Everything You Need to Know About Burnout at Work

Burnout is a big problem for the working world. But what is it, why is it so common, and what can you do to prevent it in yourself and your employees?

a woman sitting at a desk with her hands on her head

The Calm Team

9 min read

Burnout is something we’ve all either already experienced or will experience one day. It’s the bone-deep exhaustion at the thought of work and the Sunday-night dread leading to Monday-morning blues.

But it really shouldn’t be that way.

If you or your employees are repeatedly getting burned out, it’s time to pay attention. Burnout acts as a signal to employees and employers: it highlights that something needs to change. Pronto.

It could be about fundamental work process flaws, weak feedback or communication loops, or unrealistic expectations being set. Or it could simply be that some people don’t know when to—or whether they can—slow down and stop.

By recognizing the signs and causes of burnout, you’ll be better able to spot it in yourself, your colleagues, and your teams. And, most importantly, you’ll be able to take preventive action.

What is burnout and why is it concerning?

Burnout is a psychological response to chronic work stress, and it’s characterized by feelings of exhaustion. According to the World Health Organization, there are three dimensions to burnout:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to, one’s job
  • A sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

Essentially, burnout reduces your ability—and, notably, your desire—to do your job. People experiencing burnout are less productive, less creative, and more likely to be disengaged and to fall into absenteeism.

Burnout isn’t just depression by another name. Studies find a clear distinction between the two, though they’re not mutually exclusive. Burnout is work-focused and results in resentment directed outward toward the workplace or job, rather than inward.

But people suffering from burnout may exhibit signs of depression, and they may feel as though their perceived work struggles reflect on their personal capabilities and success. The result: they lose interest in things they’d otherwise enjoy.

Stress vs. burnout: are they the same thing?

Not quite. Burnout isn’t high-intensity like stress; it’s closer to feeling depleted—the joy is sucked out of work and personal time. So while burnout results from chronic, long-lasting work stress, it has significantly different markers and needs a different form of care and attention.

Causes of burnout

Lots of things can lead to burnout. Some of the more common paths to burnout are the following:

  • Unclear job expectations or moving targets
  • A conveyor belt of work with no sense of achievement
  • Unhealthy workplace dynamics, such as perceived unfairness, bullying, discrimination, or a lack of opportunity
  • Lack of support or recognition
  • Work-life imbalance
  • Monotonous work
  • Lack of mental wellness practices: insufficient sleep, breaks, diet, exercise, etc.

Signs and symptoms of burnout

Burnout can manifest in many ways, some more obvious than others.

You might be experiencing burnout if you…

…become increasingly cynical about or critical of your workplace or job

…feel listless or unmotivated in your work

…no longer put effort into your work, instead just going through the motions

…constantly long for the weekend, even early in the week

…feel overwhelmingly tired, deep down, for no obvious reason

…fail to get any satisfaction from achievements

…find yourself leaning on unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as compulsive eating or drinking, to fill the gap

To read more about what burnout symptoms can look like in others, check out our blog post 5 Subtle Employee Burnout Signs You Could Be Overlooking. (It’s worth a read even if you’re not in HR or a manager—the signs will be relevant to your friends and colleagues too!).

Burnout when working remotely

It may seem counterintuitive that working remotely can lead to burnout. After all, you’ve got the freedom to work from home in your old sweatpants. But the fact is, it can be very easy to get burned out when working from home if you’re not diligent about keeping a separation between your work and home lives.

Working from home requires a different sort of self-discipline and mental strength—without the natural end of the office workday signaled by a collective shutting down of computers and heading for the door, you may find yourself developing unhealthy work habits and insufficient boundaries.

We wrote about it in our blog post about practical strategies for building work-from-home resilience.

On an organizational level, you’ll need to consider the mental wellness of your remote workers—especially as offices begin to reopen and your workforce becomes a mix of remote workers and commuters. You can read this blog post, How to Consider Employee Mental Well-Being As You Return (Or Don’t Return) to the Office, for a deeper look at managing employees’ needs and tips on how to offer support to a returning, mixed, or fully remote workforce.

Talking to your boss about burnout

If you’ve determined that you’re burned out and really need some help in turning things around, you’re going to need to talk to your boss. The prospect can be intimidating. Here are some small tips on how to have this conversation.

Don’t be rushed; book a proper catch-up

This isn’t a conversation you’ll want to toss out as an afterthought or over the water cooler. Be sure to set aside some time for a proper meeting with your manager so you’ll both have the time to discuss the issue and find workable solutions.

Be honest

The next, and perhaps scariest, step is to be upfront about your struggle with burnout. If you feel like you have—or will soon have—burnout, tell your manager and be clear about why you think it’s happening.

