The default view on success at work is that one only gets there by going ‘above and beyond’. That’s because there’s an assumption that doing so is ultimately linked to better rewards, more recognition, higher income and greater career success.
However, although hard work is definitely an admirable quality to possess and can help you progress in your career, it’s not the complete equation.
Human beings aren’t built to continuously operate at high speeds for prolonged periods of time (TBH, not even computers can achieve this). Instead, we perform the best when we rhythmically flow between a state of exerting and renewing energy — physically, mentally and emotionally.
Unfortunately, this state of equilibrium isn’t always allowed in the corporate world. An employee rocking up late to their job is viewed as lazy behaviour. Missing deadlines is regarded as a poor work ethic. The need for downtime is viewed as a weakness. Not working outside of hours is seen as uncommitted. And yet, what many don’t realise is that these basic needs can actually be signs of something known as ‘career burnout’.
What is career burnout?
We’ve all heard of the phenomenon – and have possibly experienced it – but what does career burnout actually entail?
While the term ‘burnout’ is yet to be classed as a medical condition, the World Health Organization recently updated the definition as a “syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.
Essentially, it refers to feeling emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted by work and everything it encompasses.
“A large part of career burnout stems from constantly feeling stressed or pressured in their role, which may lead to a sense of detachment, cognitive fatigue and reduced performance,” Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno explained over email.
You’ll feel exhausted, overwhelmed, irritable, fatigued and just fed up. And if you continue to persist like a sensible and committed worker “should”, it can escalate into a range of negative consequences that can impact not only your work relationships but your personal ones, too.
Regardless of age or occupation, career burnout can affect anyone at any stage of their employment. According to a study conducted by employment marketplace SEEK, it’s a highly prevalent issue for Aussie workers, with 67 per cent of employees reporting they felt burnt out, and a further 36 per cent leaving a role because of it.
But despite it being so common – and now widely recognised – there’s still a certain stigma that surrounds career burnout: many people feel ashamed for needing occupational help or requesting time off for investing in self-care. Those with symptoms fear that taking time away from work can appear somewhat “weak” and the only way to overcome it is to work harder.
How do you identify career burnout?
People show signs of burnout in different ways, making it difficult to identify if you or someone else is experiencing it.
It’s also important to note that just because things aren’t busy at work that the possibility of burnout is off the agenda. Stress in someone’s personal life can easily carry into their professional life. Or, an individual may experience ‘habitual burnout’, where stress is so embedded into their lives that they endure ongoing symptoms and are unable to distinguish it from ‘normal life’.
While it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, there are a few common signs to look out for — in yourself and others:
Physical symptoms of burnout
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of appetite or change in eating habits
- Gut issues
- Energy depletion or exhaustion
Mental symptoms of burnout
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Increased absenteeism or tardiness
- Constant anxiety and worry
Emotional symptoms of burnout
- Increased irritability
- Feelings of negativity or cynicism
- Heightened sensitivity
Is this experience avoidable?
First and foremost, burnout and career progression should not operate conjointly. Unfortunately, this is often the case, as we unintentionally neglect our basic needs like sleep, exercise and social connections when we’re focused on working harder to achieve.
“Burnout is real, especially for people who place value on doing a great job in many domains of their life,” explained SEEK’s resident psychologist Sabina Read. “When we’re eager to achieve a career goal, please others or prove our worth, we can be more susceptible to disregarding the warning signs of burnout.”
The good news is that burnout is avoidable when progressing in your career — but it’s not easy to do.
“In many cases, it can be tricky to completely avoid, especially when you can’t control work culture or the weight and timing of expectations,” Sokarno said. “It usually occurs when there is a mismatch between your own values and the values of your workplace, or when you have too much workload or responsibility.”
So, the key to avoiding career burnout is to take appropriate steps towards making suitable changes. In other words, learning to work differently.
“Bring honesty and self-compassion as well as a sense of reasonable accountability,” Read expressed. “It’s important to seek support from people you trust at home and work.”
Additionally, the onus of preventing workplace burnout falls on employers as much as employees. Companies need to implement policies and strategies that support their workers. So, if that means you have to start searching for a new role at a business that will provide you with better benefits and the support you need to improve in all aspects of your life, then don’t be afraid to take that leap.
“Many people view changing roles while progressing in their careers to be a backwards step but in many cases, it can be the step forward you need, especially if it means supporting your mental health,” Sokarno added.
Simple ways you can avoid career burnout
Here are some simple things you can do when you feel like you’re falling prey to career burnout.
Identify the source
Where is your stress coming from? Are you overworked? Are you micromanaged and have little to no autonomy? Is there a lack of reward, recognition and fairness? Is it poor work relationships? Do your values not align with your organisation’s culture?
