A Bad Day or Job Burnout?

Sometimes work is not empowering, or engaging, or satisfying. Sometimes work is just work. Every job has its share of drudgery and every employee occasionally hits a wall where no amount of incentive, appreciation or camaraderie is enough to make them want to put in another day. When this feeling becomes commonplace, it’s time to question whether you’re just having (another) bad day or slowly sliding into job burnout.

Photo by Florian Simeth, Flickr

You might think that only people in repetitive, mind-numbing jobs are susceptible to this kind of burnout. In fact, monotony is only one of many possible causes of job burnout and it doesn’t affect every employee the same way. More even than monotony, the feeling of having little control over one’s work can lead to job burnout.

Since lack of autonomy and monotonous work are often identified as sources of disengagement, one might conclude that lack of engagement and job burnout go hand in hand. Not so.

It’s not only disengaged employees who are most likely to spiral down into a place of apathy and cynicism. In fact, some of the most committed employees may be at even greater risk of job burnout—they tend to identify so strongly with work that they lack a reasonable balance between their work and personal lives. Much like those who work in healing professions and natural “people pleasers,” who try to be everything to everyone at work, highly committed employees often spread themselves too thin until they’ve exhausted their mental and emotional resources.

What is Job Burnout?

According to the Mayo Clinic Job burnout is “a special type of job stress—a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.”

Psychology Today describes job burnout as a state of chronic stress that leads to:

  • physical and emotional exhaustion;
  • cynicism and detachment; and
  • feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.[1]

Job burnout is a reaction to cumulative stress. It doesn’t happen overnight and can literally creep up on a person. Everyone has the occasional terrible, awful, really bad day and every job has some stress; so it can be hard to know when things are moving into a danger zone. The difference between job stress and job burnout is a matter of chronicity and degree. When the line is eventually crossed, it becomes almost impossible to function effectively.

Recognizing Job Burnout

There is no one factor that invariably leads to job burnout, but there are warning signs you can watch for. Start by asking yourself the following questions.

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
  • Have your sleep habits or appetite changed?
  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints? [2]

If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, something is not right. It’s time to dig for underlying causes and take action before your temporary slump deepens into a trough of despair.

Coping With Job Burnout

It can be hard to know what to do when burnout is affecting your ability to enjoy your job and to get work done. Here are some suggested strategies culled from a variety of sources.[3]

  • Find some support: Whether you reach out to co-workers, friends, loved ones or others, support and collaboration may help you cope with job stress and feelings of burnout. If you have access to an employee assistance program (EAP), take advantage of the available services.
  • Exercise. Regular physical activity, like walking or biking, can help you to better deal with stress. It can also help get your mind off work and focus on something else.
  • Manage the stressors: Take some time to identify the main contributors to your stress at work. Once you’ve identified what’s fueling your feelings of job burnout, you can make a plan to address the issues and manage those stressors more effectively.
  • Take a break: If burnout seems inevitable, take a complete break from work. Go on vacation, use up your sick days, ask for a temporary leave-of-absence—anything to remove yourself from the situation. Use the time away to recharge your batteries and take perspective.
  • Evaluate your options. Discuss specific concerns with your supervisor. Perhaps you can work together to change expectations or reach compromises or solutions. If you’ve been doing the same work for a long time, ask to try something new. Is job sharing an option? What about telecommuting or flex-time? Would it help to establish a mentoring relationship? What are the options for continuing education or professional development?
  • Own your attitude: If you’ve become cynical at work, consider ways to improve your outlook. Rediscover enjoyable aspects of your work. Recognize co-workers for valuable contributions or a job well done. Take short breaks throughout the day. Spend time away from work doing things you enjoy.
  • Assess yourself: An honest assessment of your interests, skills and passions can help you decide whether you should consider an alternative job that better matches your interests or core values.
  • Assess your job: If you realize the nature of the work itself is what causes you stress, maybe it’s time to move on and look for a different kind of work.

Most importantly, don’t ignore the signs of impending job burnout. Doing so can be hazardous to your well-being and will eventually wreak havoc with personal and professional relationships. Talk to your manager or mentor, discuss things with your doctor or spiritual advisor or contact your employee assistance program. Get help to control the burn, before it becomes burnout.


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