Signs of Burnout and How to Prevent it and Recover.

Last week I covered talked about whether you should work overtime or not.  This week, let’s talk about the effects of persistent overtime – burnout.  What is burnout?  What are the symptoms, and if you’re burned out, what can you do to recover?

First, what is burnout?  According to the research performed by Dr Maslach and Dr. Leiter, burnout and its symptoms happen on three interrelated dimensions:

Exhaustion-Energy – You feel emotionally drained, mentally unwell and you’re physically getting sick.   You’re chronically tired, you can’t sleep, you start to forget things, or you can’t concentrate or focus your attention.  Physical symptoms include chest pains, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting, or headaches. 

These symptoms lead to more illnesses because your immune system becomes weakened.  You may also notice your appetite may be waning or that you’re feeling more anxious in general, and even feelings of depression and worthlessness.   Sometimes, the emotional exhaustion expresses itself in the form of tension and irritability, and sometimes even as anger if the tension and irritability persists. 

Cynicism-Involvement – You’re feeling isolated and ostracized by your co-workers and managers, leading to feelings of under-appreciation, which leads to less involvement at work.  You get less and less enjoyment from work, and you’re the first person out of the door.  Most of the work you get, you have a pretty pessimistic view of.  You’ve become the ‘glass is half-empty’ person.

You’re not wanting to hang out with your coworkers and you’re feeling isolated from the rest of your co-workers.  The thing is that this is all your doing.  No one is isolating you, you seem to be doing it to yourself.  You just don’t want to be around your co-workers.  The isolating behavior leads to more detachment from work and your job responsibilities.  Essentially, you just don’t give a shit anymore.

Inefficacy-Efficacy – You just don’t feel like you’re achieving your best anymore.  You feel apathetic to the everything and have a sense of hopelessness.  You feel a ‘What’s the point?’ when you go to work.  You become more moody, because you feel more ineffective, unimportant, and useless at work.

This leads to a negative spiral that starts to affect your productivity and performance.  Every day it just gets worse because you feel worse, and therefore you you perform worse.  Then you feel more worse because you performed worse, and the cycle continues again.

Is this you?  If this sounds like you, or you have some of these symptoms, you’re burned out, or you’re on the way to being burned out. 

So how do you prevent burnout ?

According to American Psychological Association, work stressors come in these forms:

  • Low salaries.
  • Excessive workloads.
  • Few opportunities for growth or advancement.
  • Work that isn’t engaging or challenging.
  • Lack of social support.
  • Not having enough control over job-related decisions.
  • Conflicting demands or unclear performance expectations.

Figure out which of these stressors at work are affecting you and try to manage the stressors that contribute to the job burnout. Once you’ve identified what’s fueling your feelings of job burnout, you can make a plan to address the issues:

  • Low salaries – What amount of money will make you feel better about the role?  Is it a realistic expectation?
  • Excessive workloads – Are you working overtime?  Talk to your manager about lightening the load.  Is that even an option?  Does the culture at your job promote work-life balance?  Are your salary and responsibilities compensating you enough for the excessive workload?
  • Few opportunities for growth or advancement – Can you find new things for yourself to do?  Does your manager actively encourage you to do so?  Find out.
  • Work that isn’t engaging or challenging –  Can you find projects in your organization that can stretch you a little bit?  If you’re bored and there are no new projects, can you create a new role for yourself in the organization if not, look for new roles outside the organization.
  • Lack of social support – Find mentors either inside or outside the organization that you can talk to and get feedback from.
  • Not having enough control over job-related decisions – be more assertive, attempting to take more control over job related decisions.  Express your feelings during meetings and to managers.  Good managers will gladly take your feedback in deciding what to do.
  • Conflicting demands or unclear performance expectations – talk to your manager about clarifying priorities and defining clear performance expectations.  Good managers will always help with determining priorities and will outline performance expectations.

There are several things that are in our control from the stressors above. It’s important to realize that these are all CHOICES that we have control of.   How?

  • Be assertive (not aggressive) – You are allowed to say ‘No’.  You have the right to express your opinion at all times, even if someone will disagree with you.  Have you worked 80hrs weeks 6 weeks in a row?  Say something!  Push back on your employers demands.
  • Set boundaries – Separate your work life and personal life.  Don’t let them meld together into one indistinguishable thing.  Disconnect from your devices and laptop.  Make sure to spend time on what you want to do and who you want to spend time with.  Don’t let work take this away from you.  When you’re on your death bed, you probably won’t say ‘Shit, I wish I spent more time at work.’
  • Don’t just suffer, speak out!  If you’re unhappy talk to your manager or mentor.  Make sure your voice is heard.  Ask for clarity if there’s confusion.
  • Last but not least, FIND A NEW JOB!  If all else fails, find a new job.   Don’t let a company exploit you.  Let them pay a premium for engineers to deal with their poor planning.  Eventually it will catch up with them.

And sometimes, things are just out of our control… deadlines and changes appear b/c of new priorities or unexpected events.  What can you do in those situations?

  • Develop Healthy Responses – there are still healthy responses that you can do in these situations.  Rather than stuffing your face with pizza and an energy drink, make healthy food choices.  Don’t forget about sleeping either.  Make sure to get in 7 – 8 hours of sleep a night.  Make extra effort to work out regularly.  Get to the gym if possible, walk more or just take the stairs instead of the elevator. 
  • Try meditation!  Study after study has been shown that mindfulness meditation has been effective in reducing stress!  Feeling stressed out, try the headspace app.  I’m personally a fan of TM every morning and evening for 15 minutes.
  • Take walking and breathing breaks!  Ever since using Spire (affiliate link), I’m more aware of times when my breathing is shortened because of stress, or I’ve just been sitting too long.  Spire does this by tracking your breath rate and movement.  When you’re stressed out, your breath becomes shorter and faster.  Spire will recognize this and alert you via a notification on your phone.  Been sitting too long?  Spire recognizes that as well, and will alert you that you need to go take a walk.  Spire has definitely helped me feel less stressed out at work during busy periods.
  • When the project is over TAKE A VACATION!  My god, we just don’t take enough vacations in this country.   You earned it, go!

Finally, if you’re burned out and you can’t seem to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  GO SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP!  There’s no shame in finding someone to speak to, especially if you’re depressed.  Seek help when you need it!