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Burnout At Work: Recognizing The 3 Biggest Signs Of Burnout

There’s a lot of conversation happening in the business community around burnout and the impact on the well-being of employees. So, what is burnout and how can we recognize it in ourselves and in our team members? The World Health Organization defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It can also be described as a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job. Burnout can be broken down into three dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.

a man is sitting at his desk with his head resting on his arm, he looks tired and overwhelmed
  1. Exhaustion: Most of the time when we talk about job burnout, we are actually thinking about emotional exhaustion. This is that sense of fatigue, lack of energy, and “I don’t want to do this I really just want to take a nap”.

  2. Cynicism: Cynicism adds to emotional exhaustion. It is recognizing that you are mad at the source of emotional exhaustion. It’s a sense of depersonalization where you become cynical about the source of that extreme work-related stress where you think “ I do not want to even be a part of this anymore.” 

  3. Inefficacy: The third dimension is a sense of inefficacy. You just don’t feel capable, you do not feel confident to do this. So, it is not just the feeling of fatigue- it is actually where you start to engage in cognitive processes that are fighting against the source of that emotional exhaustion. 

The key question that a lot of people ask is feeling burnout normal? Should I just suck it up and fight through it? And the answer is absolutely not. It is important to pay attention to your mental health and think about why you are feeling burned out. I like to explain the importance of this with a story.

Peter McLeod was an acrobatic pilot for Red Bull for years. When I was growing up I used to go fishing in northern Ontario, Canada every year. Peter is the son of the outfitter where we stayed ever since I was little. When Peter was seventeen he was doing a practice run. His dad, the owner of the outfitter shop, invited us to watch Peter’s trial run. It was insane to watch, he was doing upside-down flyovers and it was absolutely unreal. After the experience, Peter landed and came back to talk with his dad. They went over every single detail of how the plane operated, from whether the noises sounded differently, to the seat adjustment, to reaching the top speed 0.1 seconds faster. It was incredible to hear the conversation. We jokingly asked, “What’s next? Can you come back and do this tomorrow”. Peter’s response was very clinical, “After doing that type of work with this machine, it’s going to take at least a week’s worth of maintenance.” 

The point is that the real work is not all the acrobatic flying, the real work is taking care of the machine. Your mind and body are a machine. Like this airplane, it has to handle a lot of stress and crazy events. If you don’t take care of the machine, it’s going to fall apart and you’re going to have a dangerous crash.

Think about what we put ourselves through on a daily basis and then reflect and ask yourself, “How am I doing right now?” which is the equivalent of being able to think, “This feels off…I feel a little bit more tired than usual… I didn’t feel like my best self in this specific circumstance.”

All of those are signals that are trying to tell you that something is a little bit off. And these are to some degree signals of burnout. Do you need to be paying attention to your work-life balance? How much is self-care a part of your normal weekly and daily rhythms? Are you currently under a heavy workload or in a new job or work environment?

After recognizing some of the symptoms of burnout, we will cover the causes and impact of burnout in the next article.

Click here for Part Two: The Causes And Impact Of Burnout

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Dr. Scott Dust

Scott Dust, Ph.D. is the Chief Research Officer at Cloverleaf, an HR-tech platform that facilitates coaching for everyone. Dr. Dust is also a Raymond E. Glos Associate Professor at the Farmer School of Business, Miami University. His research focuses on leadership and teams and has been published in over 30 peer-reviewed academic journals. Dr. Dust is also on the editorial review board of three journals, including the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Group and Organization Management, and the Journal of Social Psychology. He is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has a blog column at Psychology Today.