“Once you have an idea of your ‘stressor’, work out which ones you’re in control of and which are out of your hands,” Read said. “Focus on those in your control because when these are ignored, they can quickly snowball to contribute to burnout.”
Don’t underestimate the value of having a support network — at work and outside of it — that you can lean on when times are tough.
“You don’t have to suffer in silence, nor are you alone in your feelings,” Sokarno reminded. “Don’t be afraid to reach out to those close to you to discuss how you’re feeling. If you’re comfortable doing so, reach out to your boss or superior and explain how you’re currently feeling symptoms of burnout in your role.”
Venting to someone about your thoughts and feelings can also take off some of the pressure. Find a stress buddy, a coworker who may be similarly stressed or just someone you feel safe and comfortable with.
Additionally, never be too afraid to reach out to a health professional who will be able to guide you through any mental health concerns. You can try Lifeline or Beyond Blue, which both provide free over-the-phone counselling with trained experts or Lysn, which provides access to psychologists via video chat.
Set work-life boundaries
You’ve heard it before, but creating work-life balance really is the most important thing you need to do — and something remote workers especially need to be reminded of. If you’re working from home, strictly log off at the end of the workday; confine your work to a specific area instead of spreading it out across the kitchen or bedroom and say no to job requests when you’re already overloaded. And don’t forget to schedule time for activities you enjoy before or after you clock off.
“Consciously participating in activities that you enjoy can help enhance your well-being and also help in providing greater separation from all things work,” Read shared. “Above all, find ways to prioritise and action joy and play every day.”
Learn to say ‘no’ (within reasonable measures)
Without being disrespectful or difficult, keep in mind that it’s totally A-OK to say no to things that are not necessarily part of your job or go beyond your limits.
“Commit to saying ‘no’ to things that may push you over the limit or find an alternative solution that will help ease the pressure off you,” Read said.
Push to do more of what you’re good at and what’s within your capacity, and less of what drains you. Remember: the number of hours you work is not a direct reflection of your current and future success.
Switch off your devices
If you feel like you’ve reached your limits, minimising the amount of time you spend on phones, computers, tablets, and any other electronic devices can be helpful for avoiding burnout,
“Be mindful of the time spent on mindless scrolling and acknowledge that other behavioural choices will help the mind and body to re-calibrate better than becoming attached to your devices,” Read advised.
Step outdoors for a walk, meditate, join a fitness class, try cooking a new dish, attempt a DIY project, have a go at a creative hobby, catch up with a friend — there’s an endless amount of things you can do that don’t involve digital screens.
Take regular breaks
Sure, booking a holiday to travel around Europe sounds great, but unfortunately, it isn’t the most realistic option for many people.
Instead, book a staycation over a long weekend. Look ahead at your calendar and note when public holidays fall throughout the year, as you can use these periods to your advantage to take longer breaks without using up extra leave.
Furthermore, don’t underestimate the power of daily micro-breaks. Taking short five or ten-minute breaks throughout the workday is an effective energy management strategy that can help you stay focused and productive. It can be as simple as stretching or meditating at your desk, walking up and down the stairs, practising deep breathing or treating yourself to a healthy snack.
Prioritise the ‘simple’ things
Your sleep, diet and exercise routine can have a profound impact on your mental and physical well-being, but these things can often fall by the wayside when you’re stressed. Read suggested asking yourself, “If you had to pen a best-selling self-help guide, what would your top five tips be?’ Now, find ways to honour these tips because no one knows what you need better than you do.”
Sokarno also encouraged making time (even if you have to jot it into your calendar) for these simple activities because they will ultimately bring you joy and make it easier to balance your physical and mental health.
So, can you progress in your career in a healthy way?
A big. Fat. Yes.
Progressing in your career without burning out is all about working smarter, not harder. If you notice any of the above burnout symptoms creeping into your life, accept the situation, address it as soon as possible and don’t be afraid to reach out to start a conversation with someone you trust.
There’s only so much you can do in your waking hours, so it’s crucial you acknowledge that you can’t do everything — all while meeting (or going above and beyond) everyone’s expectations.
“Remind yourself of the importance of valuing who you are outside of work and finding a balance with the stresses that come with your chosen career,” Read emphasised.
To succeed in your career and every other aspect of your life, focus on your happiness before you focus on productivity, nurture your body with good food and gentle movement, prioritise your time away from work and have confidence in saying no. After all, if success comes at the cost of your well-being, it’s not worth it.
If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health problems, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. You can also seek professional medical help from your local GP, who will be able to guide you in the right direction.
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