A person who once found excitement in their profession becomes disengaged. They are on edge, particularly with coworkers. Tasks are taking longer to complete and they can't seem to stay on track. They look physically tired. They are late for work and call in sick frequently. Their work ethic has tanked. Should you be annoyed or worried?
About two-thirds of full-time workers report regular symptoms of burnout, according to a 2018 Gallup study. Symptoms include: cynicism about work or the profession in general, irritability with workmates, extreme lack of energy, inability to complete tasks, lack of concentration at work, using food, alcohol, or drugs to cope, and unexplained physical issues such as headaches, body aches, stomach and bowel problems.
In a recent Washington Post article, author Jenny Rough made the following comment: "Burnout is a term easily tossed around, the way somebody might claim to be starving when they’re simply hungry, or freezing when cold. That’s harmless if a person is describing a tired day or week. But somebody who is actually burned out should be prepared to take serious action because it’s a condition that needs attention."
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It can be debilitating. Sufferers may experience chest pain, dizziness, mental collapses, anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia, anger, heart disease, high blood pressure, low immunity, and even loss of employment and relationship issues. The World Health Organization recognized the prevalence of the condition in May 2019, initially classifying it as an “Occupational Phenomenon.”
Burnout is different from the kind of work-related stress that affects us all. Stock brokers and washed up rock stars aren’t the typical candidates. Rather, it is most common in care givers and social service professionals. It's not a symptom of a generation who are too in touch with their own feelings to understand what real work is. It doesn’t go away after a massage or vacation. In fact, research shows that overall burnout can be rather stable, persisting for years, even a decade or more.
A heavy work load is not necessarily a tip off. Mayo Clinic points to the following as the primary contributors:
- Lack of control
- unclear job expectations
- dysfunctional workplace dynamics
- extremes of activity; frequent shifts from boredom to chaos
- lack of social support
- work-life imbalance
If you are starting to relate to some of these tendencies, Rough’s comment above may be directed to you. What can you do if you are starting to notice symptoms of burnout?
It is interesting to note that self-care is commonly touted as the antidote to burnout, but most of the contributors listed above point, at least partially, to external causes. Some organizations are beginning to take responsibility for their part by educating employees about burnout, assessing its prevalence in their organizations, and implementing changes in company culture to alleviate it.
But, that doesn't relieve the individual of responsibility. We may have a predisposition toward being a productivity monger, an imbalanced passion for our work, or an inability to set proper boundaries for ourselves. Even if the internal culture or leadership of our workplace is flawed, perhaps we are doing nothing to try to address or change it.
We may feel that we have little power to alleviate the external factors, but burnout is not inevitable. Research points to specific behaviors that have been shown to prevent overall burnout and reduce painful early symptoms.
In the next article, I’ll share some specific ways The Library can help you to address burnout before it causes irreversible damage.
Marcy Timblin, Public Relations and Marketing