Paying Attention to Burnout

How to battle back from mental exhaustion and disengagement.

It's disturbing when you begin to hate something you love.

One day you wake, realizing that you feel differently about your work or organization. The progression to that point may have been subtle, even unnoticed. Yet the outcome is difficult to evade. This is exactly how I would describe my past struggle with burnout. You find that you longer feel energized by your work. You may feel angry, or listless. In fact, the thought of your role may bring a vision of running in the opposite direction.

Burnout has been discussed by experts as the antithesis of engagement. I agree. It is. It is the enemy. It can sap contributors and organizations alike. We must pay attention to the issues our team is dealing with — and for how long.

The antecedents of burnout are varied — and workload is just one of them. Pioneering work completed by social psychologist Christina Maslach revealed that burnout can be influenced by a number of key workplace elements (she discusses six), including insufficient rewards or acknowledgement, a lack of control over one's work, fairness, or a role that doesn't align with who we are. All could contribute to burnout — and they do. Every single day.

In today's quickly changing (demanding) workplaces, I'm concerned that the possibility of burnout is dangerously high. We don't talk of that possibility nearly enough and this leads to a host of problems. (Maslach mentions that we feel it is unprofessional to reveal this.) We likely lose just as many talented employees to burnout, as to the other more commonly accepted reasons to leave our employment, such as pay or a promotion.

Burnout can affect all levels and roles, in all sectors.

The problem remains that we often don't see or understand the signs — even in ourselves.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory, measures the elements that can contribute to the exhaustion, cynicism and a lack of perceived efficacy found with burnout. Originally observed among those in the human services sector, burnout can occur in all types of workplaces. Here are the telling signs:

Cynicism. An overwhelmingly negative feeling toward your work. You may feel that your role is useless or does not contribute to reaching valued goals.

Exhaustion. This can include both physical and mental exhaustion. You may feel depressed or tired. Concentration and focus may be affected.

Lack of perceived professional efficacy. This is the feeling that you no longer can do your job well. You may feel ineffective or incompetent.

We could stem burnout in a variety of ways. This requires both enlightenment and action. A few ideas for that:

Acknowledge the problem. Burnout hasn't gone away, as the "buzz" subsided — we just don't speak of it. (Engagement has stolen the show lately.) Share what you've been experiencing during an honest conversation. Discuss your concerns with your boss, mentor, colleague or coach. There is only one thing worse than feeling worn out — wading through burnout solo. Team leaders should be aware of the inherent sources of burnout in their respective industries and organizations. Leaders should consider situations such as a mismatch of skills and role, or a demanding change initiative. Don't assume that your workplace is immune. Ask how things are going. Don't blame individuals; our work lives must be sustainable.

Identify the possible source issue(s). Workload is not the sole cause of burnout. I've personally found that many situations — such as organizational uncertainly or a lack of visible progress — can also serve as equal culprits. Has there been a long-term issue at work? Is it wearing the team down? Be brutally honest about all of the elements of work life. What likely contributes to that overwhelming feeling of "it just doesn't matter anymore."

Seek balance. In the shorter term, it may be difficult to completely eliminate what's bugging you. However, you can nourish your psyche and bolster your reserves. Don't leave your vacation time on the table, find a new project that offers some measure of satisfaction, or recharge with a change in your physical work environment or routine. Overall, search for a positive counterbalance to what might be dragging you down. If you feel that a reasonable end isn't coming into sight, seek a change. Team leaders should attempt to build a positive, supportive social climate, which can stem burnout.

Be hopeful. Many of us have recovered quite successfully from burnout. It's not often simple (we have to focus on people and jobs), but parts of the solution can be "driven" by you. Take a moment to read their stories. (You can start here and here.)

Have you dealt with burnout? Has your organization addressed this problem? Share your experiences.

Marla Gottschalk, an industrial/organizational psychologist, is a senior consultant at Allied Talent.

(Image via alexsvirid/