Whilst burnout in relation to work has been a long-standing issue within the business landscape, due to Covid-19 forcing the majority of companies to work remotely, the prevalence of burnout has become more apparent as a result of lockdown. A recent study by Glint has indicated that comments surrounding burnout doubled from March to April this year, and that those individuals who struggle to balance home and work are 4.4 times more likely to exhibit signs of burnout. Burnout is not something that should be ignored by employees nor employers, as it can result in not only mental health challenges, but also lower productivity and morale. In order for individuals and employers to prevent burnout in themselves and their teams, it is first important to understand what burnout is and what symptoms or behavioural traits to look out for.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout is a form of work-related stress, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) lists burnout as a ‘occupational phenomenon’ within its International Classification of Diseases. Although it is not classed as a medical condition, WHO recognises that it can have an impact on your health and, as such, cause you to seek medical attention. WHO have defined burnout as a “syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and lists the three main symptoms as: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or feeling negative towards one’s career and reduced professional productivity. In order to properly address the increase in burnout, it is important to look at individual company’s working conditions and cultures, however there are a few things that individuals can do themselves in order to deal with burnout when working remotely. The most significant way to prevent burnout is to focus on recovery.
Recovery – In order to deal with burnout, it is vital that you focus on recovering well from work, rather than focusing on being more productive or better at the work you are undertaking. Research has continually shown the importance of recovering from work on a daily basis. Recovery looks at finding time for yourself away from things that are work-related or stressful and doing things that bring your physiological responses back down to base level (such as cortisol). If you engage in recovery properly, you will feel more energised and enthused when faced with your next day at work.
Internal And External Recovery – Recovery can be achieved both during the workday (internal recovery) and outside of the work day (external recovery). Internal recovery is how you go about reducing your body’s stress responses throughout the work day, and this can be done by allowing yourself to take short breaks, sticking to a work schedule, staying connected with colleagues, switching tasks when you feel mentally or physically exhausted or doing breathing exercises. External recovery, on the other hand, are the things you can do outside of work that help to lower stress levels. Rather than checking emails outside of work which can trigger a stress response, it is important for you to take part in activities that you enjoy, for example, exercising, socialising with friends or family (even virtually works!), watching television, listening to music or reading. Where recovery is concerned, it is recommended that you choose activities based on how they make you feel, for example, if social media produces negative feelings, then you shouldn’t check it during work breaks or after work in order to de-stress or switch off. Or, if talking to certain people leaves you feeling mentally drained, then this will not help your recovery. It is also important that you aim to recover on a daily basis, not just whenever you feel your stress levels rising, as this will lessen the chances of you experiencing burnout. Research has demonstrated that the energy gained from the activities you undertake after work helps you to better manage the following day’s work stresses. However, when looking at the best ways to de-stress after work, focus on the quality of the activity, rather than the time spent on it. The main takeaway is that you do things that make you feel happy and content and that you do them for yourself, as choosing the activities that you find satisfying and meaningful results in a better chance of you feeling rested and recovered when you wake up the next day!
Recovery Experiences – Being mindful of what you do after work in order to help recovery and whether what you are doing is truly helping your recovery is key! There are four types of recovery experience; psychological detachment (not thinking about work), relaxation (doing nothing on the sofa, yoga, going for a walk, listening to music etc), mastery (activities unrelated to work such as learning a new hobby or skill) and control (choosing how you want to spend your time and doing things the way you want to do them). Psychological detachment is key to recovery, but can be difficult to achieve, for example, meeting up or talking to friends can aid psychological detachment, but only if conversation doesn’t focus on or contain discussions surrounding work. It has also been found that some recovery experiences are better suited to an individual depending on their behavioural traits, for example, exercise and getting involved in sports has been found to be a more effective method for ‘workaholics’, as it is easier to detach from work in this way. For those individuals who don’t feel as though they are in control at work, mastery and psychological detachment methods are the best ways to aid recovery. For those who feel exhausted due to intense time constraints or deadlines at work, relaxation is the best method of recovery. It is therefore important that people pick the recovery activity that best suits them and enables them to recover from the stress or burnout they are experiencing.
Emotional Exhaustion – This, typically, is the first symptom of burnout that you will experience and, as such, it is important to monitor this so that it can be acted on quickly once you feel it. If you get to the point where you feel exhausted after work daily and do not feel recovered by the next morning, then whatever activities you are doing for recovery may not be working as well as they should. If this is the case, have a closer look at the quality of the activities you are taking part in after work and see what changes you can make to make the quality better.
Regardless of how much time you have, or whether you are feeling the effects of burnout or not, it is vital that you take some time for yourself as often as you can to do something that you find enjoyable, satisfying and de-stressing. Taking just a small amount of time each day for your recovery has been shown to increase productivity and engagement at work, lower stress levels and can help to protect you against the long term effects of work stress and risk of burnout.