“I’m so done…” or “I don’t even care anymore …” Whether you’ve uttered those words yourself (in your mind, or to your manager), or heard them from an employee, chances are, you’ve heard the telltale catchphrase of job burnout.
By definition, burnout is the opposite of engagement. It generally occurs as a result of chronic stress, manifesting itself as physical and mental exhaustion. Burnout is characterized by a lack of motivation, an increasingly negative outlook and an overall disinterest in work.
While job-related stress and, ultimately, burnout is not exclusive to any job or industry, it is particularly common in the public sector – and especially in leaner economic times. With tighter budgets, employees are often asked to handle more than their normal workload as a result of staffing reductions. Working longer hours, managing larger caseloads and, in many cases, never clearing the “in-box” can create feelings of overwhelm and unrelenting stress.
Because of the intense nature of their work, emergency responders – firefighters, police officers, paramedics, for example – are especially prone to burnout, but it is not inevitable part of the job. Many departments across the country offer excellent resources designed specifically to help them cope with the unique challenges that come with their jobs.
Stress versus burnout
A “healthy” amount of stress can be good: it can motivate and energize. After all, a little boost of adrenaline at work can be just what we need to get us through an important presentation or a looming deadline. But there is a fine line that separates healthy stress from unhealthy stress.
Bearing in mind that everyone has with varying capacities for handling stress, in general, the body and mind can handle short bursts of stress, followed by longer periods of recovery. As that balance shifts, and the periods of stress become longer and the time to recover becomes shorter, the risk for burnout increases.
At its most basic, stress affects people on a more physical level, while burnout has a more emotional impact. People simply check out and become detached.
While the most obvious source of stress is having an unmanageable workload, other job-related frustrations can also contribute to burnout. Many of these circle back to disengagement. Burnout is also reported by employees who don’t receive positive recognition by their supervisors and who don’t feel like they have much control over their work.
5 Ways to Beat Burnout
If you think you might be experiencing burnout, don’t panic! While it could signal time for a career change, the following strategies may put you back on more solid footing in your current position:
Talk to your manager: He or she may not be aware of your workload, or your feelings. While their hands may be tied, at least they will be aware of your situation. Together, you might be able to brainstorm possible solutions and/or prioritize your workload.
Seek social support: Don’t isolate yourself in your cubby, regardless of your workload. Five minutes at the water cooler or in the break room will help you recharge as you connect with your colleagues. Whether you commiserate over your workload or the weather, or celebrate last nights’ basketball game victory, these types of connections are essential to your morale.
Maintain work-life balance: One of the easiest things to do when you feel overworked is to work more. But there comes a time when that switch flips to counterproductive. Spending time with your family and friends is the best way to recharge your emotional battery.
Take care of yourself: Likewise, when you are stressed, it’s easy to skimp on meals, exercise and sleep – or to grab a cigarette even though you quit three years ago. Maintaining healthy habits is the best way to prevent, manage and beat stress and, ultimately, burnout.
Reflect and Reevaluate: Is this a temporary situation that will resolve in time? Think about what is at the root of the burnout, and whether it may be time to start thinking about making a change. Has the job – or have you – changed? If so, perhaps it is time to start thinking about the next phase. If not, take a deep breath, regroup and ride out the storm. Not sure? Set a soft deadline in your mind – say three months from now – and reevaluate the situation then.