotions. Finding time for such activities, even if it’s only a few minutes a day, will help you bounce back from burnout and lower the chance of it occurring again. A healthy diet can also dramatically change your mood. Try some simple improvements like ordering less takeaway and eating more fruits and vegetables.

2. Establish work-life boundaries 

It’s important that you establish clear work-life boundaries. For example, try to avoid checking your work emails at night. This can be made easier by setting quiet hours on your phone, so you don’t get distracted by notifications.

Getting enough sleep is also important. We’ve all heard that eight hours is the magic number, and it’s true, various studies have shown that the average person requires eight hours each night. Without regularly getting enough sleep, you’ll feel fatigued and less able to cope with stress at work.

In addition, it’s important that you’re not too hard on yourself through this process. Burnout is not a sign of a personal weakness or about your ability to do your job. Remember, many people who have been at the top of their field have suffered from it. By recognising that you are burned out and by taking steps to adjust your workload and better manage your work-life boundaries, you’re taking steps to improve your situation.

3. Get support from your employer

While these are all essential ingredients in beating burnout, you’ll need your employer on your side as well. High workplace expectations are a huge contributing factor in an employee reaching burnout, so it’s important to work with your manager to help alleviate the stresses.

Depending on your relationship with your direct manager, try raising the subject with them in conversation. Perhaps they are genuinely unaware of how many hours you’ve been putting in or of growing client demands.

It’s also worthwhile accessing your organisation’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and speaking to a mental health professional. Many EAP’s offer free and confidential counselling services for employees, which are designed to support your wellbeing and mental health.

You could also consider discussing with your manager the possibility of employing an additional team member. If you’ve been working a lot of overtime recently, and it's causing too much stress, there could be a good business case for adding resources to your team.

A different approach to this is to write up your current list of tasks and speak with your manager on what needs to be prioritised. Clearly identify what duties must be completed now and are most critical at that point in time to the business and what tasks are less critical and can be put on hold.

Your manager has an important role to play in this, since they should set realistic goals for you, but this also requires your feedback as well so they’re aware.

If your employer does not respond positively to any of these appeals, and nothing changes, it might be time to look for a new job.

4. Set expectations internally

If you find that you’re constantly flooded with emails and messages from colleagues, it might be a sign that while you’re great at what you do and people want your assistance, you also may have not set proper expectations with them.

Similar to setting priorities with your manager, let your co-workers know what you currently have on your desk and ask them if the matter is urgent. If it can wait, agree on a timeline with them and then move it to the bottom of the priority list accordingly. Not every small task needs a quick turnaround, and it will help alleviate stress during your working days and retain positive relationships with your colleagues.

5. Reset

If you have some annual leave built up, take it. It can do wonders for your mental wellbeing to take an actual break if you're experiencing workplace burnout. Creating a tangible boundary between yourself and work will allow you to better switch your mind off and enjoy a break.

With borders closed, it’s been less appealing to use annual leave when you can’t actually get away, but as travel becomes possible again, start booking out some holiday time for yourself and your loved ones.


How do I know if I’m burnt out?

Having a short fuse with your colleagues and feeling incredibly unmotivated or indifferent to your job are signs that you’re burning out. Also being unable to switch off from work and constantly thinking about the next work day will also affect your mental health.

How do I overcome burnout?

Taking regular breaks, exercising more, prioritising tasks, practicing mindfulness, meditating and setting quiet hours are all methods that can help you get over burnout. But be mindful that results won't happen overnight.

Remember, burnout is a common work-based syndrome, so by being aware of the tell-tale signs and taking appropriate steps in response, you’re more likely to succeed and thrive in your world of work.

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