By Nancy Burger, Workplace Communications Strategist
Burnout is real - we have to stop blaming ourselves for it!
Breathe, meditate, take a break, set boundaries, just say no. While these responses may alleviate some of the symptoms of burnout, they are merely band-aids for a much bigger problem. To effectively address burnout, we first have to stop seeing it as the result of a personal lack of resilience or willpower and instead see it for what it is: a complex, systemic problem that is bigger than ourselves.
What is burnout, and how bad is it really?
According to the World Health Organization, burnout is “a syndrome resulting from workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It’s characterized by three dimensions: 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.”
Burnout has increased since the pandemic and shows no signs of significant decrease. Take a look at these alarming statistics from 2022:
89% of workers have experienced burnout within the past year
77% of employees have experienced feelings of burnout at their current job
21% of workers say their company does not offer any program to help alleviate burnout
What causes burnout?
A recent Gallup survey highlighted the top five reasons for burnout:
unfair treatment at work
lack of role clarity
lack of communication and support
unreasonable time pressure
Do any of these sound familiar to you? Maybe you’ve felt wronged or overlooked by your supervisor and can’t help but silently agonize when you’re supposed to be relaxing on the weekend. Or perhaps you’ve been feeling confused about whether or not you’re executing a new task correctly because you’re getting no feedback. Whatever the reason, know this: it’s not you.
According to Anna Katharina Schaffner Ph.D., “Burnout is a complex systemic crisis that requires a complex systemic response.” And blaming ourselves may only make it worse. Like the Gallup survey suggests, burnout is not something that is caused by a weakness in the employee but a weakness in the system.
But is there something we can do to protect ourselves from burnout? Here are some steps you can take:
1. Accept that burnout is a structural and cultural problem. When faced with psychological distress, it helps to understand the root cause. The Gallup data shows that none of the reported causes of burnout have to do with the employee. Meanwhile, societal pressures can trigger feelings of shame or laziness if we don’t dedicate enough time to work. The sooner we challenge these toxic cultural beliefs, the sooner we free ourselves from the unnecessary shame burnout can bring.
2. Accept what we can and cannot control.
Try running an audit on your stressors at work — specific people, deadlines, workload, time pressure, or systems. Then, create a list of stressors you can control and those that you cannot. Identifying what factors are within our control can allow us to better focus our limited energy and put forth our best efforts to nurture our lives outside of the workplace.
3. Deepen your self-knowledge.
According to Psychology Today, by being mindful of what triggers our burnout symptoms and how they affect our day-to-day lives, we can manage our patterns and avoid those that don’t serve us. Dr. Schaffner suggests that self-awareness can support this process, and suggests consulting a licensed therapist or professional coach or mentor for guidance. By challenging our internalized beliefs about burnout, we can get to know ourselves better instead of defaulting to self-blame.
The raised awareness regarding burnout is being addressed through increased research by occupational psychologists on how organizations can prevent it. And some organizations are listening — by offering employees increased time off, childcare, flexible hours, and remote options. If the alarming rates of employee burnout are to decrease, organizations need to take a proactive approach.