Burnout is real and here's how to handle it, according to experts

Spotting the insidious causes of this work-related syndrome.

Spotting the insidious causes of this work-related syndrome

Canadians have seen their stress levels increase since the onset of the pandemic, and experts worry there could be long-term health consequences as a result. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

We've all felt it, even if we didn't know exactly what it was. Your work/life balance becomes totally out of whack, you find your to-do list is barely completed (if at all) and you get the sensation that you're mentally and physically "hanging on by a thread". You may have described your state as "burnout", but you didn't have "burnout", you were more likely just really tired, right? Wrong. Burnout has increasingly become a more distinct and dire concept and now, thanks to the World Health Organization (WHO), it's considered a legitimate syndrome.

So, what is it?

In its International Classification of Diseases handbook the WHO defines burnout as "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." It then goes on to characterize burnout in three ways, "1) feelings of energy depletion of exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy." The definition also makes it clear that burnout is specific to an "occupational context", rather than other areas of life, and that it's a separate condition from adjustment disorder, mood disorders, anxiety/fear disorders and other stress-related conditions. 

Researchers have been studying the concept of burnout more closely over the past four decades. The WHO's particular definition not only helps people understand what burnout is, but also raises greater awareness of its severity, hopefully paving the way for greater access to help dealing with it. We reached out to some experts for more on what causes burnout and what you can do if you find yourself experiencing it.

What work situations can cause burnout?

Burnout is specifically work-related, but that's still a broad field — an infinite number of occupational dynamics could come into play. Mark Franklin, practice leader of CareerCycles and co-founder of OneLifeTools, says that symptoms could arise from things like: "Disliking your work consistently, for example, because you have little or no control over your work." But even if you have an autonomous position, burnout can be brought on by poor work relationships, either with employers, employees or co-workers. A lack of positive relationships can cause burnout too. Franklin lists "Social isolation and not being able to communicate with supportive allies" as a key contributing factor. Another possible cause of burnout is workload or or "extreme activity, working too long or too many days in a row," according to Franklin. 

While there are many more specific situations that can lead to burnout, Nicole McCance, clinical psychologist and owner of Toronto Neurofeedback, puts it into the general perspective of work/life balance, "Burn out can happen when the amount of time working, thinking about work and work pressure, exceeds the amount of time relaxing, unwinding and filling your cup with the things you love."

Signs of burnout

Spotting the incoming signs of the syndrome (in ourselves and others) can be a little tricky since so many of the situations can cause fatigue and frustration that aren't necessarily burnout. It's important to pay attention to the severity and consistency of the symptoms. McCance highlights symptoms such as a chronic feeling of exhaustion and being depleted, even after typically replenishing activities, such as a good night's sleep. She also cites "brain fog (difficulty concentrating), and trouble making decisions" as strong indications of burnout. Franklin adds "being cynical at work, using food drugs or alcohol to feel better, bad sleep" and becoming "easily irritable or impatient" as other telling signs. According to the classification of burnout, the symptoms have to be in direct conjunction with a work-related cause to be considered burnout-related and not part of another issue. 

Managing burnout

If you're experiencing burnout, the first thing to do is to seek help so that you're not dealing with it on your own. "See your doctor to rule out any organic causes related to your exhaustion," says McCance. "Your doctor will likely check your iron levels, vitamin D and vitamin B." You might need more than just medical expertise though, and Franklin suggests, "If you're functioning but worried you're going to slide into a worse situation, make an appointment with a career professional. They can help you clarify what you like and dislike, what strengths you want to use, and then generate possibilities to change things at work, or possibly change your work."

When it comes to what you can control by yourself, this is definitely the time to tip the work/life balance into your favour. Since burnout is the result of work rigors overwhelming you, it's crucial to put yourself first in all facets of your life. To cut down on too many incoming tasks at work, McCance suggests you "try delegating some tasks at work", to help lighten the load while still getting stuff done. At home, she says, "Practice saying no to social events or family obligations and commit to getting eight hours sleep," to attempt to quickly make space and time for recuperation you need.

Avoiding burnout altogether 

The best remedy is to stop this chronic syndrome before it starts by creating an environment where it can't thrive. Firstly, to make sure you're on the right path, Franklin again suggests investing in professional guidance: "Go to a career professional for a career clarification process, to learn about your deeper desires, signature strengths and how you can create work that replenishes instead of depletes you." He says, "As the world and tech change, investing in yourself with professional development avoids obsolescence [and figuring out] ways of doing more of what you want and less of what you don't want" can ultimately help avoid oncoming burnout.

On a more micro level, no matter what your position, McCance says, "Know your limit." For some, "their limit is when they find themselves easily agitated at home. When they notice this", McCance explains, "they know that they need to slow down, get more rest and take more breaks. It's good to know what your limit is and how you will know to unplug and relax for a while until you feel recharged."

Risky business

We all seem to be more at risk for burnout now than ever before. Always plugged in, with rising technology disrupting the workforce, trending us more toward career changes, shift work, freelancing and gig economies — modern jobs make us ripe for it. A viral article earlier this year dubbed millennials the "burnout generation". An overarching cultural pressure to succeed professionally, even at the expense of our physical and mental health, can distort our identities. Burnout can be more difficult for people of colour too. Experts on the subject of burnout advise that we stay vigilant of its insidious causes, both on a personal and social level, and try shift our work paradigms to a more healthy and balanced model.