This feature first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Employee burnout is an increasingly common problem across all industries, but it's particularly problematic in the information technology (IT) industry. Working in a constantly evolving, fast-paced, and highly competitive business realm can be both exhilarating and exhausting. Eventually, however, impossible deadlines, unrealistic productivity targets, intense competition, and demanding work culture all take their toll, taking the sheen off those high salaries and super perks.
A recent survey by Blind, an anonymous workplace app for tech workers, found that 57.2 percent of nearly 11,500 respondents said they were experiencing job burnout. Credit Karma and Netflix employees, respectively, reported the highest (70.7 percent) and lowest (38.9 percent) rates. Even Silicon Valley stalwarts, such as Amazon, Apple, and Google have high employee burnout rates.
What exactly is burnout? According to www.helpguide.org, burnout is an undeniable sign that something important in your life is not working. It is a state of helplessness characterized by severe emotional and physical fatigue, lack of motivation and interest, cynicism, and hopelessness. Burnout results from severe and chronic stress that builds up over a length of time.
According to the Mayo Clinic, research indicates that job-specific factors alone are not always responsible for employees feeling burned out. For a number of reasons, not everyone has the same tolerance levels. Priorities, outlook, temperament, and lifestyle all influence your responses.
Common reasons for burnout
Burnout doesn't result from work-related factors alone. A survey conducted by Kronos Inc. and Future Workplace asked participants to name key causes of burnout:
- 41 percent cited unfair compensation
- 32 percent cited mandatory overtime hours
- 32 percent cited unrealistic workloads
- Other leading causes were apathetic management and unpleasant work culture
Let's pick through some of the factors that contribute to burnout. If any of this sounds familiar, then you may be at risk of burning out:
Excessively Demanding Job: Having to shoulder too many responsibilities day after day can result in prolonged exhaustion and anxiety. Constant stress can overwhelm, making you feel mentally drained and helpless.
Too much stress every now and then is not the same as relentless pressure. Most employees experience high-pressure days occasionally when they have far too much to deliver within a short time, but don't feel out of control because they know they'll manage.
It is unmanageable workload over long periods that can affect focus and performance, leading to loss of confidence and a feeling of hopelessness. One may feel emotionally drained, dejected, or lost.
Constant Feeling of Urgency: Most workplaces weren't always like this. Before the advent of smartphones and the internet, it was normal to leave work behind when you left the office at the end of the day. Evenings were for family, friends, and yourself. Nowadays, many people's office is a smartphone that follows them home — and everywhere else they go.
Lack of Role Clarity: Quite often, employees are not clear as to what is expected of them because responsibilities and goals are not clearly defined. Unclear job expectations exert a cost on personnel and the organization. In the absence of clear scope and objectives, people have to spend time finding out what they're supposed to do and how their role aligns with business goals.
No Reward for a Job Well-Done: Many companies recognize excellence in various ways and offer small (or large) incentives to workers whose performance consistently exceeds expectations. When there are never any welcome surprises to interrupt the grind, however, and good employees feel their work is taken for granted, resentment and dissatisfaction can eat away at well-being.
Preferential Treatment: Some workers have a colleague who has fewer responsibilities and less work, but earns an equivalent salary. Sometimes such underperformers get bonuses or promotions because they kowtow to management. Is it worth working in such a department or company? Unfair treatment, if persistent, can trigger burnout.
Other dangerous form of preferential treatment include biased or prejudiced attitudes from coworkers or supervisors, and unfair company policies, or policies that are only selectively enforced.
Dull, Repetitive, or Inadequately Challenging Work: A boring job can make it hard for employees to focus. Spending all day on monotonous work is likely to leave workers with no sense of satisfaction or fulfillment. It can weaken their sense of self-worth.
Disorganized or Unpleasant Workplace: Workplace factors such as chaos or lack of civility can also have an impact. While some employees function well in chaotic environments, many find chaos enervating.
The overall demeanor of colleagues and managers can also make a difference. No office is completely free from disagreeable people, and everyone experiences the occasional interaction with a snarky co-worker or boss. Dealing with a prejudiced boss, however — or one who has a habit of micromanaging — or being confronted with rude officemates day in and day out, can be distressing.
Lifestyle: Lifestyle factors, such as lack of free time, too many responsibilities at work and home, and inadequate sleep can contribute to burnout. Over time, long days at work, with barely any time to relax, meet friends, and get some entertainment, can take a toll on your mental and emotional state.
Personality: Disposition influences our response to circumstances and events, whether at work, home, or elsewhere. Your priorities, approach to life, and how you look at situations all make a difference. Not everyone handles stress in the same way.
Pessimists, for example, can be at risk because they're inclined to expect negative outcomes. High-achieving types can also be vulnerable because they put too much pressure on themselves to excel. Similarly, if you're the kind who wants to do everything yourself because you fear you would lose control, or a perfectionist who pushes too hard, then you could be taking the road to burnout.
