Understanding Professional Burnout: Red Flags, Occupational Risks, and Recovery

Professional burnout is a mental health challenge for both employers and workers. It results from persistent stress at work and causes physical health problems, mental health issues, and lost productivity. Employers and employees alike can prevent burnout with proactive steps, like creating a lower-stress work environment. Those who are already struggling can benefit from mental health treatment and recovery.

Burnout has not always been taken seriously, but it is real. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized it as an occupational phenomenon in 2019. The 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) lists job burnout this way, without designating it a medical condition.

Professional burnout can leave you feeling fatigued, apathetic, cynical, and inefficient on the job. If not addressed and treated, burnout can increase the risk of developing both physical and mental health conditions. It’s important to recognize this phenomenon, to take steps to prevent it in the workplace, and to provide ways for workers to access treatment without repercussions.

What Is Professional Burnout

According to the ICD-11, “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The WHO goes on to describe burnout as having three main elements:

  • A feeling of being exhausted or depleted
  • Cynicism toward your job, a feeling of distance from it
  • Reduced efficacy on the job

This is a condition, whether officially recognized or not, that applies to the workplace. Stress in other areas of life may contribute to it, but professional burnout is specifically tied to work.

Certain careers may be more susceptible to burnout. Healthcare workers, for instance, tend to experience more burnout. However, the risk factors for professional burnout are more general and personal than tied to any specific job. They include:

  • A poor work-life balance
  • Heavy workload and long work hours
  • Being a people pleaser and having a hard time saying no
  • Feeling as if you have little control over your job tasks
  • A job that is monotonous
  • A dysfunctional workplace
  • Unclear job expectations

Signs of Burnout on the Job

It’s important to understand the telltale signs of professional burnout. If you know what these are, as an employer, employee, or co-worker, you can identify them and get help or offer support. Burnout should not and does not have to lead to a breakdown. Early recognition is important. Watch for these job burnout red flags:

  • You feel cynical and hopeless about your job.
  • You don’t feel motivated to do your job.
  • You are increasingly unable to perform and problem solve on the job.
  • You have become angry or irritable on the job, lashing out at co-workers or clients.
  • You feel chronically fatigued, exhausted, and both emotionally and physically drained and depleted.
  • You are not sleeping well.
  • You have increasing physical health problems or get sick more often.
  • You feel depressed or anxious more often, especially related to work.

The signs of workplace burnout vary by individual, but these are characteristic red flags. You may also find that workplace stress spills over into your homelife, that you have other mental health issues, or that you are beginning to use drugs or alcohol to cope.

What Are the Consequences of Professional Burnout?

Professional burnout is an occupational risk because it is damaging. It doesn’t just negatively impact job performance; it also affects your mental and physical health and can trigger issues in other areas of your life, such as relationships.

A large survey of several studies of professional burnout concluded that it increases the risk of developing several physical health problems. These include type 2 diabetes, heart disease, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, respiratory illness, and even mortality.

The psychological issues triggered by burnout include insomnia, depression, and being hospitalized for mental illness. Additionally, the study found that job burnout led to absenteeism, job dissatisfaction, lost productivity, and higher rates of disability benefits usage.

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How to Prevent Burnout

The consequences of burnout, for both the individual and the employer, are real and serious. While burnout can be treated, prevention is always better. A healthy, proactive workplace can prevent many cases of burnout and the resulting harm it causes.

For employers, preventing burnout means creating a workplace that supports good mental health. Employers must be open and receptive to the mental health needs and well-being of workers. This can take many different forms:

  • Developing a culture that prioritizes employee well-being over productivity
  • Setting reasonable expectations for workers and providing the right training and support to achieve them
  • Communicating regularly with workers about expectations, performance, and improvement
  • Creating wellness programs that provide workers with access to mental health resources and tools
  • Encouraging a positive work-life balance with things like flexible scheduling, work-from-home options, and time off as needed
  • Listening to employees and being open to feedback and making changes in the workplace
  • Training managers to recognize the signs of burnout and prevent it in their teams

Individuals must also take responsibility for their mental health and take steps to reduce the risk of getting burned out. At the earliest signs of burnout or under working conditions that seem to support burnout, workers should:

  • Talk to a supervisor. Bring your concerns to your direct supervisor or go higher if necessary. Offer suggestions for reducing stress, making expectations more manageable, and other ideas that would benefit everyone.
  • Talk to coworkers. Reaching out to others for social support is a powerful way to combat stress. Collaborate with other workers on projects or just reach out to talk and make connections.
  • Get moving. Whenever possible, fit in some physical activity to reduce stress. Engage in a regular schedule of exercise, but also stand up and walk around at work when you can.
  • Set boundaries. Work-life balance means keeping work separate from the rest of your life as much as you can. Avoid bringing work home or looking at email and other work tasks.
  • Try stress-relief strategies. Anything you can do to reduce stress in your life will be helpful. Try mindfulness meditation a few minutes a day, daily journaling, deep breathing exercises, or any activity or hobby you enjoy and find relaxing. Make time for these strategies to avoid burnout later.

Ultimately, you may have to leave your job. If your employer is not receptive to your concerns, or you simply find you can’t handle the work, it may be best for your mental health to find another position.

Treatment and Recovery for Burnout

You may be able to recover from burnout on your own. If you recognize the signs early and take steps to change your work environment and habits, recovery may be possible. On the other hand, if you try to cope with the stress of work and still struggle, you’ll benefit from professional mental health treatment.

Therapy is a useful treatment for all types of mental health challenges, even if there is no official diagnosis. If you struggle with burnout at work and cannot find solutions, a therapist can guide you and provide tools for managing stress and reframing your relationship to work.

In some cases, residential treatment is also a good choice. Consider a residential facility for treatment if your symptoms are interfering significantly with your ability to function daily. A stay of a month or more in a facility gives you a chance to recharge and recover.

In residential care, you’ll benefit from a team of mental health experts and a supportive community. As compared to outpatient therapy, this gives you the chance to take a break from your life, to try different types of therapy and alternative treatments, and to learn the skills you need to cope when you return to home and work.

Professional burnout is a real phenomenon that affects many people. It’s not a failure on your part. It results from a combination of factors including an unhealthy workplace. Take a break from work and home, and get the treatment you need to learn how to live better and enjoy working again.

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