Help them help you

Go armed with suggestions for improvements and immediate next steps. Your manager might not know exactly what they can do to help in the immediate future or in the long term. Outlining what will help you the most will be a big help.

Burnout causes and symptoms differ from person to person, so it’s unsurprising that the cure will too. Sit down with your manager and discuss some ways of moderating your workload, switching up your tasks, or altering your work hours.

Don’t be afraid to ask for time off work

Full disclaimer here: taking time off work might not always be possible. But if your mental health and your work are suffering and you believe a break is just what the doctor ordered, then this is the time to speak up about it.

Chasing away (and preventing) burnout

There are several schools of thought about how to prevent and reverse burnout. But everyone agrees that you’ll know you’re heading in the right direction when you experience more energy, greater engagement, and better performance at work.

So, how can you get yourself or your team to that point?

On a personal level

Try to regain perspective. Big responsibilities and a heavy workload can lead to your feeling crushed. If you find yourself becoming listless at the thought of climbing a seemingly insurmountable mountain, take time out to step back mentally.

Then you can take stock of what needs to be done and split things into manageable, less intimidating tasks.

Learn to say “no” constructively. Your boss or colleagues won’t know you’re approaching the breaking point if you don’t say so. It’s not a bad thing to decline work that you can’t fit into your schedule—and by doing so early, you can manage expectations and keep yourself from drowning.

These don’t have to be difficult conversations. The goal is constructive assertiveness rather than negative aggression.

Remember to take breaks. This can’t be emphasized enough. Even with a deadline bearing down on you, take regular breaks to reset, stretch, get a coffee, or do a meditation or breathing session. (We have some great meditation sessions in the Calm app—check them out!)

It may seem counterintuitive, but these little lulls act like commas in your day, and they help to dispel any tensions that are building up.

Manage your expectations of yourself. Expecting the same output from yourself every day regardless of external factors or disruptions is unreasonable and a recipe for burnout.

Be gentle with yourself, and allow for slower days. Nobody can be all go all the time. Not every day will be perfect—and that’s fine.

Reconnect with the purpose of and your satisfaction in what you do. It’s easy to get burned out if you can’t see the bigger picture—if you lose sight of how your work makes an impact. Get back in touch with why you do what you do. Find reasons to be excited again.

If you’re having trouble doing that in your current work, try working on something a bit different; a change of pace might be exactly what you need.

Reestablish your social connections. People need people—but when you’re working from home, many of your go-to socializing opportunities might have disappeared. Put socialization back into your planner by setting virtual coffee dates with friends and colleagues and by calling your family and friends.

Talk to someone. If you’re experiencing or approaching burnout, don’t stay silent. Reach out to someone. Burnout can be a very lonely place, but you don’t need to go it alone.

At an organizational level

Guide employees to self-check tools. Diagnosing whether there is (or might soon be) an issue is the first step. This could be simple as a questionnaire designed to help people assess whether they might be suffering from burnout.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory is the current gold standard of burnout measures. MindTools also offers a handy free burnout self-test.

Regularly check in with your people. Make sure there are ways for employees to speak up if they feel overwhelmed or unhappy at work, and be sure to do something if anyone brings an issue to your attention.

Early detection and intervention mean less risk of burnout spreading through the team.

Give recognition, but for the right reasons. Be sure to acknowledge work well done—but don’t do it in a way that encourages unhealthy habits (such as rewarding people who consistently work late).

Offer mental wellness tools to support well-being. Mental wellness platforms like Calm are designed to help people regulate their mental well-being through meditation, relaxation, and learning.

By offering these resources to your employees, you equip them with the tools they need to find peace and improve their mental resilience, making them less susceptible to burnout and stress.

If burnout is a concern, we recommend listening to The Power of Rest, which explores how to effectively balance work and rest to avoid burnout.

Give space for people to take the breaks they need. Sometimes people get burned out because they simply aren’t getting out from behind the computer enough. 

Nobody wins when employees aren’t permitted to take breaks when they need to. If you allow for flexibility, your employees will be able to find a work pattern that works well for them and keeps them at their best.

Keep employees engaged and excited about their work. Try to show the ways their work is contributing to a bigger, more amazing outcome. Or talk about how exciting the client base is and how you’re all coming together to do something special.

If your employees remember they’re doing something worth being enthusiastic about, they’re less likely to succumb to burnout.

We all go through burnout at some point, but it’s not unmanageable. By understanding how it happens and recognizing the signs, you can flag problem situations early and take steps to prevent burnout from setting in.

Calm Business can help your team manage stress and build healthy habits. Book a demo today.

Help employees stress less, sleep better, and build more resilience with Calm Business

Book a demo
three iphones with different app icons on them