Burnout often sneaks up on you, slowly. All too often, people miss early signs. The can include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Lingering fatigue
- Frequent headaches
- Stomach upsets and colds
- Inadequate sleep
- Changes in appetite
- Poor concentration
- Negative feelings (including insecurity)
- Loss of confidence
- Sense of being overcome
- Loss of motivation
You could be inching toward burnout if you've developed a tendency to avoid going to work or taking up responsibilities. You could also be in danger if you tend to withdraw from colleagues and friends, or if you frequently turn to comfort food, alcohol, or drugs. An increased inclination to snap at others is also a possible sign.
Acute exhaustion, physical and mental, is a common sign of burnout. You feel so tired that even getting out of bed seems impossible, let alone the thought of taking a shower and going to work. Feelings of emptiness, cynicism, uselessness, and indifference prevail, making it hard to do anything at all.
All of these things can push you to the brink of physical collapse. This makes it all the more important that you save yourself from getting to that point, or that you summon all your strength to pick yourself up if you feel that you're already there.
Ways to prevent burnout
While burnout is not irremediable, recovery is far more challenging and protracted than prevention. In order to prevent burnout, it's necessary to recognize and address symptoms before they worsen. Being proactive and taking charge of your situation is key. Don't wait until you're so exhausted that you can't bring yourself to do anything at all.
If you don't like your role, if you aren't happy with your boss and/or co-workers, or if your work environment is a consistent source of stress, then the best option is to look for another job. Finding a suitable alternative can take time. Until then, try to improve your situation at work.
Speak to your supervisor or line manager and see whether responsibilities can be more clearly defined and goals set. Say no to requests that you take on additional responsibilities. If you are repeatedly called upon to handle additional work, then focusing on existing tasks becomes difficult and performance could suffer.
If your job is totally uninteresting, then try asking for more stimulating tasks, a different role, or a transfer to another department. Another option if you can't change jobs immediately is to look at your work anew and identify positives, such as benefits that customers derive from your work.
How you relate to your career also makes a difference. For some, professional or material success is everything. Such people are more susceptible to burnout. Find other interesting things to do. Hobbies or self-improvement goals — maybe you feel like you should read more books — can help you fashion a life outside work.
Don't waste all your waking hours thinking of work and the office. Focus on family, creative pursuits, friends, community work, outdoor activity — whatever is meaningful and fulfilling. Allot some time each day for meditation, or yoga, or whatever else you find deeply relaxing. Mindfulness will help you focus on the present and develop the ability to keep calm amidst chaos and pressure.
Exercise is a potent remedy for stress and despondency. Even 15 or 20 minutes of daily exercise can improve blood circulation, increase energy, and lift your morale. Try jogging, cycling, walking, rhythmic exercise, or whatever suits you. Any exercise that activates every limb and muscle is good.
Some companies are pursuing solutions to deal with the problem. These range from quiet rooms for meditation and gyms or gym memberships, to flexible scheduling, counseling, and improved management culture.
Diet is also important. While the temptation to turn to comfort food is strongest during times of severe stress, refined carbs, sugar, saturated fat, chemicals, alcohol, tobacco and excess caffeine all tend to reduce energy and dampen one's mood over the long term.
Spend less time on your smartphone once you get home. Color, it's believed, appeals to the human brain. This could be one reason why we keep looking at our phone screens. According to www.health24.com, the Centre for Humane Technology recommends changing the color scheme to black and white or grayscale mode so that you reach for your phone less often. Disconnecting will help take your mind off work.
Ways to cope with burnout
If you're already in the throes (or even the aftermath) of burnout, be reassured that your situation isn't completely hopeless. People have more control over thoughts and emotions than they are often conscious of. What you need to do is to focus on ways to harness that power.
If you experience frequent physical discomfort, consult your doctor at the earliest possible juncture. If you aren't in immediate pain, then there are other, milder ways to begin your recovery.
One of the best recovery options is to take a break, to disconnect completely from work for a while. Taking a vacation or going on sick leave can help not just because you really need rest, but because you need time and space to reflect, recover, and ask yourself what is most important in your life. (If leave is not an option, then you may need to quit your job and take on something less stressful.)
Connect with people you trust, such as close friends and family, as well as reliable coworkers. Don't expect anyone to come up with a surefire solution. Just speaking with someone who is a good listener, however, and can keep things in confidence, can help you get perspective. Avoid gossips and other negative people. They will most likely only make you feel worse.
Knowing when to quit your job or change careers
In certain conditions and circumstances, leaving your job — even if you don't have another one in hand — may be your best (or only) option. When you've tried to cope but exhaustion or other symptoms are so severe that it becomes difficult to function at all, it's probably time to quit your job altogether. Staying put won't change your personal circumstances and could do lasting damage to your career.
If you're on the verge of a physical breakdown and your employer doesn't grant leave, then you may have no other option but to simply give notice and move on.
Burnout is not the end of your productive life. Once you've recovered, find a new job and give it your best — but not your all. Make free time a priority. It's crucial to maintain a balance between work and life. When you are at work, try to get interesting assignments and take advantage of opportunities to gain new skills and knowledge.
Working toward making yourself less vulnerable to stress is important. Make it a point to include exercise and relaxation in your daily routine. Devote some time every week to that which is meaningful and enjoyable.